On Possible Impossibilities By Jennifer de Guzman Let me tell you a story: The winter of the year I turned sixteen was

especially cold. Not the way the winter when I was thirteen was cold, when I had the chicken pox and lay in bed for two weeks, spotted with calamine lotion and reading biographies of Mozart. The frost lined our windows and killed my mother’s bougainvillea, but I shouldered it through the cold and sickness with Mozart and my family. It was innocent, almost impossibly so. Three years later, I layered my clothing against the cold on weekend nights and sneaked out of the house to visit my boyfriend. It didn’t take long for me to be discovered. My grandfather died one night in December, and my parents didn’t find me in my bed when they came to wake me. I forget how long it was before I could leave home for anything other than school after that. But one night, in a sort of desperation, I sat on the sidewalk outside my house, where my father could see me from his chair near the living room window. The cold of the concrete chilled me through my jeans and my rebellious black boots, and my entire sixteen-year-old being was completely committed to the effort of being angry and alienated. In the distance came the tinkling sound of a Christmas carol. I don’t remember which one; probably something that isn’t specifically religious, something []

Jennifer de Guzman about Santa Claus. And then there was a fire truck, bright red even in the cold night, lit up with Christmas lights, a fireman dressed like Santa Claus waving in the back. It rolled to a stop as some of my neighbors emerged from their homes. I went up to the fire truck, to the Santa wearing a fire fighter’s helmet, and he gave me a candy cane, the miniature kind that are individually wrapped in crinkly plastic. A few years later, I tried to turn this scene into a short story, with what seem like predictable results now. The story was too weird, my readers said, unbelievable. Was it supposed to be symbolic? It made no sense, they said. I was defiant at first, at least inwardly. But it really happened, I thought. But at that point, it was strangeness with no meaning to convince anyone that it could have happened, that it belonged. I put the story aside, and I didn’t think about it again until just a few weeks ago, when I read a passage of Aristotle’s Poetics in a footnote in Tom Jones: “The Poet ought rather to chuse Impossibilities, provided they have Resemblance to the Truth, than the Possible, which are Incredible with all their Possibility.” In a modern translation: “With respect to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible.” A probable impossibility. What does that mean? The words jar. Oxymoron. But think, I tell myself, of all the impossibilities you seemed perfectly willing to believe as you read them. Think of Midnight’s Children, magical children, freakish children, Parvati the witch, Saleem the psychic, Shiva the killer. Blood turning to rubies, tears to diamonds; a ghost haunting Saleem’s ayah, spirit seductresses in an abandoned jungle temple, memory of time that does not correspond with history. From the moment you read the first word of that novel you were prepared to believe every word of it. Salman Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai drew you in. He told you, “I am,” and you believed him. Why did you believe him? Why do you still believe him? Why didn’t the spell wear off when you read the last word? And to my breathless self, another one replies: You are the reader, coming to a story perfectly willing to be credulous, prepared to be convinced that everything in the novel is truth—of a certain type. Poetic truth, Aristotle might have said. Keats’s truth. Or Yeats’s. Or Wilde’s. The truth of art lies in its very artificiality, they tell us—the cold pastoral, the monuments of unageing intellect, the []

On Possible Impossibilities impression du matin. The artifice of eternity. Fiction is a series of moments —like those on Keats’s Grecian urn or the one in Yeats’s gold mosaic or Wilde’s London morning—that are captured, frozen, like the blood and tears of Aadam Aziz as he tried to pray on a mountainside in Kashmir. The fiction writer must so subtly stretch credulity that the reader does not feel the pull and weave these scenes of poetic truth together to form a world in which anything that must happen in his story can happen—even impossibilities—and remain believable. So how does Rushdie—or Gabriel García Márquez or Isabel Allende, any of our favorite fabulists—retain that credulity the reader has coming to a book and mold it into belief? What do they do that I, when I was twenty years old and trying to convince readers that something that had happened could happen, failed to do? Márquez has said that he writes his stories as his grandmother told hers. She described, he said, “the wildest things with a completely natural tone of voice.” That is one method, that of the South American magical realists. In their books, even if the amazing occurs, it does not seem at all unexpected. The dark-haired beauty who ascends to heaven in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the green-haired beauty who turns men mad with desire in The House of the Spirits, the four years of rain, the dancing furniture—we believe they are real because the narrative knows them to be real. But Rushdie, like a magician revealing his tricks, takes the opposite method. His Saleem Sinai knows his impossibilities to be true, and yet tells us that he will have trouble convincing us. “I admit it:” he writes at the beginning of his narrative, “above all things, I fear absurdity.” He knows his story is strange—“so dense a commingling of the improbable and the mundane!”—but asks us to believe him, pleads with us to believe him. “Please believe that I am falling apart,” he says (and here Yeats returns to us for a moment), meaning it literally, that he is cracking beneath the surface and will fracture, then crumble, and we want to believe him. We do believe him. The narrative he creates, each scene another piece of the world where children converge for meetings in the mind of Saleem Sinai, demands it. As for Saleem’s fear of the absurd—“The element of the irrational,” Aristotle wrote, “... are justly censured when there is no inner necessity for introducing them.” In all these books I’ve mentioned, those elements that might seem irra[]

Jennifer de Guzman tional become perfectly possible within their narratives. Magical impossibilities exist in these stories in such a way—side by side with real-world possibilities —that the stories in which they occur would be impossibilities themselves if the magical elements were not there. And what is the impossible, anyway? these authors ask us. The world in which their stories take place are full of the atrocities we wish were impossible—people shot down in public squares, civil wars, torture —as well as the elations of love and art and beauty that we fear are impossible. If we are to read these stories, we cannot separate what we think of as real and unreal. It must all be real to us. We must become like little Alba in The House of the Spirits: “completely ignorant of the boundary between the human and the divine, the possible and the impossible.” Where did I go wrong, then, when I tried to tell the tale of my meeting with Santa Claus in the fire truck? There is nothing magical or fantastic about it, and if I read the scene at the beginning of this essay, it seems possible enough, even meaningful—a moment of childhood, of innocence, when all that seemed to be disappearing from my life. But the story I wrote didn’t have this context— the contrast to the winter when I was thirteen, my obsession with Mozart, my dead grandfather, the reasons behind my parents’ punishing me. It was only the scene, the moment of strangeness with nothing to frame it, nothing to make it not only possible but necessary if there was to be any story at all. The scene had no world in which to exist. It had no poetic truth. Perhaps, as I have told it now, it does, though I can’t say it’s a tale to sing to the lords and ladies of Byzantium. What it is, however, is the possible made probable, just as the magic in Rushdie, Márquez and Allende is the impossible made probable. The method of turning incidents to truth is the same, no matter what the character of the incidents. It is a matter of making them necessary to the story—to its narrative and its meaning, its surface and its symbol, as Wilde might say. This is Keats’s “Beauty is truth; truth, beauty”—they are both artificial, both made by the artist. Art, the poets remind us, is not a record of what has happened, but of what we make happen.