Impossible Music

Impossible Music

by Sean Williams


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In an emotionally compelling tale crackling with originality, when a teen musician goes deaf, his quest to create an entirely new form of music brings him to a deeper understanding of his relationship to the hearing world, of himself, and of the girl he meets along the way. 

Music is Simon’s life—which is why he is devastated when a stroke destroys his hearing. He resists attempts to help him adjust to his new state, refusing to be counseled, refusing to learn sign-language, refusing to have anything to do with Deaf culture. Refusing, that is, until he meets G, a tough-as-nails girl dealing with her own newly-experienced deafness.

In an emotionally engaging tale crackling with originality, Simon's quest to create an entirely new form of music forces him into a deeper understanding of his relationship to the hearing world, of himself, and of the girl he meets along the way. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544816206
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 07/02/2019
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 590,136
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.50(h) x 1.10(d)
Lexile: HL820L (what's this?)
Age Range: 14 - 17 Years

About the Author

Sean Williams is the award-winning, #1 New York Times best-selling author of novels, short stories, poetry, and a science-fiction musical. He won a Young Composers Award as a teen and later briefly played in a band. Hear his early works at He lives in Adelaide, Australia.

Twitter: @adelaidesean

Read an Excerpt


December 21

     “Small word, big question.” That’s what Mum used to say when too tired to answer properly. Only it’s not a small word anymore, not for me.
     “How?” in Australian sign language, a.k.a. Auslan, starts with two palms held upward, one above the other. You slide your hands apart to create a space between them, and they stay facing up, empty—​the idea being, I guess, for someone to metaphorically fill them with knowledge. I think of it as a shrugless huh?
     It’s a big sign, then, rather than a small word, but the question remains huge.
     I think G knows that, which is why it’s taken her so long to ask.
     We’re sitting side by side in a corner of the campus that most people avoid because it’s too noisy. Perhaps that’s what drew us here. The first time I came to the University of Adelaide—​for a winter school held in the holidays between second and third terms, when everyone else was heading northward for warmth—​the renovations were annoying, but I can’t hear them now. All I can feel is the occasional vibration as machines hammer and thunder on the other side of a canvas fence, invisible but present—​like our uncertain futures. Everything has been thoroughly overturned in the last three months and nineteen days.
     G has her knees drawn up tight to her chest, scuffed Doc Martens jammed hard on the bench as though she’s bracing herself to jump. When she’s not talking, her hands clutch her forearms in a monkey grip, scars vivid violet like they’ve been drawn on with marker. We’re so close our hips are touching, and I consciously note for the first time that she doesn’t smell like other girls. Where most I know are too sharp and sweet, she’s pleasantly sour, lemon in hot tea. With every breath, I strain to take in a bit more of her.
     We’ve been seeing a lot of each other lately, but I’ve not yet admitted to myself that I’m falling in love with her. This is just one of many things I can’t put into words. How can I? All I have are numb approximations—​shapes in the air that bear no relation at all to sound or language or music, as irrelevant as my fingers on the neck of my guitar . . .
     G nudges me with her shoulder, reminding me of the question, and I nod, reaching into my pocket. Some things are easier to explain by phone, or at least less impossible.

     I have brain damage.

     She, leaning closer to read the words on my phone’s glowing screen, makes a gesture I guess means, Tell me something I don’t already know. I scrunch up the left side of my face and keep tapping on the screen.

     No, really. Bilateral embolic stroke to Heschl’s gyrus.

     I haven’t typed the words to anyone before, so the phone autocorrects the last two to “Heathland Guru.” It sounds like a band but not a good one, a bland purveyor of the kind of Top 40 shit that I once loved to hate but now would kill to hear.

     Ears work fine, but my brain is deaf as a post.

