A funny thing happens to me whenever I hear the song "The Empty" by Le Tigre. At the end, when Kathleen Hannah is shrieking her nearly unintelligible accusation, "You don't say anything," I'm already bracing myself for the opening guitar riff of another song, sung by another woman half a century earlier: "My Heavy Load" by Big Mama Thornton.
Vast oceans of difference separate the two songs. "The Empty" has a rhythm of fast-paced rage and defiance, a song made for a mosh-pit. "My Heavy Load" is slow and weary, bearing the weight of the reality in which Big Mama performed: a large, rough-edged black woman, singing to a world that loved her songs more when they were performed by white singers. The only solid connection between the two songs happened in my mind when I was sixteen, making mix tapes for myself. Their juxtaposition (not that I knew the word at the time) seemed to make sense to me. They were songs of dissatisfaction and marginalization, and at sixteen, even though I had only the shallowest understanding of what those things meant, they spoke to me and echoed each other.
The power of music and its effect on people is at the heart of Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Signal to Noise. We can all name songs whose power over us is nothing short of magical. In Moreno-Garcia's debut novel, she takes the concept a step further, writing about a coven of novice teenage witches who use songs as their basis for spells.
The narrative moves along parallel tracks, in 1988 and in 2009. We meet the main characters both as teenage outcasts and as adults who are forced to reckon with their pasts. From the first chapter, we know that the friendship and burgeoning romance between Mercedes "Meche" Vega and Sebastian Soto has somehow, terribly, imploded. Moreno-Garcia pulls us along on these twin tracks, showing us how people make terrible choices and mistakes, and how, eventually, they try to reconcile with the consequences.
Meche and Sebastian's relationship circumscribes the book. We get only hints of backstory for this world where the passion of youth and the power of creation combine into magic—mostly through the reveries of Meche's grandmother, who was a witch in her own youth. Meche's mother and extended family mostly remain as adversarial secondary characters, somewhat fleshed out, but firmly in the background. The exception is Meche's father, whom we see as through dual lenses, in the middle and at the end of his life. As a teenager, he means everything to Meche. But from the beginning we also know that, like Sebastian, he has betrayed her trust and broken her heart.
Signal to Noise is a great novel for readers who want love stories that have taken a cold shower in realism. Meche as a teenager is hard to get along with: awkward, rude, standoffish, with forays into sheer cruelty. She's also sensitive and vulnerable and full—as teenagers are—of yearning. As another character later describes her:
When you looked at Meche, the first impression was that she was going to punch you in the face, she was made of such strong angles. However, if you looked long enough there was a delicate softness beneath her which manifested in the very long neck, the graceful fingers which were meant to play instruments, the petite frame. She was a knot of contradictions and these, thrown together, created an interesting composition. (p. 152)
I loved teenage Meche as much as I wanted to shake some sense into her, and that made me that much more invested in her life. When we meet her in 2009, she hasn't blossomed into a graceful, gracious swan. Meche seems to be deeply scarred, and has only recently found a hard-won truce with her life, living in exile in Norway while rarely speaking to her family in Mexico. This truce is disrupted by her estranged father's death, which requires her to return to Mexico City.
Sebastian is equally insufferable in an enjoyable-to-read way. As a teen, he dresses in a "pseudo-punk" style and reads a lot of poetry. He occasionally revels in his own alienation, thinking that this gives him a superior perspective on the world. And he betrays Meche for a prettier girl. As an adult, Sebastian's a little smarmy and smirks a lot. And he has spent years wanting to resolve the layers of betrayal and hurt between him and Meche. The parallel narrative is a wonderful device in Signal to Noise; rather than losing tension, as it might in the hands of another author, the plot grows more taut the closer we come to the inevitable breakdown. Meche's grandmother warns her, early in the book, "Magic will break your heart." And it does, slowly and inexorably.
The one thing that left me unsatisfied in the novel was Moreno-Garcia's writing about Mexico City itself. I love it when authors treat their settings as worthy as descriptions as their characters, and there are only a few spots where Moreno-Garcia indulges her audience in this, such as in this passage:
Mexico City was sinking. A city slowly descending into the muck from where it had come. The Spaniards had drained its Venice-like canals and filled them with earth, creating shaky foundations for their churches. Centuries later, their descendants paid for their folly with constant inundations which threatened to turn the whole metropolis into the lake it had been when the Aztecs made their way there. A fetid sea of sewage swamped the sidewalks every year.
In Mexico City everything returns. The rains and the past and everything in between. (p. 53)
But here, I have to acknowledge my own limitations and privileges. Would I have found this lack so noticeable if Signal to Noise had been set in a city that I was more familiar with, in life or in literature? If Mexico City were as common a setting in western canon as New York or London or Paris? Writers from outside Western Europe and North America are often pressured to play tour guides for their audience, and I don't want to add to that. I can only say that I wanted more passages like the one above. The bird's eye view of a setting can reveal so much about a story, its characters and their relationships, such as it does here.
I found Signal to Noise immensely enjoyable. It made me vividly remember being a weird, alienated, angry teenager. Like a mixtape from a new friend, it introduced me to bands I'd never heard of. (For interested readers, Moreno-Garcia compiled a mix on Youtube, which you can find here. Duncan Dhu's "En Algun Lugar" is absolutely required listening.) It reminded me of the songs that got me through crappy days, when musicians performed their everyday magic on my life.
Nino Cipri is a queer and genderqueer writer living in Chicago. A graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop, Nino's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tor.com, Fireside Fiction, Betwixt, Daily Science Fiction, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, In The Fray, Autostraddle, and Gozamos. One time, an angry person called Nino a verbal terrorist, which has since made a great T-shirt slogan.