A year after the 2004 release of the Abu Ghraib photographs, author Nick Flynn (Another Night in Suck City, PEN/Martha Albrand Award) was photographed shaking hands with fellow honoree Sam Harris (The End of Faith, PEN/Nonfiction Award) at a literary award ceremony. Flynn, whose first memoir deals with his unstable father, suicidal mother, and homelessness, would soon condemn Harris’s atheist manifesto as “in part, a treatise advocating torture.”
The poet-memoirist’s reignited obsession with torture is trenchantly chronicled in the stylistically explosive, genre-bending The Ticking Is the Bomb. Its heartbeat set in motion by a 2007 sonogram of Flynn’s then-unborn daughter Lulu, the atypical storyline crisscrosses space, time, and memory to interrogate the author’s decision to become a father in an age of large-scale catastrophe, shadowed by his own bewilderment and fear of intimacy. Linking travel on three continents, the book powerfully confronts truth in representation—foremost photographic.
Poetically rendered, The Ticking Is the Bomb contains 94 discretely titled sections, their condensed dimensions (some a single paragraph) and nonlinear arrangement (sporadically dated by years) analogous to a group of shuffled photographs. “A photograph is like a house—once it is made we then start counting the days then the years from when it was made,” Flynn writes, introducing a 2007 journey to Istanbul, where he is privy to testimonies delivered by ex-detainees of Abu Ghraib. Countering American versions of the detainees’ torture, then getting “the information out through nontraditional channels” becomes increasingly urgent in subsequent chapters. Readers learn that Iraqis refer to the infamous image of a hooded man with arms spread crucifixion-style as “the Statue of Liberty,” and that Abu Ghraib translates to “House of Strange Fathers,” alluding both to enhanced CIA interrogation methods and to Flynn’s ongoing filial estrangements, woven into the investigative fabric.
A shroud of apocalyptic imminence hangs over his reportage, relayed in sections variously coming to closure on the cusp of suicide, Hurricane Katrina, or 9/11. A sense of psychological devastation likewise emerges in philosophical meditations on torture, in which vampire movies, religious paintings, and comic strips collide with the teachings of Plato, Buddha, and Thich Nhat Hahn. Elsewhere, the political meets the personal in the author’s twin challenges of sobriety and (predominantly) fidelity.
As befits the son of a man claiming direct descent from the Romanov line, our narrator compares his romantic pursuits to “reading Tolstoy—exhilarating, but a struggle, at times, to keep the characters straight.” Perhaps not coincidently, “Anna” figures among pseudonyms of the principal women he beds. Her chief rival, “Inez” (actress Lili Taylor), whom Flynn meets after purchasing a home on the Hudson River in “Rip Van Winkle country,” becomes Lulu’s mother. Readers of the never-discuss-former-relationships school of love may find his seemingly extended apology to one-night stands, serial partners, or those he two-timed tedious. But honesty and mercy remain central to the book’s overall righteousness.
In the final movement of The Ticking Is the Bomb, Lulu joins the world. “G rounded” for the first time in his life, Flynn marks the occasion by comparing his own and his daughter’s first photos taken with fathers. In the background of the author’s conscience hover AP photographs viewed at a My Lai museum with his onetime stepfather Travis, a Vietnam vet. Though Flynn comes to believe that torture is not about getting information but “merely about power,” the possibility of redemption for those who have wrongly subjugated others emerges, resonating in what Travis asks of a Vietnamese woman: “to forgive America.”