     G snatches the phone from me and types: Hysterical?
     I think she’s being ironic before I absorb the question mark. Trying not to bristle, I answer, I’m not imagining it. I can show you the scans if you want.
     She reaches behind me and puts her hand on my neck, thumb and fingers on either side of my spine, and butts my shoulder with her right temple. The smell of her becomes much stronger. I tilt my head and breathe in deeply, clearing my mental sinuses: hair, skin, G. Maybe I’m smelling a bit of her home as well, and suddenly I really want to see where she eats, where she watches TV, where she sleeps.
     While I’m lost in a pleasantly detailed daydream, she takes the phone and types something with her left hand.

     Well, thanks to you and your gimpy gyrus, I’ve lost a bet.

     It’s my turn to make the how? sign, which creates a small space between us. Her hand leaves my neck. She sits straight as she taps out the words.

     Rock god goes deaf, duh. You didn’t say, so we thought you were embarrassed about blowing your eardrums out onstage. As you should have been. So obvious—​

     I snatch the phone from her.

     You think I’m that stupid?

     I don’t mention the times I gigged without plugs or practiced solos with my headphones turned up so loud my ears rang for hours.
     She snatches the phone back.

     Being deaf is . . .

     She stops Swyping, and I stare at those three words, knowing she was about to write stupid but thought better of it. There’s no reason to make it personal.
     At the same time, though, her auditory nerves aren’t going to magically repair themselves any more than my Heschl’s gyrus is going to hatch like a cocoon to reveal a beautiful butterfly. When we’re angry, we have to blame something.
     Or change the subject.

     How much did you lose on the bet?
     A round of drinks for the whole class.
     When did all this happen?
     One of the many days you didn’t show.

     I’m not pissed at G, but it does shit me a little that she and the rest of the newly deaf discussed me behind my back.

     Farid said you showed all the signs of traumatic brain injury. Everyone agreed.
     Except you.
     Don’t give me a medal or anything. I thought you were an idiot for playing your amp too loud.

     She’s smiling. I can see her expression reflected in the strengthened glass.
     I need to do something to regain the initiative. Can’t have her thinking I’m the punch line of a bad joke.

     You ever hear any Blackmod?

     That was the name of my last band. I am briefly but immensely relieved it wasn’t one of the others: Ratzinger, InTerrorBang, übertor, Anal Twin . . .
     She signs, No.
     I stand up and strike a pose: imaginary guitar in left hand, pick held high in right, hair swept over my shoulder, grimace. Never forget the grimace. With the sound of remembered drums in my useless ears, I bring my right hand down for the opening chord of “Intoxicated Tyrants.” The moves are fresh in my mind, having played through it only yesterday, on a real instrument, for the benefit of no one but myself. This time, I rapid-fire air-guitar and head-bang for G in our secluded corner of the campus, playing in time to the hammering from the science wing, mouthing the growls and sneering the squeals of my former bandmates’ lyrics, and wishing with all my heart that it was more than just a fantasy, this gift I’m giving her. This piece of me that I cling to, even though everyone tells me it is dead. Hell, my parents and counselors even held a funeral for it . . .
     Hair sways across my face like a curtain, sticking to my heat-dampened skin. I couldn’t look at her if I wanted, but I wouldn’t anyway until I’m finished. Her laughter will put me off my stride, and I need this mad rain dance to my treacherous brain cells just as much as she needs to understand that I would never, ever have seriously put my hearing at risk.
     Only when I have thrashed my way through the final syncopated cadence do I flick the hair out of my eyes and realize that she is crying.
     Triumph turns to shock. Dropping my pose along with the imaginary guitar, I kneel in front of her and take her hands in mine, mouthing words neither of us can hear. What’s wrong?
     There’s a message already typed into the phone.

     That’s how it sounds in my head.

     I could kick myself. She leans forward and butts my shoulder again, only this time it is me cupping her neck where shaved hairline meets naked skin. There’s another scar there, thin and fresh, one I’ve never noticed before. Now’s not the time to ask. I am still sweating from my performance, and I hope that doesn’t make her feel worse than I already have. But I suppose if it did she would pull away or push me off or somehow make her feelings clear. She’s much better at that than I am.
     Instead I’m the one who pulls away, taking the phone and typing:

     Tinnitus is . . .

