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Blind Man's Bluff

My friend's fading sight left him with irony or suicide. He chose to write.

By Stan Persky 15 May 2006 |
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Ryan Knighton is my first blind guy.

He's 33 years old, has a shaved head, frequently wears a black porkpie hat, has a gym-developed hard-body, sports some this-generation tattoos, teaches English at Capilano College in North Vancouver, B.C. (which is where I also work), and taps around the universe with a long white cane. Knighton has retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a genetic eye disease that's progressively reduced his sight to about one per cent in one eye over the last 15 years. Eventually, it'll be all gone.

Since we both teach early morning classes, I frequently pick him up for the ride to work. My one-liner is: "We're a car-pool, but I don't let him drive very often." On the road, in between literary gossip and my running description of the traffic pattern ("Oh no, we're sandwiched between two 18-wheelers… Hey, you SUV pig! Get a bigger vehicle. How 'bout a Hummer with a machine-gun mount?" etc.), we occasionally refer to his obvious, but unseeing "condition" or "situation" or whatever you call it -- how about blindness? I have a one-liner for that, too: "You've got two choices: irony or suicide."

Since there are about 300,000 blind Canadians (about one per cent of the population), I guess it's just the luck of the draw that Knighton is "my first blind person." Pretty good luck, I'd say. And more or less like with my first Jew, or first poet, or first lesbian, one of the side-benefits of knowing an identifiable Other of any sort is that you quickly become sensitized to a bunch of things you otherwise might not have noticed.

At work, as we're heading off to the coffee kiosk through a maze of stairwells, doors, and student-crowded corridors, I confine myself to occasional warnings in the jargon of World War II fighter pilots, like, "Bogie at 3 o'clock," to indicate some major obstacle that I don't think his white stick will fully appreciate.

A blind man's options

But let's get back to choices, since deciding what to do about blindness is one of any blind person's big decisions, and is one of the things that Knighton's brilliant, funny, beautifully written, and serious-but-not-over-serious Cockeyed: A Memoir (Penguin, 263 p., $25, 2006), is all about. As he notes, there are actually more than two choices on offer. In addition to irony, there's also cynicism, victimhood, and possibly something resembling serenity, although the latter is pretty much out of reach, given Knighton's mildly angst-ridden temperament. Suicide, too, is presumably not an option. Or, well, of course it's an option, and it's silly not to face it, but it doesn't seem like an especially good one. Knighton, like most writers, prefers writing to suicide. So did Jorge Luis Borges, who also had RP, and possibly even such other famous scribes as John Milton and, who knows, mythic Homer himself.

Cockeyed is an episodic rather than a one-damned-thing-after-another sort of memoir, though it's roughly chronological. Written under an epigraph from Ovid's Metamorphoses -- "My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind…" -- the bodily changes in Knighton's life first registered in early adolescence around a family dinner-table in Langley, B.C., when Uncle Brad remarked, "Look at his face. Ryan's got a squint or something. See? He's kind of cockeyed." The squint persisted and the kid found himself "trying to focus through a problem I couldn't see. Not yet."

Things become even less clear in his mid-teens when young Knighton scores a summer warehouse job that includes driving a forklift. That's when he starts "missing" things in his field of vision. There's an effort to pass it off as mere bumbling, but it's more than klutziness. He'd imagined a "summer of fortune" for himself, thanks to his great job, but "instead of wealth, I found another fortune, the kind that is told. Somehow I'd bumbled into my fate as a blind man before it was upon me." In hindsight, it's like Pozzo's line in Beckett's Waiting for Godot, which Knighton cites: "I woke up one fine day as blind as Fortune." Actually, it's not until he's 18, after he drives the family car in a slow-motion nightmare into a ditch on a foggy night, that he gets the full-monty RP diagnosis. And after that, he's dealing with the "situation."

"Stop staring at me"

What makes Cockeyed unique among tales of encroaching darkness is that Knighton mostly treats blindness as a kind of surrealism. It's a brilliant move that allows him to write a series of very funny set-pieces about everyday mishaps and worse that are unfailingly presented with perfect pitch and timing.

