–Portrait of the Poet as a Young Man

                                                                    Under the Eye of the Clock
                                                                        by Christopher Nolan

Under the Eye of the Clock is the autobiography of the young Irish writer, Christopher Nolan. Telling his story as a person he calls Joseph Meehan, Nolan shows the growth of a boy severely disabled by cerebral palsy, and explores his intense struggle to create his own voice both as a person and writer.

Early in Under the Eye of the Clock, Joseph Meehan understands that he is profoundly disabled physically.  Paralyzed and mute, three year old Joseph forces his mother to see what he knows:

 He gazed his hurt gaze, lip protruding, eyes busy in conversation. He ordered her to look out the window at the sunshine. He looked hard at her ear ordering her to listen to the birds singing. Then…he again asked her to cock her ear and listen to the village children out at play in the school yard. Now he jeered himself. He showed her his arms, his legs, his useless body. Beckoning his tears he shook his head. Looking at his mother he blamed her, he damned her, he mouthed his cantankerous why, why, why me?

Unable to console or distract her son, Nora Meehan yields to his insistence and talks to him. “I never prayed for you to be born crippled,” she says. “I wanted you to be full of life, able to run and jump and talk just like (your sister). But you are you, you are Joseph not Yvonne. Listen here Joseph, you can see, you can hear, you can think, you can understand everything you hear, you like your food, you like nice clothes, you are loved by me and Dad. We love you just as you are.” Then, as writer Christopher Nolan, Joseph’s real life counterpart tells us, Nora Meehan “got on with her work while (her son) got on with his crying,” though it was the only time he cried, “the decision arrived at that day…burnt forever in his mind” so that he fanned “the only spark he saw, his being alive and more immediate, his being wanted just as he was.”

This single scene from Under the Eye of the Clock contains virtually all of the elements that–when expanded–make it the remarkable book that it is. We confront the unyielding fact of disability, approaching it from the point of view of the disabled, and we see the intensely observed inner and outer worlds of Nolan’s experience through the barely distanced persona of Joseph; we discover a family that has accepted disability but has not yielded to it, and we sense Joseph’s keen intelligence and fierce will both to communicate and participate. And finally, we encounter a story of great narrative power which is told in a silence-created language that startles us into hearing.

But first the disability. Nearly asphyxiated at birth, Christopher Nolan’s cerebral palsy meant paralysis in both his body and vocal chords and made him subject to acute spasms. Communication for Nolan as a young child was limited to eye movement, to changes in facial expression and efforts at body language. With the help of a typing stick attached to his head, he finally and painstakingly spoke with a written voice. The result was a tumult of poetry, Dam-Burst of Dreams, which was published when he was fifteen and won him acclaim and honors at home and abroad and the attention of computer scientists determined to give him an easier passage for his words. But still, though his body acted on its own and against his wishes, he lacked the power to move his muscles at his own bidding. “Hands that could involuntarily give knock-out blows to anyone or anything near, became stiff and hesitant on being given a brain command.” As Nolan writes, the effort to master the computer assumed huge proportions for Joseph who–”used to fouling-up his moment of anticipation”–could not catch the exact moment to push his chin down to signal the cursor that was programmed to march past the letters on his computer screen. Still he dreamed: “Gushing breath now gunfired boy’s creative surrealism but he, green-fresh in writing territory, needed a ready outlet for his bursting creations. …Joseph now knew that he could be an independent writer if he could but earth himself.”

Under the Eye of the Clock, published when Christopher Nolan was twenty-one, is the beginning of the fulfillment of that dream. This portrayal of the boyhood and education of Joseph Meehan, who “hised and frolicked but his mother called it spasms,” is a story told from the fixed points of a wheelchair, a bed, a father’s arms. We travel with the Meehan family on holiday where “all hands joined forces to help Joseph swim and float in the warm currents” of the sea and then, in “another treat,” buried him up to his shoulders on the sandy shore so he could guess at what it was to stand until “his body budged to get back to normality” and Matthew, his father, scooped him out and brushed off the sand. We hear Joseph’s litany of questions about the fellow disabled who preceded him:

Did they have fiery intellects? Were they stored away in a back room, dirty, neglected, frowned upon? Did sun ever tan their opaque skin?…Did they ever delve their hand in cold water? Did someone ever feel for their clenched fists and gently prise them open?…Did they feel the cold nervous heartbeat of a wet frog?…Did they ever gloat with pleasure in a warm bubbly bath and afterwards sneeze in an aroma of talcum powder?…Did they ever hear a real sound of laughter free of innuendo coming pouring from a pal’s heart?…Did they ever have their father’s company on lovely secluded walks as birds did their nut?…Did they ever feel a dear sister’s love when she spent backbreaking hours designing and painting an intricate celtic drawing especially for them? Did they ever heave a sigh of healthy feeling despite awful paralysis? Did they ever get so much love that the able-bodied sister wished that she were crippled too?

