Portrait of the Artist

Under the Eye of the Clock

by Christopher Nolan
St. Martin’s, 163 pp., $16.95

There’s a name that some disabled people have for those of us who can walk and talk and finger the pages of a magazine. They call us TABs—“temporarily ablebodied.” It means that someday, perhaps not too long off, our bodies will begin to fail. Our joints will swell or our eyes will fog, our arteries will harden, our cells will multiply wildly, and the material world, with its stairways and cinemas, its digital recordings and steaks on the grill—the world we take for granted—will be foreclosed.

Physical health is contingent and often short-lived. But this truth eludes us as long as we are able to walk by simply putting one foot in front of the other. As a consequence, empathy for the disabled is unavailable to most able-bodied persons. Sympathy, yes, empathy, no, for every attempt to project oneself into that condition, to feel what it is like not to be ambulatory, for instance, is mediated by an ability to walk.

Until now, with the publication of Christopher Nolan’s novel, Under the Eye of the Clock, the entreaties made by the disabled to draw us into their world, to help us see what it is like to be blind or to feel the numbness of their limbs, have largely shut us out. Confessional and testimonial, these first-person narratives reinforce the distinction between them and us. They leave us mindful of our good fortune, knocking wood, thinking “there but for the grace of God….”

Grace and God figure prominently in Christopher Nolan’s writing. Nolan is twenty-two, Irish, devoutly Catholic, profoundly disabled. He cannot talk. He cannot smile at will or chew his food. He cannot walk. His arms flail impulsively, his head lists to the side, he drools. None of this was irrelevant to what, from birth, Nolan could do: he could wait.

Nolan waited eleven years before he was able to communicate to those around him with more than an upward roll of his eyes. A new drug that released his obstinate neck muscles, a persevering teacher, a unicorn stick strapped to his forehead and his mother harnessing his chin from behind in her hands enabled him, pecking one letter at a time, to tap out his thoughts on a typewriter.

While he waited those eleven years he prayed, not for normalcy, but for recognition; he wanted others to know he was, as he called it, “sane.” And as he listened for the answer he heard words and their nuances; their sonority became tangible.

Nolan memorized the sounds and meanings of the words he heard. He began to string them together, writing poems that he would recite to himself again and again, with the outrageous desire that someday they would be released from memory into the audible world. When the drug and the typing stick finally rescued Nolan from silence, he began to record his poems. He said it was as if a dam had burst. Poems that he had fixed in his memory …

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