     I stop there, because I can’t say stupid any more than G could.
     I also can’t say: And if you didn’t have it, we would never have met.


September 2

The last words I ever heard were my mother telling me to turn my music off and go to sleep, it being a Wednesday and she having to work early the next day. Mum crunches numbers in an office for a living. Statistics and other things I don’t understand, although I like that she has in her head a seemingly inexhaustible supply of facts and figures, such as the odds of dying from a drug overdose (1/13,333) or the number of places in Australia named after Queen Victoria (21). She scatters them like punctuation marks across nights when my sister and I are home, probably because they’re more likely to get a reaction than the things she’d rather tell us, such as number of children (2), amount of love (infinite).
     “Turn your music off, honey. It’s a school night.”
     Headphones were invented for utterly unreasonable requests like this, so after Mum stuck her head around my door, I stayed up an hour or two, chatting with friends online and listening to—​I regret this now—​the latest from a band called Electric Sky Prawn. If I’d known that Sproutrider would be the last album I’d ever hear, I would’ve picked something better. Blackwater Park, perhaps. Go into silence with the slow fadeout of “The Drapery Falls” still ringing in my ears—​that’s what I would choose now.
     The idea of choice, though, is as much a fantasy as that ancient ethical fake-out: Which would you rather be, deaf or blind? No one can possibly answer that question. No one should ever have to answer that question. It’s meaningless, existing only as a reminder to treat what we have with reverence, I guess.
     The last sound I ever heard might have been the click of my light switch or the rustle of the pillow case as I rolled over. Our neighbor’s dog barking at a cat? One final late-night fart? I don’t remember. Because I didn’t know I needed to remember.
     That September, in my former life, I thought all sound was music. I took it for granted, paid so little attention to the symphony surrounding me that I missed its ending.

Cases of cortical deafness in the history of medicine? Twelve, one for every note of the chromatic scale.
     I am the thirteenth.
     Medical specialists explained it to me afterwards as best they could, given that I couldn’t hear a word they were saying. My eyes scanned the documents they’d printed out, dense paragraphs forming a wagon train around the tiny blood vessel that had burst during my sleep, drowning that critical part of my brain. Really, though, my attention was on Mum. She was listening closely to those specialists, whose mouths were making silent glyphs I utterly failed to interpret. Selwyn Floyd, with his ridiculous goatee that looked like he’d dyed it in milk. His younger sidekick, Prameela Verma, mostly speechless for now. I had learned to read Mum’s body language much better in recent days. As she listened, she crushed in on herself like a car in an accident with a semi.
     The message had finally gotten through, which was ironic: Mum could hear the words better than I could. She just didn’t want to listen.
     I didn’t need ears to understand what she had been told, or to recognize how it made her feel.
     It was a struggle, however, to feel anything at all around the absence, the ghastly void where every sound in the world had once been. The bickering of birds. The rumble of distant traffic. The hiss of springtime rain. It was like I’d woken up that fateful day with my head in a bucket of water, but a thousand times worse. I felt drowned by nothing, smothered by silence. I kept putting my fingers to my ears as though I could remove the obstacle between me and the hearing world, but there was no obstacle there, of course. The problem wasn’t on the outside.
     Later I would scream and scream in vain, trying to hear something—​my own anguish, at the very least. Anything. But all I got for my efforts was a raw throat.
     Deafness, I learned fast, is not just the absence of noise. It is not being in a cave or an old mine or a soundproofed room. Deafness is the eradication of the possibility of noise, including the pulsing heart, the bellowing lungs, the soft hiss of blood through vessels near the ear—​all that previously unnoticed body language, stopped forever.
     People are musical instruments, just like my guitar, but we learn from long habit to tune out our personal symphony. We only notice it when it’s going wrong—​or gone completely, when the symphony is over and the orchestra has left the stage.

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