The Reenactments: A Memoir
W. W. Norton & Company, 2013
320 pp., $15.95
I was exactly half way through my grad degree, sitting in the audience of my peers' graduation ceremony. Nick Flynn was giving the commencement speech. Early on, before the audience began fanning themselves with programs, before children started to squirm, Flynn said he writes to get as close to mystery as possible. "Is this enough? Has it ever been enough?" he asked quietly in the June heat.
Before picking up Nick Flynn's new memoir The Reenactments, I wondered how empathetic, how interested I could possibly be in a story such as this, a story about having one's book and one's life made into a movie. I've never had my life cinematically dramatized (and I doubt that I ever will), so where would I find a shared point of connection? But this is Nick Flynn, I reminded myself—and if reading Flynn has taught me anything, it's that when we look into the unknown, into the foreign, we see ourselves.
Flynn is the author of several volumes of poetry and memoirs, including his highly acclaimed Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, the memoir on which the 2012 movie Being Flynn is based. The narrative tracks the unfolding relationship between Nick and his father, estranged for most of their lives and meeting again in a homeless shelter. At the time, Nick is employed at the shelter and his father, alcoholic and homeless Jonathan (played by Robert De Niro in the movie), needs a bed. Their developing relationship is uncomfortably anchored in a deafening unsaid: the suicide of Nick's mother (played by Julianne Moore). This backstory is at the heart of The Reenactments, a book about memory—how it is held, stored, repressed, and how it floats up into our consciousness, pronouncing itself. The Reenactments is about this paradox: memory's passivity and constant activity. Hence the title. Hence the movie based on the book based on the life, and around again.
Flynn assembles a mosaic comprising story, idea, and memory; again and again, I found myself stepping back, trying to see and understand the whole, while simultaneously being drawn further and further into the story's subconscious. Two antithetical directions, but one momentum and one energy.
We are often told that memories fade the more frequently we handle them, like delicate but precious fabric. What if the most precious memory is one carrying your mother, before she died? Before she killed herself. How you do handle that—enough to sate, but not so much as to wear out? "It's hard to rewind your memory to the exact spot that once gave you comfort." Flynn writes. One of the recurring subjects Flynn explores throughout The Reenactments is the phantom limb as a representation of pain and the anxiety of absence.
Often the movement of the book—from movie scene to thought to memory—is ambiguous. Flynn frequently refers to Robert De Niro as his father and Julianne Moore as his mother. He calls the young actor playing his 11-year-old self his "inner child." We are tossed in the experience of the film, the book, and the language. We move from reflection to action as seamlessly as a director calling "set," then "action," then "cut."
It's fitting, then, that Flynn's chapters are comprised of vignettes illustrating the drama of the fragment. Fragments: done right, and we are offered art that is compelling precisely in its refusal to commit, to settle, to sacrifice itself for clean answers. Such fragments give us something closely resembling life: the day-to-day, illuminated by fleeting moments of revelation. Can a movie depicting life have any authority as "real"? Is that possible? Isn't a movie just a reflection, a mirror, a film strip, an imitation? But this question can be asked of art more generally. And for that reason, as its own entity, any medium (and Flynn is now experienced in more than a couple) is its own authority. "The real appearing unreal, the unreal appearing real—this is the definition of the uncanny," writes Flynn.
Often, and blessedly, his language here is as cadent, sparse, and gorgeous as his poetry. "Will these actors, these strangers, replace my family?" Flynn asks at one point. "Will they move in, somehow, push their way inside me, so that I won't have to tell them a thing. Imitation, according to Plato, distracted people from reality, from truth. Mimesis, to use Plato's word, creates an alternate reality—through a play, say—which will draw us away, distract us, from the truth of life. Yet mimesis, it would seem, can only come from close attention to the world, and this close attention … is a type of prayer, another (possible) way to escape the cage of ego. To dissolve into something larger."
If I could attempt a response ("answer" feeling too presumptuous) to Flynn's question, the one he posed years ago at a small commencement ceremony in the green mountains of Vermont, I think I would say yes, it is enough to merely (merely!) touch one's skin against mystery, and hope for (in?) the language that results. To "dissolve" could seem utterly hopeless if Flynn didn't follow it with "something larger." Though this new memoir loosely chronicles the development of Being Flynn, he is most concerned with memory and loss, and the relationship between the two: "the word inside the word, the emotion inside the emotion. The hinge," Flynn writes. Highly recommended.
Caitlin Mackenzie's work has appeared in Fugue, The Colorado Review, and Tipton Poetry Journal, among others. After graduating from the Bennington Writing Seminars she moved to Eugene, Oregon, where she currently works in book publishing.
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