How would you cast your life, if Hollywood were making a film of it? What would it mean to have a huge star play your alcoholic con man father? A famous actress your suicidal mother?
That’s the situation Nick Flynn faced when his 2005 memoir, “Another [expletive] Night in Suck City,” was made into the 2012 movie “Being Flynn.” And so, on the set with Robert De Niro, Julianne Moore, and Paul Dano (who played the author), he chronicled and examined the 2011 experience, exploring the regrets and absurdity of seeing your worst days portrayed by others for the silver screen. The resulting book, “The Reenactments,” is a kind of memoir about a memoir, a study of art and process, and also a reexamination of trauma that must have once seemed safely filed away.
To their credit, the filmmakers did not seek to glamorize Flynn’s story. Nor is it as if Flynn hadn’t already mulled over these experiences countless times. (He has also written a second memoir, “The Ticking Is the Bomb.’’) In fact, part of the strangeness of being on the set comes from the author seeing a dramatization of crises he has already analyzed, already turned into art.
Sometimes that provokes an insight, as when Flynn watches the character playing him read from his first book: “I never realized that poem was about my father until I heard Dano read it,” he notes. Occasionally, he remembers a detail he didn’t use in the book, such as what his father would do with a bed ticket for a housing-shelter room, once he’d checked in, or a postcard that reminds him of his mother. Often the telescoping of time hits him. “The film will suggest that I figured out how to write a book and become a father in a couple years — in reality it will take ten years for the book to come out, and ten more years for [daughter] Maeve to appear.”
With such introspection running through it, this book could have become hermetic or thin, like tea made from a reused bag. In Flynn’s hands, however, these memories and updatings become something more. It helps that this book isn’t entirely about the film. Flynn digresses frequently, into post-memoir updates on various characters, as well as meditations on the science of phantom limbs and Harvard’s famed glass flowers. It also helps that his writing, always specific and honest, can be dryly funny, as well.
After De Niro expresses an interest in meeting Flynn’s father, for example, Flynn brings the actors to the long-term care facility where his father is living. His father seems oblivious, going on for an hour in the kind of colorful language that prompts Dano to take notes. Finally, he “looks over at De Niro, as if taking him in for the first time. So, you do a little acting? My father asks. You like to act? De Niro smiles, shrugs: Yeah, I do a little acting.” The chapter ends.
As episodic as the original memoir, “The Reenactments” is also, by its nature, choppier. The self-reflective nature of memoir is amplified by the act of seeing it translated into another medium, and references to the actors and the production pepper the text: “really, De Niro is playing my father” and “We have a son . . . (do I tell Dano this?).” This could be confusing, but Flynn inserts enough context so that readers who have not read his original memoir or seen the film can parse out what happened. This book isn’t for them, though. Readers who want to know what happened should stick to the memoir. Those who want to explore the nature of memory, of art, and of regret, however, will find much here to chew on.
Clea Simon, the author of nine crime novels, can be reached at