It is often said that when you read a book or watch a film whatever you bring to that medium is what you get out of it. Nothing could be more true for me than reading the wonderful Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
What is interesting to me, however, is how other people in other age ranges feel about this book. And then I wonder about other books I’ve read with similar themes and how do I relate to them? You can’t talk about fantasy or science fiction, but only about books set in an approximation of the real world. No-one knows what an apocalypse feels like, or what it’s like to go to a magician’s school, but other elements of the story-telling can be relatable of course. I went to university so I understand some of the trials and tribulations undertaken by the characters in Lev Grossman’s Magiacians books. Last year I read Atomised by Michel Houellebecq and I enjoyed it. I took very little into that book other than a reasonable understanding of the world of science, but I still enjoyed the tale of the French half-brothers. Turns out I’ve not read that many books set in the 1980s, but I felt a lot of empathy with Graham Joyce’s The Year of the Ladybird and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Which is weird. I recently listened to A S King’s Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future and I loved the character of Glory, who is a teenage photographer who can see the future but is still coming to terms with her mother’s suicide when she was 4. I take photographs.
So can only someone who was a teenager in the 1980s truly ‘get’ Signal to Noise? Of course not, but others will have a different perspective. Moreno-Garcia is a Mexican who now lives in Canada. I wondering if this was a translated text or whether she wrote it in English. It is so well written. However, a quick piece of research and I see that English language is not an issue here. What about the plot and why is it so appealing to me? I’ve never been to Mexico, and I lived in a village in the north-east of England with fields at the end of my street. Wheat some years, horses others.
Meche lives in Norway, but returns to Mexico City in 2009 for her estranged father’s funeral. She thinks back to her life at the end of 1988 and early 1989 and the magic she created with her friends Sebastian and Daniela. Literally magic. By playing records. Which is key. Playing vinyl in the 1980s felt like magic to me. Saving up, and then the trip to the record shop. Getting it home and unleashing that 12 inches of sleeve from its plastic prison. The sounds escaping from the stereo and the worlds of music that opened up before me were wondrous. I formed many of my life viewpoints from listening to music. But I was a geeky and awkward child, as is the teenage Meche. She starts off as that kind of anti-cool, loner-type but as the magic kicks in, she becomes more selfish. Power and responsibility and all that. Of course, the finale reveals that Meche’s heart is in the right place all along.
What Moreno-Garcia does spectacularly well with this book is the relationships and crushes we all experience as teenagers. How close we come to that perfect moment before messing it because, well, we’re teenagers. What I especially liked, was that the kids in the story didn’t only rely on music of the time, but older music too. A Whiter Shade of Pale is a key piece of music. I know a fair few younger folks, and they seem to have little interest in the music of the past. But when I was a teenager, all music was important. New music such as that by Guns N’ Roses or Nirvana was given equal import to Led Zeppelin, Miles Davies, Marc Bolan and Nina Simone. Music is the one thing I can take from my Dad, as Meche does too.
And another thing. Mixtapes. We all did it back in the day. Mixtapes for our crushes and our girlfriends and even our best friends. It was important to spend time thinking about what music to put on, and then spending the time compiling the tape. And then to share it with those who were important. There’s no effort in compiling a digital playlist in the modern age. Just a click. A C90 (a 90-minute tape) might take 3 or 4 hours to make.
The coda to Signal to Noise, back in 2009, was a little too neat and tidy for my personal taste. It almost worked but then it seemed like Moreno-Garcia decided to give the reader a happy ending. That aside, I really enjoyed this book. It was fresh and fun and several days after finishing, I miss the characters – always the sign of a triumph in my opinion. I miss Glory too… But I do wonder. Did I enjoy it so much because it’s an excellent book; well written, great characters, interesting plot? Or was it because I was a teenager in the 1980s too? We’ll never know of course, but I’m glad I took my life into this book because it resonated with me. And that’s important, some of the time.