Author(s): Toby Litt
Elliott is something of a genius. More than that, Elliott is an ideal friend, and to know him is to adore him. But few people do know Elliott, because he is also stuck. He lives in a wheelchair in an orphanage. It's 1979. Elliott is forced to spend his days in an empty corridor, either gazing out of the window at the birds in a tree or staring into a white wall wherever the Catholic Sisters who run the ward have decided to park him. So when Jim, blind and mute but also headstrong, arrives on the ward and begins to defy the Sisters' restrictive rules, Elliott finally sees a chance for escape.
“The moon was proof to me I was in the world because I had never heard the Priest or the Sisters mention a moon in Hell,” states Elliott, confined to his wheelchair and to the first-floor hospital ward of an orphanage, his life a narrowly repetitive round of pains and incapacities, parked either facing the window or facing the calming white wall, incapable of much resembling speech. Trapped within the spastic body is a mind rich in unutterable language, a mind through overcoming boredom intensely observant through its senses of detail and nuance, acutely aware of the inner lives of others, bursting with an almost inconceivably large amount of knowledge which he uses to draw insights from his world in idiosyncratic and poetic ways. What sort of life is there for a mind without a body to carry it about and to enable it to communicate with others? “The nights at that time I most wanted to pass quickly were of course the slowest and the nights I most wanted to forget afterwards are those I can now remember in such absolute detail.” When Jim, mute and blind, arrives on the ward and demonstrates with his strong body a resistance, a resistance that Elliott is incapable of practising, to the strictures of the nuns, Elliott sees the possibility not only of a friendship of complementary capacities (or complementary incapacities (a sort of Beckettian ideal)) but also the opportunity to escape the ward by harnessing Elliott’s mind to Jim’s body, a stitching achieved with great patience. “Here is where a hero would become a hero by refusing to be anywhere but Here,” says Elliott in resistance to the despair and resignation that his disability would seem to demand. “It may have been my maddest decision to return to sanity when that sanity was frustration and boredom and the constant possibility of going mad in a far less pleasant way.” Litt does an excellent job of projecting himself into the mind of a narrator who is prodigiously capable of taking in but tragically incapable of giving out (“I had never assisted anyone whatsoever. I felt the atrocious selfishness of my mode of existence.”), a narrator whose relationship to time differs from that of a person capable of initiating action, and whose relationship to language differs from that of a person capable of contributing to a conversation (if occasionally Elliott’s vocabulary and knowledge seem wider than could have been achieved from a life of minimal stimulation, this somehow only serves to make Litt’s achievement more excellent). Elliott’s brief escape from the ward, his first ever self-determined act, which ends with him lying injured beneath thorny bushes on the urine-smelling edge of a layby, watching horses in the nearby field running for the sake of running, is a memorable moment of beauty, a moment in which Elliott is at last part of and not separate from the world: “Nothing here or anywhere could be where it should not be. Even me.”