The 1800’s were a time of great industrial growth, bringing continents, cities, and people closer together. How this intermingling of people led to the exchanging of ideas, emotions, resources, sometimes lovers and even sometimes bullets is the basis of Signal and Noise by John Griesemer. The author uses the much studied industrial revolution as a backdrop for a novel dealing with people whose emotional lives are drawn closer together by the closing proximity of their physical lives.
Signal and Noise follows the lives of a group of people who are in some way affected, and in some cases afflicted, by the laying of the Trans-Atlantic cable that would eventually be used for sending messages from America to Britain. Through success and failure, love and hate, metaphysical and empirical, war and peace, the story of life is told. The characters are swept up by the wave of the industrial revolution, dealing with change and hoping to make their own sort of contribution to humanity. For readers not geared towards engineering, don’t worry; the cable is really a medium for delivering the story, and the technical side of the process is never explored.
Signal and Noise tries very hard to be an epic book. Every aspect pushes it to be an epic, from length to content to style; it seems Griesemer wants this book to sit on the same shelves as Dickens in a book store. In some ways Griesemer succeeds at this, but in more ways he fails. One can appreciate how truly difficult a task it is to write an epic book (let alone compare it to a Dickens’ novel), and such books have more room for failure than success. Signal and Noise has moments that are dead-on worthy of the epic label, making it at least an interesting read.
Griesemer evinces considerable talent in his depictions of London and the American East Coast as the haggard, unpredictable places they were during 1800’s. From the muddy quagmire of London streets in the winter to the fire-prone city center of New York and back to the sewage-filled air of London, Griesemer does a great job providing just the right details to stoke the reader’s imagination. The opening chapter is one of considerable strength, drawing most comparisons to the epics of Dickens. Griesemer brilliantly speaks of the throngs of people awaiting the launch of the world’s largest ship as though they are an ocean on which the giant ship will be sailing on, this ocean of humanity with its currents, ebbs, and undertows. Griesemer omits no pertinent detail about the event, from the local pub with its steamy windows, to the drunk and belligerent Germans, English, and Irish, to the mingling VIP’s who are dealing with the same rain and mud as the common folk. The writing is so vivid and descriptive that reading becomes a simultaneous task of reading the words on the page and watching the images he paints in one’s mind. But one flaw characterizes this powerful opening, a flaw epidemic to the whole book: the tone and foreshadowing effects of the boat launch are completely ignored and forgotten, and the rest of the story continues unaffected by this beautiful chapter. Griesemer has a painted a beautiful picture, but unfortunately one which does not blend well with other sections of the canvas.
Another flaw is Griesemer’s prioritization of his characters. For instance, the protagonist’s brother, Otis Ludlow, is treated as an afterthought through the first half of the book, the only introduction being a chapter on Otis’s strong spiritual side and a somewhat distracting travelogue. Eventually and rather abruptly Otis gains a prominent position in the story, despite the fact he had been estranged to his brother for some years, by gaining a post on the cable-laying expedition on the Atlantic. Conversely the introduction of Maddy, a prostitute whose place of business is literally under the River Thames, is thorough, timely, and well placed. Her introduction to the story is seamless and she earns her prominent place in the story. Maddy’s story is such that the reader cares about her, in part because of her ability to rise from below the Thames to become a London parvenu who finds happiness, success, and a life partner. Unfortunately, Maddy’s story is lost in the excitement of the conclusion and her eventual outcome is barely mentioned as a side note during the explanation of another character’s fate. How can a character who climbs out of the tunnels beneath the sewage-filled Thames to become a prominent socialite running one of London’s most respected brothels, a “fashionable and most tasteful establishment patronized by if not the very summit of London’s gentlemanly society, then at least by those on the upper slopes of it,” be treated as a mere afterthought at the conclusion of the story? Clearly priorities Griesemer has confused the priorities.
Griesemer is definitely an artist. Signal and Noise contains writing that borders on poetry, description so vivid one expects it could be the subject of a magazine shoot, and unique characters whose lives the reader gladly involves himself with. This being said, an epic book needs to always travel in one direction and keep the reader enthralled by having a smooth story and nothing more than a modicum of tangents. Signal and Noise fails at this. If you have some serious spare time and no books you have inkling at all to read, then I recommend this book. If that is not the case, I suggest picking up anything else on your “To Read” list.