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Summary and book reviews of Signal and Noise by John Griesemer

Signal and Noise

A Novel

by John Griesemer

Signal and Noise by John Griesemer X
Signal and Noise by John Griesemer
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    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Apr 2003, 640 pages
    Apr 2004, 593 pages


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Book Summary

In this rich and rewarding read Griesemer effortlessly animates the epic story of the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable, and the men and women who are caught in its monumental tide.

Signal & Noise is the epic page-turning story of the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable, and the men and women who are caught in its monumental tide. It is also a novel about the collision of worlds seen and unseen: the present and the future; the living and the dead; the real and the imagined.

On a wet London morning in 1857, American engineer Chester Ludlow arrives on the muddy banks of the Isle of Dogs to witness the launch of the largest steamship ever built, the Great Eastern. Also amidst the tumultuous throng is Jack Trace, a lonely bachelor and sketch artist hoping to make his name as an illustrator and journalist in the hurly burly of Fleet Street. Other witnesses include a drunken German by the name of Marx; the child who will christen the massive vessel by the wrong name; and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the ship’s apoplectic and dwarfish architect who will soon die in ignominy. As chief engineer for the Atlantic Cable Company, the charismatic Chester enters the orbit of business and showmanship embodied by J. Beaumol Spude, the bombastic Western beef magnate who will mastermind the funding of the project; Joachim Lindt, creator of the Phantasmagorium, an animated tableaux vivant; and his beautiful wife, the musician Katerina Lindt. Drawn by the demands and adventure of creating the first transoceanic telegraph, Chester leaves behind his fragile wife, Franny, at the family estate of Willing Mind in Maine.

Abandoned and still mourning the accidental death of their four-year-old daughter, Franny finds solace in the company of Chester’s troubled brother, Otis, who introduces her to the mysteries of the world of spiritualism just as séancing is becoming all the rage in the jittery times leading up to the Civil War. As Chester achieves renown as the glamorous engineer of the trans-Atlantic project, Franny, desperate to contact her dead child, becomes the preeminent spirit conjuror of a war-torn America.

Chapter XVIII

Pittsburgh, Autumn 1862
At the Forge

Rails suspended overhead, from which black chains hung like jungle vines that clattered through their blocks, making a tooth-rattling noise, a noise like the jabbering of a thousand jawbones in a thousand skulls. The huge reverberatory furnace emitting a churning sound of combustion and refraction; the coke, brought in by the cartload, burning; the steam-driven McKenzie bellows outside the four-story building pushing a quarter acre of flame over the molten metal inside the furnace; the smoke bounding up the chimneys in huge, endless clots to fill the valley's sky.

A man moved along a catwalk up by the clerestory, opening the sooty, hinged windows with a wooden pole. The black sky, upwind of the furnace stacks, was lustrous with stars. The man up on the gallery walk wore a protective leather mask across his nose and mouth. His head was swathed in rags wrapped in such a way as to resemble a turban. The rags had been ...

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 ...
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Media Reviews

The New York Times - Annette Kobak
This is a novel of epic interconnectedness. Like the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable between England and America in the mid-19th century, whose story it reimagines, John Griesemer's Signal & Noise spans continents and oceans. Through a cast of characters who themselves interconnect in ingenious ways -- including cameo appearances by real figures like Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Dickens, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln and Karl Marx -- the action moves from the River Thames and the launching of Brunel's mammoth ship, the Great Eastern, to New York, Maine, Siberia, Malaya, Belgium, Ireland and several American states during the Civil War. Off terra firma, the dramas encompass the Atlantic Ocean and even the spirit world.

Christian Science Monitor - Ren Charles
Griesemer picks up every dot and dash of this fascinating story, conveying the boggling incongruity of the age.

Chicago Tribune - Charles Matthews
Griesemer, whose previous novel was the well-received 'No One Thinks of Greenland', has written a historical novel in which, for once, the characters don't sound like moderns in fancy dress, and the fascinating history doesn't detract from the fiction - or vice versa.

Esquire Magazine, June 2004
How crammed with rich, resonant period details is Signal and Noise? Well you can almost smell the Great Stink of the 1850s-era London

Publishers Weekly
Though Otis, who becomes pivotal in the novel, is somewhat underdeveloped, this is an accomplished, gripping work....This book will be appreciated by the same audience that enjoyed Dava Sobel's Longitude.

Library Journal -David W Henderson
This is a big novel whose historical setting belies its relevance to the modern reader. Highly recommended for both public and academic collections.

Booklist - Joanne Wilkinson
Starred Review. Griesemer effortlessly animates a tumultuous time through one extraordinary family, provocatively pointing up the thin line separating ambition and hubris, visionaries and quacks, signal and noise. An incredibly rich and rewarding read.

Kirkus Reviews
Storms, war, explosions, sex, science, tragedy, and deep affection. Worth every minute.

Author Blurb Joanna Scott, author of Arrogance
Ambition, failure, triumph, love, betrayal, farce, and spirit-conjuring—these are some of the subjects powerfully animated in this grand novel. John Griesemer is a masterful writer. In Signal & Noise, he has turned the clamor of history into a beautiful symphony.

Author Blurb Jeffrey Lent, author of In the Fall
Within the broad, epic scope of John Griesemer’s Signal & Noise is a considerable achievement—Griesemer not only entangled me neatly and fully within the lives of his characters, but without fanfare, he sketches a deeply turbulent age, with fascinating similarities to our own. Perhaps his genius lies in his emphasis on story, leaving the reader to ponder the ceaseless energy of human endeavor.

Reader Reviews

Paul -

Good book - riveting, fast-paced read. Very evocative of the era, with lots of detail which brings that part of history to vibrant life.

So why did I mark it so low? It is the mixture of fact and fiction that bothers me. The factual events were in ...   Read More

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