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 since the age of three began to cascade over the barrier of his body. It often took fifteen minutes to launch each word.
“I Peer Through Ugliness” was the second poem he wrote:
Years dead tears, peter down my face,
Lucifer quietly plays me down,
Out of a light there came Christ Divine,
Peace always comes, reigns awhile.
Day after dawn, raw quiet rested there,
As I peered through rough pastures,
Dew drops glistened in golden butter- cups.
He wrote it, he said, “because every day I realized how more and more handicapped I was.” Yet it is, like much of Nolan’s subsequent writing, infused with a hopefulness that leads not to Lourdes but to the mystery of the Resurrection.
It was immediately apparent to all who read Nolan’s first offerings that they were witnessing a kind of Athenian catapult—a poet sprung directly from his own mind. Despite his age, despite the limits of his education, there was no doubt that Nolan was a poet. He reveled in metaphor and poetic diction, he seemed to instinctively understand prosody, and he had a passionate, sensual grasp of language. By chance he entered his work in a literary contest sponsored by the Spastics Society. He won a special prize for work that was “beyond comparison” with the other entrants. What was true then remains true.
After he won the prize from the Spastics Society, Nolan’s poems were published in The London Sunday Times. His poems and early writings were then collected and published in a volume called Dam-Burst of Dreams. His literary career had begun. He was feted in London and celebrated in Ireland. Critics, awed by Nolan’s story if not his mellifluous voice, compared his work with that of other Irish writers like Joyce and Beckett, writers with whom he was largely unfamiliar. The comparison, while premature and self-congratulatory, was not wholly inappropriate. Nolan’s use of language was inventive. It was sometimes inverted and arcane. His vocabulary could be obscure and private, his sentence construction baroque.
Alliteration took precedence over accessibility, particularly in Nolan’s early prose writings. “All people must question the quelling quest quietly, quoting Milton’s Paradise Lost, attempting all quarrelling quests quisling quintain qualms queenly quiz,” he wrote at the age of thirteen in a story called “A Mammy Encomium.” His poems from the same period, in comparison, are stark and unadorned, as was “My Ambitions,” written two years before:
Taste of pity as people stare,
Love, lots of love from mother,
Pills you find as lasting prayer,
An irate person may possibly
Have faith, instead of despair.
The poems were of an earlier time when economy was necessary if Nolan was to remember them. His stories came later, when typing had given him greater license; they often read like verbal bacchanals.
“A Mammy Encomium,” “a gilded story of his survival in an alien, lock-jawed world,” was Nolan’s first attempt at autobiography. Three years after he wrote it, he began the project anew. This time it was to be a more complete chronicle. Under the Eye of the Clock is the book that emerged. It took Nolan four years to write it. It won him the 1987 Whitbred Award at the age of twenty-two.
The Nolan family read and sang to Christopher, trailed his toes in the ocean, hoisted and held him on horseback, taught him the alphabet by stringing the letters from the kitchen ceiling. They responded to his grunts and learned to interpret his gestures. They did not confuse, as did so many, physical disability with mental retardation. They assumed the damaged boy was intelligent. When they knew they had taken his education as far as they could, they sold their farm and moved to Dublin so Christopher could attend a special school for the disabled. It was there that physical therapists coached him to utter his first word—“Mama”—and painstakingly tried and failed and tried again, to teach him to type.
It is as compelling an argument for “mainstreaming” the disabled as there might be that Nolan, despite his inability to speak or feed himself, completed high school in a regular—that is, not “special”—classroom. At first it seemed that no school would take him:
Someone always vetoes [the] application…; someone normal; someone beautiful; someone blessed by normality; someone administering the rusty mind’s rules of yesteryear; someone male—cigar-smoker perhaps; someone ruddy-faced with health; someone female—a skeleton in her cupboard…; someone Christian worst of all, boasted ascetic, one of the head-strokers—poor child, God love him, ah God is good, never shuts one door but he opens another…; someone who had too many nos in their childhood; someone able to say no to a dumb cripple; someone always says no.
One did accept him, finally, an interdenominational comprehensive school in Dublin, fulfilling Nolan’s great wish to place himself among “normal, perfect-featured boys and girls.”
