- Margrét Helgadóttir. The Stars Seem So Far Away
- Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Signal to Noise
Note: I purchased my own copy of Signal to Noise, and received a review copy of The Stars Seem So Far Away from the publisher, Fox Spirit Books.
Stories are the original magical technology, and the present review is a foredoomed attempt to reverse-engineer one face of the enchantment: the apparent size of the space and time that live between the covers.
By coincidence, I’m usually reviewing works on more or less the same scale. This week’s works are very different: Helgadóttir’s novel is on the short end of the spectrum, at something around 50,000 words, whereas Moreno-Garcia’s is more than twice that length. Helgadóttir’s series of interlocked episodes follows each of six characters, while Moreno-Garcia takes us into a circle of three, with main focus on a single character.
The world created in Signal to Noise is intimate and specific: we follow teenaged Meche (Mercedes) and her high-school pals Sebastian and Daniela, with chapters that alternate between these youngsters and their twenty-years-later avatars. Meche’s point of view runs the novel, with sidelights from her friends.
Moreno-Garcia’s dialogue and scene-setting is pitch-perfect; with equal truth, she writes awkward, surly teenagers and their disenchanted parents and elders. She’s built a time machine that will whisk many readers back to their late-teens selves. Meche and Sebastian’s outsider experience in their Mexico City neighborhood unquestionably worked its magic on me.
I first encountered Moreno-Garcia’s work in her bright, sharp short stories. Her novel takes the same scene-setting talents and applies them to the architecture of a mid-sized novel without missing a step. The ultrarealist dialogue and setting make utterly plausible this tale of a junior sorcerer learning to wield her powers in a circle of peers. Signal to Noise turns on music as the vehicle of magic and memory. I don’t know if I’ve read a work recently that translates magical power to blood-and-bone reality with such understated verve. Meche’s experiences of magic are given no explanation (just as real things in life have no explanation). As Silvia Moreno-Garcia explained in her interview here, magic is a lot like cooking. There are family recipes, there are personal styles, but fundamentally you learn by doing.
Grown-up Meche is a sorcerer of a different stripe, a computer programmer, and one of the things I like is the way the sharp-tongued teenager translates to a prickly adult. None of the principals of this story is unrealistically sweet, and I like that. Moreno-Garcia’s Meche and Sebastian, although friends since childhood, communicate by poking and annoying each other; there’s love and friendship, but no hearts and flowers; the events of the story unfold among altogether too real family awkwardness, parents with disintegrating marriages, elders who withhold the real information (Meche’s grandmother is the one who told her about magic but refuses the details of its workings).
Paradoxically, large-scale narrative serves to build a small world; the world outside and elsewhere is off stage. Meche walks twelve blocks to school, but otherwise circulates in a very small neighborhood where everyone knows everyone else, and (it goes without saying) their business. Her grown-up counterpart has just flown in from Northern Europe, and her life across the sea fades into unreality within a sentence or two. (It’s suggested in details like Meche now taking tea rather than coffee, and skipping breakfast.)
Each detail of setting, each exchange of dialogue, accumulates to create an utterly real place in which magic is perfectly ordinary and altogether efficacious. Meche’s experimental bent (which as an adult she applies as a computer programmer) finds its first application in figuring out the rules of magic by trial and error, including its traditional applications to love, success, and revenge.
To say more would rob potential readers of the pleasure of watching the story and characters unfold. Signal to Noise creates a small place, a magical circle that’s huge inside; it uses the machinery of the realist novel (from the 19th century to present) to reveal magic in deadpan detail, including what it feels like when you do it.
Helgadottir’s novel stands at the opposite end of the spectrum; it could be read as an interlinked series of short stories. Each tale/chapter has more closure than we expect from chapters in a novel. The narrative compels through spare suggestion — short story on the boundary with poetry — and implies a world of vast sweep in its pauses. The Stars Seem So Far Away is set in a post-apocalyptic Far North, where much of the middle latitudes of Earth have become uninhabitable and streams of refugees have found their way to cities built where currently nothing lies but tundra.
The stripped-down language and huge landscapes link this short novel to the world of epic poetry and saga. The principals are Nora, a sailor; Simik, a soldier; Aida, a plague survivor and orphaned daughter of privilege; her brother Zaki, an explorer; Bjorg, who lives with bears and hunts humans; Roar, an old man who was once an astronaut. The stories trace the characters’ progress by sea and by land, through a post-apocalyptic world that once reached for space. From plague-ruined cities of towers, to perilous open seas, to mountains and deserts, by means of scavenged boats, rusty tankers, or sail-driven wagons, each individual journey eventually dovetails with the others. Elders and children find each other (even if not related), siblings separate and reunite, loners find society.
The landscape is implied more than described, but as I read, I felt the vastness of its sky and its horizons. The apocalypse here was chronic rather than acute, and the echoes of a high-tech dead past reverberate against suggestion of even older presences re-asserting themselves. Much of the relationship between the characters is shown in gesture, in moments of decision.
All art is interactive; the bare-bones austerity of epic calls forth a powerful response in the right reader. The apparently loose and episodic structure allows huge sweep in space and time; as the story progresses, the tales start to cross and then to knit together.
Reading these two works side-by-side was an exhilarating experience for me as a writer. The short story shares borders with the novel, with poetry, and with drama: dialogue, implied world that extends beyond the borders of the story, economical evocation of change. It can shape-shift by degrees into all sorts of novels: the tightly woven (in Signal to Noise, with past and present twisting together like a braid), or the episodic (the increasingly interlaced small narratives of The Stars Seem So Far Away). The paradox here is that you need the big narrative to tell the small world, and vice versa.
Every artist bends space and time to their own ends, whether the dancer who implies a whole tale in seven minutes of movement, or the playwright who compresses an all-nighter into twenty nightmarish minutes on stage (Ibsen’s Ghosts).
Both of these novels worked magic with space, time, and memory, to very different but equally brilliant effect.