When Nick Flynn drives around his hometown, Scituate, Massachusetts, he inevitably passes the houses he lived in with his mother and brother—six of them within the first five years of his life. In the past few decades, unsurprisingly, money has been pumped into Scituate, a small coastal city, but amid the explosion of seaside wealth, every house Flynn lived in looks worse for the wear. “They’re all still there,” he tells me, “sort of falling apart, with the same paint I painted on them just peeling off in sheets.” It’s an image that could be lifted straight from a dream—or one of his poems in Some Ether, or a chapter of one of his memoirs, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City or the newly published The Ticking is the Bomb. These ghost-houses are emblematic of Flynn’s writing—homes slowly being erased, shadowed, built on shaky foundations or none at all, people and places eroding. I imagine Cape Cod-blue houses, freshly painted, or creamy McMansions next to the scattered avocado green, tan, fading yellow of Flynn’s childhood homes. I ask if he ever knocked on the door of any of the houses; he says he went into one years ago, but hasn’t since. “There’s no pitbulls in the yard, but there’s something sort of up, like troubled people live in these houses. It’s really strange. It’s not like the whole town went into disrepair. It’s just the places we lived in.”
In the past decade, Flynn has lived in Rome, Dar es Salaam, and divided his time (as writers’ bios are wont to say) between teaching at the University of Houston and living in New York, either in Brooklyn or his house upstate. Fluidity of home and identity carries through Flynn’s writing. In The Ticking is the Bomb, Flynn writes about buying his house upstate several years ago. “My natural born restlessness only seemed to grow the more days I spent there. Rooted? I ended up staying in the house only to work on it, and then I’d leave… I moved around more those first two years of owning a house than I ever had—I was vapor, I was air, I was nowhere.”
The Ticking is the Bomb is a process-oriented memoir—in short, about the torture condoned by the U.S. government in recent years, juxtaposed with Flynn readying himself to become a father. Dated (but not chronological) vignettes mix with surreal extended metaphors which, while part of the narrative, I had a hard time convincing myself were not prose poems. “This book could have been poetry,” Flynn says. The first pieces Flynn wrote, before he knew he was writing his next memoir, were four long poems; they remained in the book up until its last edit. Flynn says the poems “became four pillars, scaffolding, that the whole book was built around. Then I took them away and the book was there.” (The poems will appear in Flynn’s next collection, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, out later this year from Graywolf.)
The Ticking is the Bomb opens with a sonogram of Flynn’s unborn daughter—“a dream sleeping inside the body of the woman I love” and shifts rapidly to “another set of photographs” one of which Flynn describes plainly as depicting “a naked man being dragged by a soldier out of a cell on the end of a leash.” These other photos, Flynn writes, “also have the texture of dreams—shadowy, diaphanous, changeable.” In 2004, like most of us, Flynn heard of Abu Ghraib for the first time; he didn’t know if it was “one word or two, a building or a city, a place or an idea.” In the course of the next few years, he became part of a handful of what he calls “torture people” and traveled to Istanbul to meet some of the men victimized by American soldiers. At the same time, he was slowly extricating himself from one relationship with a woman while falling in love with his future partner and mother of his child, the actress, Lili Taylor (called Inez in the book). Flynn says, “I began looking at torture without really recognizing that I was also enacting some kind of darker impulses myself. As I pushed into it, I realized there were echoes of the larger culture in my life. Not to make any equivalents to them, at all. But certain brutalization or suffering that’s being sowed.”
As immensely personal as The Ticking is the Bomb is, it pushes readers to acknowledge, if not meditate on, the urges lurking inside us, those we tamp down in order to continue, to resist the impulses (conscious or not) to hurt ourselves, the ones we love, even those we don’t. As Flynn comes to understand what he’s writing about, within the book, he says, “Maybe I should tell anyone who asks that I’m writing about Proteus, the mythological creature who changes shape as you hold onto him, who changes into the shape of that which most terrifies you, as you ask him your question, as you refuse to let go. The question is, often, simply a variation of, How do I get home?” This is a book full of shape-shifting and slow alterations of character. How do you face other Americans who find the inhumane treatment of people acceptable and even justified? How do you look at a man who says the soldiers who made him stand on a box, hooded, resemble you? How do you transform into a parent after passing the age at which your parents imploded? How do learn to let go of love that is unhealthy?
As I prepare to meet Flynn to discuss The Ticking is the Bomb, I try to separate questions into thematic areas, but they fold in on each other, along with images from the book. There is a photograph of Flynn’s mother holding a can of Schlitz, wearing a blond wig and sunglasses— “the Grifters photo” he calls it; his father’s apartment, stacked to the ceiling with newspapers; a monkey sculpted out of lava; a torture pose once called “The Vietnam,” now called “The Statue of Liberty;” twenty year-old Flynn splitting open cut straws found in his mother’s glove compartment, licking out cocaine residue; Flynn bending down to his wife’s belly, two days after their daughter’s due date, murmuring, “We’re waiting for you, little one, the coast is clear.” In another meta-passage of the book, Flynn writes, “Sometimes I’ll say I’m writing a memoir of bewilderment, and just leave it at that, but what I mean is the bewilderment of waking up, my hand on Inez’s belly, as the fine points of waterboarding are debated on public radio.”