 We follow Joseph on his trips to the Central Remedial Clinic School and, when he is older, to Mount Temple Comprehensive where the eye of the clock tower looks down and Joseph asks for and gains the friendship of his schoolmates who are not disabled. It is there, too, where he “acts” a part in the school play by willing his body into stillness, where riders race with him in his wheelchair and chums lend him their scarves against the cold, where he is locked in battle with a dose of Milk of Magnesia (given by his well-meaning sister), and tries “to outwit his bowels whilst fellas on motorbikes zoomed about his belly.” And it is there where “above all he begged laughter, laugh, he pleaded, for lovely laughter vanquishes raw wounded pride.” Finally we see him at Trinity College in Dublin.

At the center, at the very heart of Joseph’s odyssey, we find his family–patient and practical, eager to try opportunities for him and to teach him all he can learn and always, as Nora had told him, loving him as he is. In Joseph, the family son, we see a boy who is “well used to all the weeping-Jesus comments about his cross” but who is trying hard “to break free from society’s charitable mould.” His parents have taught him compassion rather than self-pity and he worries less for himself than for others who are disabled–”hell hath no fury like scorn for spastics” he says. With careful insight, he sees as well that there is “tenderness masked behind the seeming coldness” of the able-bodied.

And then there is the writing itself. With Dam-Burst of Dreams, Christopher Nolan was compared to his fellow countryman, Joyce, and to Dylan Thomas. Under the Eye of the Clock gives further reason for such comparison. Nolan’s abandon with language and its sound–”delirious with the falling words plopping onto his path [Joseph] made youth reel where youth was meant to stagnate”–evokes the kind of cool frenzy of Thomas’s words, as in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”: “wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea.” In the manner of Joyce (Ulysses’ “warm-bubbled milk” instead of warm, bubbling milk), Christopher Nolan does not describe things so much as create the experience of them for the reader. Yet from this clear link to others, Nolan strikes into solitary territory where his gift with language and, yes, his gift of disability join to make him unique in the world of writers. The language–”eyescavingly low”–is created from his vantage point: the fisheye view of the world he is held to and probes minutely. The style–the strange mix of simple narrative, poetic rhythms and booming alliteration, the use of cliché that starts fresh when a boy in a wheelchair talks of getting “his foot in the door,” the brevity and staccatoed sound that Nolan himself attributes to the manner of his writing (“the undercurrents of electricity running” in his chin and “molesting his attempts to strike a letter”)–is singularly his and clearly an exceptional child midwived by disability.

Yet in some ways, Christopher Nolan is a very ordinary writer. His joy at learning that his work will be published–”his whole body reacted, his face looked stunned, his eyes flew heavenwards, a very silence basked round his heart”–is like any writer’s joy. His anger at the written attack on his work by the man who “carried a small purple handbag and it was almost nightfall”–an anger so great that he curses God and then repents of his blasphemy and vanity–is no more than the despair and recovery of any writer. But in other ways–in the clarity of his perception, in the sureness of his gift as a writer, and in the truth that without a written voice he has no voice at all–Christopher Nolan is an extraordinary writer.

And he has written a marvel of a book. Oh, it is not quite perfect. The prose can, at times, jolt along like a bumpy wheelchair trip, though we learn quickly enough to tack and to steady ourselves for the ride. It is not a perfect book any more than it is the product of a perfect mind or perfectly working body, things which, of course, do not exist. But as a discovery and exploration of language and as the uncoding of an amazingly willed secret life, Under the Eye of the Clock may reach as close to perfection as we and Christopher Nolan–people who share the real world and its imperfection–can hope to come.

Note: This review first appeared in 1990 in Kaleidoscope: International Journal of Disability and the Arts.  Christopher Nolan died in 2009 at the age of 43. He was at work on his second novel. Under the Eye of the Clock won the Whitbread Prize.


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