Memoir of Bewilderment: Nick Flynn

As  we turn to Flynn’s memoir The Ticking is the Bomb, we continue the exploration of newer forms of nonfiction that are termed, for lack of other words, lyrical–autobiography, essay. Flynn picks up, it would seem, right where Claudia Rankine leaves off. He weaves a narrative of the intimate and personal through, or in relation to, some very public accounting and discussion of torture. Think of the way the opening entry initiates the overlapping of intimate and public imagery; Flynn moves from the sonograms of his child to the images emerging from Abu Ghraib. He does this again in “my teufelsberg,” in this remarkable overlapping image:

Sometimes, if asked, I’ll say that I’m writing about the way photographs are a type of dream, about how shadows can end up resembling us, and sometimes I’ll say Im 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. But maybe talking about torture is easier than talking about my impending fatherhood, the idea of which, some days, sends me into a tailspin. [17]

“Bewilderment” recalls to me an interest in exploring confusion that we find in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, an element of Rankine’s “investigative poetics.” As we learned from further reading, Rankine deliberately associates the content of confusion (fragmentation, assemblage, mediation, the white noise of a television) with the form of her writing. I see Flynn exploring similar territory, and in doing so, his “memoir of bewilderment” returns us to the tradition of the essay–in which argument and personal perspective combine with imagination and exploration. With wandering. Essay, the verb from which we derive the noun, means to try, to attempt. It shares in etymology with the idea of experience, experiment. Bewilderment, from bewilder: the condition of wandering, of being lead astray. Flynn expresses an interest in getting lost on purpose.

Some ways we might think of this deliberate wandering around that this text proposes in terms of both the craft and our critical reading. Once again, I suggest we can learn from this text both as readers and writers of nonfiction.

  • Proteus: from Greek mythology. But also, to the extent that Proteus is about changing form in the hands of a reader, a questioner: the spirit or genius of the essay, which is, in a word, Protean. The great American essayist Emerson loved to refer to Proteus as a figure for nature that his writing and thinking sought to represent. Emerson’s essays, though longer and more traditional in form, shape-shifted sentence to sentence. I associate Flynn’s interest in Proteus with his shorter, seemingly fragmentary form. I think of the book as Proteus that the reader must try to hold in his hands. It may be that Flynn also reads in the Proteus mythology a complicated image of torture.
  • Ekphrasis: from the Greek, refers to a verbal representation of a visual object. Such as writing and describing in words a vase (think Keats) or, as Flynn does throughout, a photograph. Why not include photographic reproductions in this text, as Rankine does, given the author’s interest in thinking about these photographs? Does this make sense?
  • Documentary: Think about the ways this text engages in documentary, indeed, engages with a documentary (the book and film, Standard Operating Procedure) regarding Abu Ghraib. Yet the documentary is overlapped with the personal in ways that seem to violate conventions of documentary. How do we make sense of this? How might you write autobiography from a documentary perspective? Does his personal investigation of the torture scandal strengthen or weaken his argument in this text–whatever that argument might be? Does the rhetoric get in the way of the personal and poetic?
    • A very important text in the literary tradition of documentary that we might compare The Ticking: Agee and Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. For examples of film documentary (a genre of film that has come to be called the “essay film,” more recently there is the work of Michael Moore. A particularly affecting recent example: “The Cove.”

Flynn’s first book, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, has been made into a movie: Being Flynn.

Some images from Abu Ghraib that Flynn refers to, but doesn’t show.


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