I meet Flynn one evening in January at a cafe in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where he lives now, with Taylor and their nearly two year-old daughter. Known as more of a brunch spot, the place feels like a B&B dining room or perfect grandma’s country kitchen. I order a chicken pot pie. Flynn, who eats early these days with his daughter, has a pot of tea. As Dionne Warwick sings, “I say a little prayer for you,” through the speakers, I ask Flynn if he wants to talk about torture first or fatherhood? In interviews for The Ticking is the Bomb, he tells me, some people don’t want to talk about torture at all; others only want to talk about it. “I give the mornings to torture and the afternoons are for love,” he jokes. Early on in the book, he writes, “Maybe talking about torture is easier than talking about my impending fatherhood.” I take out the book to rifle through my notes, and Flynn reaches for it, like a kid. He sings the praises of Kapo Ng, the artist who designed the covers of both his memoirs. “You give him the book, and then like a week later he comes back with the cover and nothing changes.”
As Flynn thumbs through the book, my notes on Proteus fall out. Flynn says he “got” Proteus from Stanley Kunitz, calls the sea god “a poet’s archetype.” He worries, “You have to be careful of the archetypes you embrace. Our culture embraces Prometheus, which is the same thing as Adam and Eve. He gets punished for knowledge. I never quite understood why we are punished for knowledge.” Both Prometheus and Proteus are symbolically present in one of my favorite passages in The Ticking is the Bomb, “Lava.” Flynn writes of the months following a volcano’s eruption, lava slowly moving towards a village: “Some argued that it was better than a flood, better than a fire—lava gives you time to move out what you most value. I had the idea that the only option would be to uproot your house and put it on a raft and float it to the next island.” Proteus is a distinctly Flynn archetype, even reflected by the loose form of his memoirs.
Growing up in Scituate, he tells me, “Everything was damp all the time. You could smell the ocean.” His father claims that his grandfather invented the life raft. Flynn once lived on a boat; in The Ticking is the Bomb he writes, “My twenties, you could say, were water, you could say I was, in a way, more ocean than earth. You could say that whatever was solid in me was slowly dissolving.” Where Flynn lives now, in Brooklyn, he is still close to the water. In the mornings and evenings, if the traffic’s not too loud on a particular street, you can hear ship horns as they pass through the harbor. At a recent reading, he shared a poem called “Kedge,” (a method of anchoring a ship). Another poem, “haiku (failed)” echoes Goodnight Moon but with a nautical edge, with the lines: “bye-bye/ boat, bye-bye rain,” “beating, our bodies the bottle, a ship inside each,” and “here it is still, your heart, is it well/ well welling?”
Flynn is indeed a mutable a character in The Ticking is the Bomb, split between two women and briefly returning to substance abuse after years of sobriety. A woman who refuses to have coffee with Flynn, because she is married, tells him, “Two dogs live inside me, and the one I feed is the one that will grow.” He is drawn into a relationship with a woman he calls Anna, who shares some of the same dark impulses that run through his family. In the midst of severing ties with her, Flynn admits, “When I was with her I felt known, perhaps for the first time…Those rooms we shared became a space in which to reveal a darkness I carried inside me, a heaviness that needed to be dragged into the light, or it would sink me.”
Where Flynn’s character shifts forms, his partner, Inez, is a solid force. If Flynn’s writing weren’t such a kick in the pants, this could come across as the old “you make me want to be a better man” shtick, but instead he gives us passages like this:
When I turn away from the book, Inez is there, radiantly pregnant, seemingly more sure of what’s to come, and this calms me. The baby is, after all, inside her, inside her body—perhaps this makes it more real, for her. But then, Inez has always been this way—certain, or at least seemingly so. It confused me when we first got together, for it seemed that whether I was to stay or go she would be alright, that she would survive. When we were first together I had to face the uncomfortable realization that I wasn’t used to calling love something that didn’t involve disaster.
Flynn evokes Elizabeth Bishop’s familiar words in “One Art”: “the art of losing’s not too hard to master/ though it may look like, (Write it!) like disaster.” As he struggles to latch on, open up to a stable relationship, he makes new the poets’ old favorite, loss.
On their first date, Flynn and Inez talk about having children. In a passage called, “The Tricky Part,” he writes,
We weren’t asking each other if we could imagine having children with each other, but we weren’t not asking that either. For years I’d told myself that I could live anywhere, for a year or two…. Some part of me did this with women as well… imagined a new woman as a city I could stay in for a while, then visit from time to time. I’d know my way around, I wouldn’t need a map, but I wouldn’t really live there either. But a child? A child wasn’t like a city, or even a woman. I couldn’t simply visit now and then.
Flynn navigates this murky water through his elegant language, trying not to “blame the map [he was] given” for his apprehension. This is not a book of blame, but one of understanding how images and words are manipulated, in personal relationships or in a larger scope. After the Abu Ghraib photographs are leaked, Flynn listens to the U.S. government’s malevolent poets deny what the photos show, twisting language to map their own agenda. Donald Rumsfeld says he is “not going to address the torture word.” Flynn hears victims of torture use words to describe how their bodies were manipulated; looking at photos of himself, a man called Amir says, “I do not believe it was me that was there.”
Of the sonogram image of his daughter from 2007, Flynn writes, “I was there when each shot was taken, yet in some ways, still, it is all deeply unreal.” Since then, nursery rhyme language has crept into some of his recent poetry. He has seen every sunrise for two years as he wakes with his daughter, a time he considers meditation. “I’m preparing food for her, making tea, sitting and reading a book to her. It’s not a sitting meditation, but the attention is there,” he says. In the opening passage of The Ticking is the Bomb, Flynn writes that he hopes to be able to explain the “dark time” of our country to his daughter as a story in the past. “We got lost for a while, this story will begin, but then we found our way.”
Among the books hitting shelves this week are Pulitzer winner and New Yorker staffer Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University and memoirist and poet Nick Flynn’s The Ticking is the Bomb. Also new, Melville House is putting out a novella, Union Jack, by Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, and NYRB Classics has published Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy a novel by Olivia Manning based on her time in Eastern Europe during World War II. Rachel Cusk provides an introduction to the edition.