Under the Eye of the Clock records Nolan’s school days there, his gradual acceptance into the “denim corded world” of adolescence. It is pretty standard stuff—overnight class trips, illicit smoking (he couldn’t grip the cigarettes with his numb lips), academic triumphs, the sexual pairings of his friends—which is why it seems extraordinary.
But what renders Nolan’s story more remarkable than the sum of its facts, and more moving, is his telling of it. Nolan is a stunning writer. (Not a stunning disabled writer, a stunning writer who is inescapably disabled.) He combines a poet’s devotion to language with a novelist’s sense of time and place. If before he reeled as if drunk on words, in this book he is more sober. He makes constant raids on the province of the inarticulate where he dwelled alone for so long, recognizing that he will only succeed if he brings the reader with him:
Can any sane, able-bodied person sense how it feels to have evil-intentioned limbs constantly making a mockery of you…. How can even the greatest expert rescue truth from your meagre writings, after all it’s when you seem asleep that you’re really thinking; game but really unable, harassed but not cheated, joyful but fractured, notorious but cowardly, man but still boy, boy-writer by birth but garnered in difficulty, yessed by daffodil moments but fated in dull colours, typhooned in dolorous landscape but not abandoned, hurt but desperate to survive; and stranger still, how can they hear your cry for life, your wish to be given a chance to look out on a world where heretofore your crippled brothers ebbed away on muttonfat crosses, where sun burnt passions and melted human hearts.
That we do hear his cry for life, that we listen without lashing ourselves to the mast of “normalcy” and plugging our ears, is owing to Nolan’s ingenuity as a writer. He does not recount his history directly. Rather, he writes the autobiography of Christopher Nolan as a novel, unsentimentally, in the third person, through the persona of a boy called Joseph Meehan. It is Joseph who cries in his bed at night, Joseph who totters between belief and blasphemy, and Joseph who prays to be allowed to attend a regular high school, Joseph who worries that he can’t make it there:
Can I do it, he wondered during long dark hours as he lay curled up in his bed…. Much foolhardy frankness mesmerized his mind. Who’ll have you, who’d be fool enough—maybe you’re biting off more than you can chew—chew damnblast chew, if I could chew I could call myself normal, imagine, can’t chew, can’t swallow, so why chew? can’t call—can call, a famished moan maybe yet it suffices; can’t chew, can’t chew, can’t smell—can smell—can’t chew, can’t control bowels—can, can, can control, can’t control bladder—can control, can control; can’t chew though so what, I have a dry seat, lovely dry seat, always, always, but can’t chew, can’t cry—can cry, can cry, can cry wet pillows full but who cares, can cry, cry bucketfuls, can’t laugh—can laugh, can, can, can, can’t stop—can stop, can’t see why I should, can’t see why, can’t see the need, can’t blame me, help say something sad: Can’t Chew.
There is no deception here. Joseph Meehan is Christopher Nolan—even the book jacket announces it—with more verisimilitude, perhaps, but in the same way, say, that Stephen Dedalus is James Joyce. Yet, while A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man draws the reader into Joyce’s mind, Under the Eye of the Clock projects Nolan’s mute thoughts outward. Joseph is not only Nolan’s invention, he is his medium. Speaking through Joseph, Nolan self-consciously becomes the author of his own life, not its subject.
He saw life recoil before him, and using the third person he rescued poor sad boyhood and casting himself inside the frame of crippled Joseph Meehan he pranked himself a storyteller, thereby casting renown on himself by dangling disability before the reader. Look, he begged, look deep down; feel, he begged, sense life’s limitations; cry, he begged, cry the tears of cruel frustration; but above all he begged laughter, laugh he pleaded, for lovely laughter vanquishes raw wounded pride.
And so, with this narrative device, he hooks us. The reader does laugh and cry and feel those limitations, but for Joseph, not Nolan. It is Joseph whose “chair [is] his throne, his feet his companions,” while Nolan, the author, walks nimbly among us, guiding readers through Joseph’s “zoo-caged” universe. It is Joseph Meehan who wins our empathy. Christopher Nolan wins our recognition.
June 30, 1988