An old professor from college writes me and asks for my snail mail address. It isn’t such a strange request – we have developed a kind of friendship since I graduated. I babysit his daughter on occasion; we meet at the corner store for coffee when we can both find time, which is almost never.
A week later a package arrives at my mother’s house, where I am staying for a month to sort some things out. The package is addressed in my professor’s handwriting, and inside is Nick Flynn’s The Ticking Is the Bomb. The book is yellow, with a silver and blue graphic on the paperback cover, drooping in my hand as I hold it, standing in the middle of my mother’s hallway. I don’t notice it until later, but across the top it reads “Advanced Reading Copy – Not for Sale.” When I do notice, it makes me think of the book as singular, and although I know there are many other copies out there, mine becomes somehow specialized, advanced, like the cover says.
I already know that I’m going to like The Ticking Is the Bomb. I was introduced to Flynn (or rather, I introduced myself to him) in my second year of college via his poetry in Some Ether. His work is dark, and for some depressing, and The Ticking Is the Bomb is no exception. It is a memoir about torture, among other things, and Flynn’s traveling to Istanbul to hear testimonies from the men in the Abu Ghraib photos. Although I’m reading three other books at the time, I start The Ticking Is the Bomb the night I get it. Very quickly it becomes my train book, a coveted place in the hierarchy of reading material. I carry it everywhere, and at one point, spill guacamole along the side, which clashes horribly with the yellow and blue cover and crackles the pages when they open.
To say that a writer provides us with strong imagery is, I admit, a sweeping generalization in terms of literary critique. But when I speak of Flynn, I mean something more than the declaration that he simply writes with strong imagery. Towards the beginning of The Ticking Is the Bomb, Flynn describes his personal experience, in New York, on the morning of September 11th:
A few minutes after [the towers fell] I stood with another crowd of strangers inside an appliance store on Broadway and watched the first tower fall on a bank of televisions. I could have stood on the sidewalk outside the store and seen it fall, but I thought there might be some words coming form the televisions that would make it all make sense.
It is not simply the concept of television vs. real life, or real experience vs. experience via technology, that makes the passage so striking, but also the visual manifestation of these concepts we are left with. The thought of tens, hundreds of strangers crowded around department store windows, gazing into the blue light of the televisions, the real-life falling towers ignored behind them, dusting in the background – this is what makes me pause, rest the pages open on my lap as I look around the train. It is the weight that pauses me, and this weight is what becomes most striking about The Ticking Is the Bomb. In the above passage, it is not simply that Flynn brings together 9/11, the media surrounding 9/11, and his own personal experience, but that he writes in such a way to leave a tangible visual to hold all of these concepts at once, a visual that I must examine, that demands a minute of pause.
My old professor writes me again to tell me about a reading Flynn is giving in San Francisco. That evening, my mother tells me about the same reading; as it turns out, it’s being put on by a monastery we used to visit, and we decide to go together. It seems almost too parallel, the different aspects of my life meeting all at once, and as I listen to Flynn talk about the book, I find that the commonalities and intersections that lead to my being there are mirrored in Flynn’s own writing. Because it is not only the smaller moments of The Ticking Is the Bomb that bring together strange, seemingly disparate concepts, but on a larger scale, the book as whole does this as well.
I sit next to monks and Zen students I met years ago, and I sit next to my mother, and I hear Flynn say that the book is about torture, but also about many other things. He says that good writing, at it’s heart, it a map of the subconscious, how we display the more complicated intersections that exist in our minds. And it’s true – The Ticking Is the Bomb is about much more than torture. Flynn writes about his mother, his father, his past and current lovers, the imminent birth of his child into a world where such events as the Abu Ghraib photos are possible.
This is what makes the book worth it, for me. A personal account, only about torture (even with writing as strong as Flynn’s), seems flat when I imagine it, a single, clear track. The Ticking Is the Bomb is anything but singular or flat, and as I listen to Flynn read, I think of the similarities between how his book has come into my life, and how the events within it’s pages are pieced together. I begin to realize what about his choices, his writing, makes a book about torture interesting. The parts of Flynn’s unconscious, written and published onto the pages of The Ticking Is the Bomb, are what give his exploration of torture meaning, a context. The contrast of events even as they interlock, this is what adds depth and substance, much like the monks sitting next me, much like my mother sitting on the other side, much like the professor up in Oregon and his thought to send me the book in the first place. Everything becomes layered, one thing on top of the next, and as in my own experience, The Ticking Is the Bomb allows us to see the threads between the layers, the delicate strings holding it all together.
A passage I read over and over again to my friends, as I talk to them about the book, is about child psychology, and the development of the idea of time. In the section entitled “The Broken Bowl,” Flynn explains:
Until the age of four it is just as likely the broken cup comes before the whole cup, that the floor is just another table, that milk can be poured into the broken cup, that the broken cup can be put back on the table and will be whole again. I tell myself to try to remember this, for the day my as-yet-unborn daughter pours her milk into a broken bowl.
Once again, the image we are left with is pointed, succinct, and simultaneously holds large and disparate concepts within it: the development of consciousness, how we relate ourselves to the world, a child, innocence, and that child’s experience of brokenness, of destruction. I read this passage sitting on the train, the wet smell of the carpet floating around me and the other commuters, rain dragged in by thousands of footsteps over the course of the day. I am given pause once again, and I think of my professor’s daughter, a toddler, the one I sit for on occasion. A picture immediately forms: Her dark, thin hair held by elastic on the very top of her head, her face smiling, as it usually is, waiting for the next remarkable thing to happen, as most things, for her, are new and remarkable. At her feet is an orange bowl broken into pieces, and she holds a carton of milk in both hands, the weight of it barely supported by her small muscles, trying again and again to fill the pieces at her feet.