Reading guide for Signal and Noise by John Griesemer

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Signal and Noise

A Novel

by John Griesemer

Signal and Noise
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2003, 640 pages
    Apr 2004, 593 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Signal & Noise is an historical novel that concerns itself with the early days of the technological revolution. Inventions like the telegraph cable, the modern sewer system, weapons of mass destruction, even an elevator on the bluffs of Maine, abound. How is the novel's depiction of advancements in communication, promotion, and advertising similar to our modern age?

  2. Nearly every character in the novel has lost someone dear to them: Chester and Franny have lost their daughter; both Jack Trace and Maddy are orphans; J. Beumol Spude has lost a wife; Joachim Lindt has lost a father and eventually his own wife; Katerina, by the novel's end, has lost everyone. What are the ways that these absences make themselves felt in the story? And furthermore, how do these individual tragedies encourage or inspire the characters into action?

  3. The author John Griesemer, in addition to writing fiction, is a professional stage, film, and television actor (see biography). How do you think this experience is communicated in the book? What elements of the novel feel particularly theatrical or dramatically staged? And how, too, are the characters actors in their own plays?

  4. If Signal & Noise depicts the story of communication on global and historical scale, how is communication rendered on a personal level? Think not only of those journeying in order to connect with someone or something, but those who reach out in order to flee from other forms of communication? How is Willing Mind both a point of departure and arrival?

  5. How is sexual attraction depicted in the book? In what ways does sex get characters into or out of trouble? Does the sexual energy of the book fit with your ideas of the Victorian Age?

  6. Illness as a metaphor can be found throughout Signal & Noise, as well as John Griesemer's first novel, No One Thinks of Greenland. What sort of physical and mental malformities can be found in Griesemer's fiction? How do his characters cope with their wounds or scars, and where does that coping lead them?

  7. Signal & Noise is a book about epic achievement and passionate struggle, but what about comedy? How does humor affect your impression of and feelings for the characters? What, in this book, is funny?

  8. Consider the practice of "naming" things in the novel: The Great Eastern/Leviathan; Chester/The Engineer Ascendant; Franny Ludlow/Franny Piermont. Is naming a form of invention, as well? How is this tied into the themes of performance? What does this say about the "forming" of America?

  9. Discuss Franny's convocation on page 418. At one point Franny tells the crowd: "Think of that: in just three hundred years, a thousand different people had to find each other, court, marry, and procreate to make it possible for you to be here tonight, to sit blindfolded, holding your leaf, and picture them all. Over a thousand." Asking the crowd to imagine their history 400 years behind them, a million souls had to connect with one another to bring the 200 participants into being. What does this seemingly random connectivity say about the novel's view of history? Do you hold it to be true in our own world?

  10. What is the significance of the words spoken in the second-to-last line of the novel: "It's the Wonders of the Age!" The author has joked that the spoken words in the thirteenth-to-last line – "We need money to get in!" – hold greater historical weight. What do you think is truer of the book? What do you think is truer of history?

Copyright Picador Publishing. All rights reserved. Page numbers refer to the USA paperback and may differ in other editions.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Picador. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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