Music is magic. Here here! But. While Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novel Signal to Noise (Solaris, 2015) is, on the surface, about three teenagers who learn to do magic via vinyl, it is more love letter to music than urban fantasy. I enjoy stories about angsty, outsider teenagers’ love affairs with music, so win, but on the scale of the fantastic, Signal to Noise was fantasy-lite. Does it matter? If you love music and spent your childhood making mix tapes, it probably won’t.
“Why shouldn’t music have power? My dad says it’s the most powerful thing in the world. Nietzsche says that without music, life would be a mistake. … Why can’t music be magic? Aren’t spells just words you repeat? And what are songs? Lyrics that play over and over again. The words are like a formula.” (20)
Meche, the main point of view character, has a shitty life in Mexico City, where she lives with her drunk, day-dreamy DJ father and her distant, wanna-be model mother. Her parents fight, school sucks, and, oh, the acne! Music makes it all better, and because of the setting, the music mentioned wasn’t all previously familiar to me. I left the book with quite a few names to look up. (Psst, this week you can expect a Signal to Noise playlist on Wednesday’s Science Fiction Mix Tape.)
Meche’s friends Daniela and Sebastian have equally shitty lives, and together the three of them discover that they can do magic with the right song and a little ritual. But magic has its consequences, and as Meche is drawn to its darker side, she drags her unwilling friends into more sinister experiments. The story of Meche, Daniela, and Sebastian’s time together as teenagers alternates with her return to Mexico City 20 years later for her father’s funeral. Turns out Meche is still the same asshole who tries to hide her vulnerability beneath a thick facade of snide, mean remarks.
“When you looked at Meche the first impression was that she was going to punch you in the face…” (152)
The story arc reminded me strongly of Adiche’s Americanah in that we watch a woman who has spent many years as an expat in another country (Meche lives in Oslo) return to her birth city and confront old friends and problems. Except in the case of Signal to Noise we don’t see much of Oslo, and there is magic. This should be a coming of age story, but Meche does not seem to have changed that much since she was a teenager. Only at the very end of the book does she appear to have—maybe—learned a thing or two and opened herself up to the possibility of love and change. The ending was sweet, but sudden. Satisfying, but a little overly saccharine for this girl who always seems like she is about to punch someone in the face. I wouldn’t want to change the outcome, just the manner/moment of its occurence.
This is a book that I look forward to giving to my own daughter one day. It is painful, but painfully real, with complex familial relationships, unreliable adults (trigger warning for a male teacher who attempts to molest a female student), shitty malevolent herd mentality in the school yard, confusing romantic yearnings, kids having sex, parents freaking out about kids having sex, mention of condoms as a good idea for teenagers who want to have sex, and a sweet old grandmother who can do magic with needle a thread, always knitting, a ceramic thimble her object of power.
Signal to Noise is a quick, smooth read, exactly the kind of immersively readable tale I was looking for when I picked it up. The magic did more heavy lifting as metaphor than as A Cool Thing, and while I would have appreciated more magic, more, as the kids say, world building (interludes with Meche’s grandmother offered a few morsels), this sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes sweet story is an enjoyable tale about how leaning heavily on pop culture can ease the pain of growing up.
Six out of nine mix tapes.
Where I got it: Hugendubel (local book store)