The Ticking Is The Bomb
What's the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? Setting aside textbook definitions, some would argue that an autobiography is a document of an interesting life led, whereas a memoir attempts to make a life more interesting. Jeff Klima, author of The Dead Janitors Club, itself a memoir, recently wrote a scathingly funny article for the Huffington Post wherein he compared memoirists to reality TV stars. He labels both as bottom feeders, career opportunists whose successive output offers only diminishing returns (IE: they suck.)
Well, I haven't read Nick Flynn's first memoir, Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, but his followup certainly doesn't suck. It's funny, I was actually going to pass on The Ticking Is The Bomb until Stephen Elliot gave it an oblique reference in The Adderall Diaries. I was digging that book so much that the mere mention of Bomb had me sold. Interest by association.
Turns out, the two books have a number of similarities. Both authors use the pretext of a non-fiction subject to write about themselves. Elliot's subject is the murder trial of Hans Reiser; Flynn's is Abu Ghraib. Like Elliot, Flynn uses current events as a psychic springboard to deal with everything from latent father issues to struggles with drugs and alcohol to failed romantic relationships. As the book opens, Flynn is involved with two different woman, and has just reached the age his mother was when she committed suicide, the same age his father was when he robbed his first bank. Three years later, he is about to become a father himself, and both his and the country's past weigh heavy on his mind. Somewhere out there, a psychiatrist is drooling.
Bomb is billed as a search for the meaning of fatherhood in the age of terror. Flynn presents a series of vignettes, weaving together his own childhood memories with ruminations on the abuses at Abu Ghraib. It is a delicate balancing act, and while consistently engrossing, doesn't always function as a cohesive whole. There are certain parallels between the political atrocities Flynn writes about and his personal life, but they never actually intersect. His father's alleged torture while incarcerated in the US prison system is the closest it comes. On the whole, they are two disparate elements with a tenuous connection. Sure, that connection can be intellectualized, but I never really felt it.
That doesn't mean Bomb should be written off as a failure. It doesn't matter that the metaphorical connection isn't there for the reader- it's there for the author. As an account of one man's struggle with his past and how that weighs on the impending birth of his first child, the book is remarkably effective. Every insecurity and moment of doubt is on full display. Flynn is emotionally transparent to the point where I'd imagine family gatherings have become pretty awkward. Maybe that is the subject for another book.
Which brings up a good point- where does a memoirist go from here? Does he hope that things settle down and life gets a little less complicated? Or does he wish for additional fodder with which to fill the pages of a followup? It's a dicey proposition, especially in wake of James Frey. You write one award winning memoir and people are going to clamor for more, so either you go out and lead an interesting life or you make that shit up as you go along. Otherwise, you could find yourself on the outs, running a literary sweatshop for shitty YA novels.
Fortunately, The Ticking Is The Bomb doesn't give the impression that Flynn is an opportunist; he's one of the good ones. He also happens to be an award winning poet and playwright, so if he feels inclined to live out the rest of his days in peace and quiet, I don't think his career will suffer. After the life he's led, he doesn't need to make it more interesting than it already is.