'The Ticking Is the Bomb' by Nick Flynn

The Ticking Is the Bomb

A Memoir

Nick Flynn

W.W. Norton: 290 pp., $24.95

What does it mean that America tortures? That we simulate drowning prisoners, deprive them of sleep, shock them with electricity and sexually humiliate them? This is the question that haunts Nick Flynn's devastating new book.

"The Ticking Is the Bomb" takes the same rough form as his celebrated memoir, "Another . . . Night in . . . City." It's a series of vignettes and lyric meditations. This time around, though, Flynn elegantly weaves his turbulent personal biography with the myths and realities of our recent imperial adventures.

If this sounds like a daunting prospectus, rest assured that Flynn feels the same way. One of the most enchanting aspects of the book is his frank admission of bewilderment. The reader feels him struggling throughout to make sense of his obsession with torture, his mother's suicide, his father's madness, even his own cruel behavior toward the women in his life.

Sometimes, the connections between these strands are explicit. Flynn, for instance, recalls one of the wild tales his father used to tell him -- that he was tortured in federal prison. As for his difficulty in committing to the mother of his daughter, he observes, "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 writes with fearless precision about the terror and deprivation of his own childhood. But he's invariably describing something larger, a kind of neurasthenic haze that overtakes us when the bad data of our lives become untenable.

"It was the late seventies," he notes at one point, "then it was the early eighties. Everyone was high . . . my father as he entered his first bank, my mother as she loaded her gun, me as I stood before her coffin, as I reached out to touch her cheek, murmuring to my brother, 'She's not even real.' It was how we made it through our days, wrapped in gauze, frozen, like Walt Disney, waiting for some scientific discovery that would make it possible to wake up again, one day."

Flynn's most persistent preoccupation involves the photos that emerged of prisoners being tortured in the Abu Ghraib prison. He travels to Istanbul to interview several of them. These are wrenching accounts. Yet Flynn never surrenders to melodrama. He simply wants Americans to face what was done in their names. One student, for instance, describes being picked up in a raid, led into a giant room, shackled and placed inside a tiny box, which soldiers kicked to keep him awake:

"[Y]ou can be assured that there will be no photographs of these boxes slipping out. What was once the vaguely directed actions of a bunch of amateurs on the night shift (if, in fact, that is what it was) has become professional, organized, sanctioned. Someone designed this room, someone fabricated these boxes, a memo went out telling the soldiers how often to bang on the side of the boxes, a memo we will likely never see. Among themselves the Iraqis call these boxes 'tawabeet sood,' or 'nash sood' -- black coffins -- I can't help thinking of them as the shadows of the flag-draped coffins we were also not allowed -- or couldn't -- or refused -- to see."

Journalists and historians have, of course, already devoted considerable energies to telling the story of our extra-legal deeds in the post- 9/11 world. But their central interest is in delivering the facts. Flynn is seeking something quite different here. He wants us to experience the moral and emotional significance of those facts. Along with contemporaries such as Dave Eggers ("Zeitoun"), Flynn attempts to reckon with the dyadic sins of the Bush era: sadism and denial.

The book is not without flaws. Flynn tends to wallow in the murky waters of his own dream life, for instance. But the best passages here are simply astonishing. Flynn writes with great tenderness about the terrors and joys of fatherhood. A poet by training, he also harks back to Plato and Aristotle in his efforts to grasp the true nature of our predicament.

Most effectively, he invokes Proteus, the mythological figure who answers the questions of those who can capture him. To Flynn, Proteus represents the perverse fantasy of torture: that it is possible to wring truth from the necks of prisoners, if only you hold on stubbornly enough.

"Money, information, these words you are reading -- all of this will seem quaint in five hundred years," he concludes. "What they will say when they look back on this time is that torture continued from the death of Christ for over two thousand years -- a strange primitive reenactment. They will see that at first we confused it with passion, which devolved into Inquisition, and then transformed into what we now call 'information.' They will see that a handful of maniacs living in caves were able to take down the greatest empire on earth, they will wonder how that could be. All we can tell them is that these maniacs understood our fear, that they transformed into it as we tried to hold on, asking, over and over, our meaningless question."

The questions Flynn asks in this disquieting masterpiece are quite simple: How could we, as a people, have allowed this to have happened? And why are we still?

Almond is the author of the essay collection "(Not That You Asked)."

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