Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“And that was that. You don’t get to rewind your life like a tape and splice it back together, pretending it never knotted and tore, when it did and you know it did.
Didn’t he get that?
They’d never be friends again. Never care like they cared, never dance like they danced. Time had sucked the marrow out of her and they were both too old.”
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal To Noise (2015) is an engaging story about magic and the power of music, set in a vividly realised Mexico City. It is about three teenagers in the late 80s, Meche, Sebastian and Daniela, a trio of outcasts at school who discover how to cast spells using Meche’s record collection, and decide to use it to improve their popularity with the cool kids. Twenty years later, after severing all ties with her friends and family, Meche is returning to Mexico City for her father’s funeral, and finds herself confronted by the past she thought she’d left behind. What follows is an exploration of the difficulties of growing up, the intense relationships we form as teenagers and why we often drift apart.
Unlike many other tales of teenage witches and wizards, magic aside Signal To Noise is very much set in our world. Meche, Sebastian and Daniela don’t get whisked away to magic school, or have to fight a great evil power. They are just three ordinary lower middle class Mexican teens, who have to put up with being bullied at school, being ignored by their crushes and the disintegration of their parents’ marriages. So when they discover magic, they don’t have any ambitions of world domination or becoming superheroes. They’re more interested in getting revenge on spiteful bullies and abusive teachers and scrubbing up enough money to afford new clothes so they can go to the popular kids’ parties. This low key approach allows Moreno-Garcia to keep the magical elements from warping her otherwise realistic setting, and also has an element of truth about the trivial things most of us would probably wind up using magical powers for. It keeps the focus squarely on the three main characters, allowing Moreno-Garcia to really explore what makes each of them tick, and reflects the fact that, as three teenage friends, their concerns naturally don’t extend much beyond themselves and their families. The story demonstrates that the stakes don’t have to be big for the story to work; if the characters care about them, and we care about the characters, then so do we.
The magic in Signal To Noise is in many ways a metaphor for teenagers coming into their own agency; realising that, as they become young adults, they can have an impact on the world around them, and beginning to navigate the moral implications as they realise that their actions have consequences not only for themselves but for other people as well. It’s appropriate that Meche’s means of using magic is through her passion for music, which she got from her radio DJ father, but her magical ability appears to be inherited from her maternal grandmother. The other key relationship in the book, besides that with her friends, is Meche’s relationship with her parents, who are going through a divorce when she discovers her powers. Meche coming into her own agency coincides with the mistakes her parents made in their youth coming home to roost, and this provides Meche with one of the key experiences of adulthood – the realisation that one’s parents are only human too, with human flaws.
Moreno-Garcia is particularly adept at capturing the feel of life as a teenager. Her characterisations of Meche, Sebastian and Daniela feel believable and honest, without being clouded by nostalgia. She captures the intensity of emotion, the closeness of the friendships, the feeling of you against the world, and the desire to escape the mundanity of your surroundings whilst still being anxious of change. However she is also able to capture the self-absorption and immaturity that frequently colour those years, the inability to navigate your own feelings and an unawareness of how your actions affect others. It’s clear from the beginning of the book that Meche and Sebastian love each other intensely, and equally clear that neither of them are capable of lowering their defensive walls enough to admit this to themselves, let alone each other. Even before the event that precipitates Meche cutting off all contact from everyone and leaving, their friendship is defined by petty arguments and falling outs, stemming from their inability to communicate with each other, and their difficulty at acknowledging their own feelings. Their eventual split is expertly handled by Moreno-Garcia, with both characters acting in ways that seem entirely reasonable to themselves but, due to being entirely wrapped up in their own problems, which in the circumstances is understandable, both wind up acting quite selfishly and destructively. By creating a situation in which both parties are sympathetic and culpable, Moreno-Garcia creates a more interesting, nuanced and believable story than by placing the blame squarely on one character’s shoulders.
Much of Signal To Noise’s freshness stems from its immersion in Mexican culture. Mexico City comes alive in Moreno-Garcia’s writing, from Daniela’s prosperous neighbourhood to Sebastian’s run-down apartment, to the abandoned factory that Meche and her friends break into to cast spells. In between all the magic and coming of age drama, the book finds time to touchingly reflect on Mexican family life, in the scenes where Meche reunites with her estranged family to help with the funeral preparations and the wake. But more than anything else, Signal To Noise is fuelled by Moreno-Garcia’s love of music. The book could probably double as a primer for Latin-American popular music, and one could certainly spend a lot of time going through the YouTube playlists inspired by the novel. The book’s use of Latin American singers and bands is an interesting aspect that helps draw the reader into Meche’s world, and there are enough shout outs to classic rock from the UK and the US to give the reader unfamiliar with Latin American rock an idea of how Moreno-Garcia chooses appropriate music for both the spell the characters are casting and where they are thematically and emotionally in the story. I particularly enjoyed that the hex that Meche crosses the line with was soundtracked by King Crimson’s ‘In The Court Of The Crimson King’, described wonderfully as “a track to bring down houses and topple monarchs”.
But Moreno-Garcia doesn’t just use the music itself; Signal to Noise is also a love letter to the various formats people have listened to music with over the past thirty years. Most of Meche’s magic is carried out using vinyl, with the circular LPs representing Meche’s circle of witches; herself, Sebastian and Daniela. Throughout the scenes in the 80s Meche listens to music on her Walkman, the headphones isolating her from the world around her, symbolising her loneliness and defensiveness. The image of a cassette tape recurs many times in the book, with characters lamenting that you can’t rewind real life as you can with a tape. In the scenes set in the 2000s, Meche has an iPod, but is still using her music as a barrier between herself and the rest of the world; she is no less isolated as an adult. Her eventual reconciliation with Sebastian is symbolised by her handing him an empty iPod, which they can fill with new songs they experience together. If the past can’t be erased and rewound like a tape, there is still the hope of being able to start afresh and move on, with the past not forgotten but put aside.