There's the woman in the pub who asks him why he's staring at her when he isn't staring at her. He decides to "pass" as sighted; she eventually presses a note with her address into his hand; hours later, he's stumbling around in a cul-de-sac, accidentally busting into someone's house and discovering that things go bump in the night-blindness. Much later, well past his sowing-wild-punk-oats period, there's the trip to Ikea with his wife Tracy to buy a couch. All he sees are brownish blurs and blobs, but it occasions a discourse on "Ikealism," the ideology of classless furniture and taut domestic relationships. Then there's the problem of asking a waitress where the bathroom is, and being told it's "over there," but "indexicals," as such site-specific terms are known, isn't much help to a blind guy. And finally there's the story about the decision to come out of the blindness closet by learning to navigate with a long white stick.

If that was all there is to Cockeyed, it would still be pretty good. Think humourist David Sedaris, with added oomph. But there's way more to Knighton's book. The crux chapter of Cockeyed is called "Missing." It's about a family tragedy, whose details I won't reveal, but it's the moment where blindness moves beyond the slapstick of surrealism. "I had been a young man in denial, one who resisted his diagnosis and its future at every turn," Knighton reflects. "I'd mocked blindness, ignored it, camouflaged it, even accepted it, to a very minor degree." The family tragedy, however, "left a space, and that space demanded I become the kind of person I wanted to be: resolved, selfless, capable, any number of adjectives I'd let my blindness disfigure in me… If I'd been at war, it was more or less over. Whatever I'd been fighting didn't matter to me anymore. It was just too small."

In the elegies required for tragedies, familial and otherwise, Knighton sees that "seeing itself is touched with elegy. Reality seems to press its light into us, it is happening, but that's not the way things are. The eye can process only so many images per second, taking in sights the way a camera takes a series of stills… We think we are seeing life as it happens, but pictures are missing. Moments disappear between the stills and make up our unwitnessed lives. To see is to miss things. Loss is always with us."

Intimate assistance

The other place in Cockeyed where we're well beyond the surreal is in Knighton's accounts of his relationship to his spouse, Tracy, who is the undeniable hero of the tale of our Knighton-errant. People often ask him how they live together and what it's like to build blindness into an otherwise normal middle-class life. "The truth is, it's hard to see," he says. "Blindness for us is mostly made up of many small things. I reach for a glass but can't find it. I continue to talk to you over the table, looking for the glass with my hand. The moment I give up, Tracy nudges the glass to my fingers. It's so casual, the allowance she gives me to try and to fail, and it is so reflexive, her help when I need it," but not before he needs it. "From where you sit," he adds, "our way might not catch your eye. The exchange is so fluid and quick, like one of those moments in between the stills."

The reason I've quoted the text at some length here is to underscore one of the more important points about Cockeyed. Ryan Knighton is a writer, not a blind-writer, and his book is a work of writing, not a self-help, disease-of-the-week, or triumph-over-disability volume.

Although Knighton's publishers have done their best to position and market the book as hip and other than a "conventional confessional," the public is so conditioned to psychologizing suffering that the point might still be missed. Knighton even includes a James Frey-like prefatory note about truth-in-memoir in order to make clear that this isn't just one of those A Million Little Pieces knockoffs: "Should a reader determine that the author is not disabled, please contact the appropriate authorities. He would gladly delete his blindness from any further memoirs." Irony instead of suicide, sentimentality, cynicism, right?

At 33, Knighton is writing about blindness because writers have to work through whatever situation the world has handed them. When he gets done working through blindness as a writer, I expect he'll write about other stuff. That he's written about this stuff with such grace and moxy is a sign of what's to come.

For readers, what you get out of Cockeyed is to become sensitized to what you see: "indexicals," "Bogies at 3 o'clock," the missing stills, and such literary references as Vladimir's question in Godot, "When did this happen to you?", and Pozzo's haunting reply, "I don't know… The blind know nothing of time." Such gifts, of course, are the whole point of, pardon a final pun, insightful writing.

Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College is the author of The Short Version: An ABC Book, which won the 2006 B.C. Book Prizes' Hubert Evans Prize for Non-Fiction.

Writing by Ryan Knighton:

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