A kindly shrink once told me — following a discussion about clouds that look like floating pneumatic yaks — that I have “a little Jewish yak” on my shoulder: a monitoring presence, that is, small and woolly but quite severe, tracking my every move and supplying ceaseless, not-always-helpful commentary. Yakking on, as he put it. I proffer this tidbit in a spirit of literary-scientific communion with Nick Flynn, whose new memoir is full of musings about consciousness, self-consciousness, memory, mental pictures, phantom limbs, etc. “This imagined someone inside our heads, watching the movie in our brains, is known among neurobiologists as “the homunculus.” Some call it “the ghost in the machine.” Or “the little Jewish yak.”
Flynn is a Bostonian poet whose 2004 memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, recorded his mother’s suicide, his father’s alcoholism, and his own difficulties as a worker at the Pine Street Inn, Boston’s largest homeless shelter. As Flynn Sr. joined the homeless population, father and son would encounter one another in overlapping chemical spirals, generally heading downward. But they both survived, and Flynn Jr. wrote Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and it was very good, and it gathered awards, and after a few years, in the way of these things, someone in Hollywood had the idea of making a movie out of it — which forms the matter of The Reenactments. Flynn worked closely with director Paul Weitz on what would eventually become Being Flynn, starring Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore. He scouted locations, consulted with the actors, sat in as the cameras rolled on scene after counterfeited scene of his life. And, being a thoughtful man, he was not untroubled in his mind. Scanning the endorsements on the book’s back cover, I am astonished that not one of them makes use of the blurbist’s go-to word: meditation. “The Reenactments is a powerful, lyrical meditation on grief and art.” It would almost be forgivable in this case. What does it mean to watch Julianne Moore preparing to reenact your mother’s death-by-shotgun? Or to hear that Robert De Niro is having a couple of teeth removed, the better to play your indigent father?
The Flynn of The Reenactments is living through two movies: the traumatic inner replay of his mother’s death and his father’s madness, which loops constantly through his head, and the Hollywood production now staging these scenes with all its props and paraphernalia. He worries that he is misremembering, or fabricating his memories — that fabricating is actually what memory does. “What if she had died before the invention of film?” he wonders. “Would I still run the movie of her death over and over in my mind, would my mind even be able to imagine it could? Or would it be more like turning the pages of a book? What if she had died before the invention of books?”
By way of penetrating into these and other questions, Flynn loads his book with deep thinkers and heavyweight citations. “Nietzsche offers this… Simone Weil offers this… According to Freud… Walter Benjamin, on the idea of collective memory, offers this…” His chronology is irregular, his pacing intuitive; he proceeds in images and thought-sized chunks, some a few pages long, some only a line or two. Schrödinger’s Cat pops up, as does Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and some of the latest stuff from Buddhism. The Reenactments is prevented, however, from becoming a mere “faddish miscellany” (as Alex Beam called David Shields’s similarly structured The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead) by the unavoidable interestingness of both the author and his predicament.
Paul Dano, the actor playing him in the movie, sends Flynn an email a few days before filming starts, a list of questions: “Do you have any tattoos? Did you wear a watch?” And the final one: “Where are your scars?” The original meaning of the word catharsis, Flynn tells us, the Greek meaning, involved “a daily practice — we woke up each day with who we were, with our particular sorrows and struggles, and each day we had to find a way to carry through.” No blinding flash, in other words, no healing meltdown. Robert De Niro is introduced to Flynn Sr., his character, now eighty and in a care facility. After talking unstoppably and obliviously for an hour, the old man zeroes in at last on the movie star. “So, you do a little acting? my father asks. You like to act? De Niro smiles, shrugs: Yeah, I do a little acting.”
Where does acting end and being begin? Wobbling out of a session with his Manhattan therapist, at which he has been lying on his back, reaching up “into the nothingness above me” and begging his mother not to go, Flynn finds himself in crowded Columbus Circle. “I’m a little spacey. A woman jumps in front of my bike, holding a small red sign up to me, which I cannot make out. Get out of the movie, she yells. I slow down, look around. Movie? It looks like I am simply in New York on a Saturday morning. It seems impossible — is everyone else in the whole city in this movie except me? I look around for the camera, the lights, anything. Get out of the movie, she yells again.” But he can’t.