You have to admire a novel that almost immediately but briefly digresses into a discussion of the best concept album ever* all whilst developing the protagonist’s harsh yet sympathetic personality.
Mercedes Vega or Meche returns to Mexico City for her father’s funeral, 18 years after leaving, 20 years after last seeing him. On the ride from the airport her cousin reminds Meche of an old friend, Sebastian, and buried memories resurface.
15 year old Meche is the awkward nerd with a love of music. Her friends Sebastian and Daniela similarly are isolated, linked as much by their differences as their similarity. Her mother is largely absent working, her father a musician and drinker. So Meche is loosely supervised by her grandmother who has oblique ideas around magic and witchcraft.
By chance Meche discovers that the record she played focuses a form of magic against a school bully. Angry thoughts listening to ‘Break On Through’ lead, in her mind, to the unexplained fall suffered by her bully on the stairs. She recruits Dani and Seb to experiment with old records in an abandoned factory.
“Guys, I just want to remind you I have to be home by seven,” Daniela said. “I’m also not allowed to do any Satanic stuff.”
Moreno-Garcia skillfully sketches characters through little, often humorous, asides. Amongst other qualities, Signal to Noise is frequently a funny novel.
Back in 2009 the funeral preparations reveal the relationship between Meche and her mother through the difference in their relationships with the late Vicente. Meche has buried him emotionally long ago. Natalia, remarried, still organises the wake, the party, the food.
The teen sections of Signal to Noise have a YA feel. The trio’s responses to school, other people and each other reflect youthful concerns. Fancying the boy who is out of reach, trying to find the right clothes with no money, worrying about being caught by parents. Meche argues with her mother about spending all her time with Sebastian. Sebastian ruminates on his poor family and being bullied. Daniela is ill and thus over-protected by her parents and longs for the freedom she thinks her friends have, but fears it too.
Sebastian wanted it. He wanted that corny, fabricated music video universe in which a couple could pop up from under the waves, water dripping from their bodies, embracing each other.
These moments, where Moreno-Garcia drops in reference to popular songs (in this instance Timbiriche’s Tu Y Yo Somos Uno Mismo) enrich Signal to Noise for me, both fixing the scenes in time/place/culture and developing the characters through their interaction with the music. They bring Meche and Sebastian to life by proxy. The novel could almost have a linked playlist for the reader so inclined.
Later, Meche reflects on Miguel Bosé’s hit Nena.
When Bosé sang about an impossible woman with an insatiable mouth and they fought — and rolled around the floor — it seemed gritty and true. A fucked up relationship, but fascinating all the same.
The 1988 settings show aspirations and anxieties in working class Mexico City. The 2009 scenes haven’t changed but the people have. Meche has, by leaving, changed everything she left behind.
In Mexico City everything returns. The rains and the past and everything in between.
Meche sees Sebastian across the street, neither acknowledges the other. She contacts Daniela but it is clear she begrudges her former friends putting an end to the magic and the friendship.
Why has Meche stayed away from her father for so long? How did the magic go wrong?
At one point Meche cautions against too much use of magic, yet we know she resents the end of it.
“It’s like reverse engineering.” …
“Umm… it’s when you lack the software specifications so you poke around the program interface trying to find the solution. That’s what we are doing with the magic.”
That, of course, is how the fantasy writer usually defines her magic. Working backwards from the results. Here it is also how Moreno-Garcia tells much of her story. It works because magic and music are, in this novel, both plot device and thematic device. The escapism and the empowerment they bring coincide for Meche. Her father was a musician, a would be writer on all things pop and Hispanic. Meche’s estrangements and attachments are tied this way. It creates an intriguing tension.
Ultimately the two strands are unbalanced; 1988 could exist without 2009 but not the reverse. The teenage adventures, bordering on teen cliché occasionally, are dynamic. The later scenes are predominantly introspective. Older Meche is unpleasant albeit understandably at times. The teenage desire to be attractive to the in-crowd, whilst simultaneously despising them, more identifiable.
Signal to Noise is a debut novel but by an experienced author and editor. It takes an unusual idea and builds on it, foregrounding her community, the people and the city above the magical conceit.
I’ve argued before that there is a difference between fantasy taking place in a city, and Urban Fantasy where the specific city environment is significant to the novel. It is hard to imagine translating Signal to Noise wholesale from Mexico City to New York or London without losing all personality and substance.
The throwaway details the author uses, like Sebastian getting too old for his supermarket bag packing job at 15, depict a culture not just a story. The tunes, their significance historically and personally, are introduced deftly too. Passing references build a bigger picture. Meche fancies blond Constantino not dark Sebastian but this contrast is dropped in not laboured.
Signal to Noise is fun, cleverly constructed and original. On those grounds I recommend it.
It is also significant in the nuanced depictions of poor, working class lives. Fantasy glosses over this a lot. Moreno-Garcia’s characters live it. We need books like this.
*he didn’t know Alan Parsons Project because they sang Games People Play from The Turn of a Friendly Card which, in her opinion was a very nice concept album. Not the best, but nice. The best was an easy pick. Most people would probably say the concept album of all time was The Dark Side Of The Moon, but Meche preferred The Kinks’ Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). Her parents had met thanks to that album.