BOOK REVIEWS/REPLIES (2014): Gaiman and McKean’s (2007) Signal to Noise [Part 1]

30 November 2014

Summary (TLDR Version)

Contrary to the “thesis” of this graphic novel, the human experience of life never progresses from signal to noise, but from signal to signal. The pleasant solace that the unbearable becomes meaningless supports the current political order and seems particularly a luxury of the principal beneficiaries of that order (i.e., the book’s main character, as well as Gaiman and McKean).

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong. Also, here may be typos!

A Reply To: Gaiman and McKean’s (2007)[2] Signal to Noise [Part 1]

Some ad-text says of this graphic novel, which has as its tagline “How do you make sense of your life?”:

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean present their masterpiece, Signal to Noise! Somewhere in London, a film director is dying of cancer. His life’s crowning achievement, his greatest film, would have told the story of a European village as the last hour of 999 AD approached – the midnight that the villagers were convinced would bring with it Armageddon. Now that story will never be told. But he’s still working it out in his head, making a film that no one will ever see. No one but us.

I have subjected myself to more Gaiman lately (see here and here) in order either (1) to find some justification for the wildness of praise for his writing or (2) to decipher once and for all why his writing strikes me as so trite—slick, yes, but trite. Soulless.

Some time ago, I read Gaiman and McKean’s (1995)[3] The Tragical Comedy Or Comical Tragedy Of Mr Punch: A Romance, and even though I had serious reservations about it (see here), at least the story didn’t seem mawkish or ultimately vapid, and the memory of it gave me reason to think that when Gaiman had no obligation to write in a given (comic book) setting, as he did in Black Orchid and Sandman, then perhaps that would free him to let his talents shine. So I half-looked-forward to this book.


That the book had as a tagline “how do you make sense of your life” gave me pause in advance. That we must make some sort of coherent sense of daily experiences points, of course, to the most element stuff of life, but at its most interesting, a narrative centring on this theme could only show us one (or more) person doing his or her version of what we all already must do all the time. More likely, this question on the back of the book serves merely to smear a false greater significance over the text, in the same way that we we might decide to make a great fuss over the fact that someone has breathed.

This graphic novel juxtaposes images of an unmade film about people anticipating the end of the world and that filmmaker’s confronting a less fictional end of the world in his cancer diagnosis. Whatever narrative relationship this juxtaposition might have conjured up, it never really becomes anything more than mere juxtaposition. At this point, we may as well remember that the book sports the title signal to noise—not noise to signal, i.e.,  “making sense of one’s life,” but rather the opposite: disintegration.

Usually about now, when analyzing a Gaiman text, I remember the glories of McKean’s accompanying visuals. And while this book sports spots of the usual brilliance, much of McKean’s work here seems sub-par for him. I give it a B-, maybe a C+ (relative, of course, to his own standard of work, not in comparison to most artists working in the field).

In general, no shortage of cheesy or ghastly cultural offerings maunder around for pages and pages of incoherent dreck only to set off some explosions or crucify a goat in the last five minutes to make the whole thing seem climactic. However, Gaiman doesn’t even supply that here, but instead indulges (to a frankly surprising degree of blather) in nine pages of eulogy for the (now) dead filmmaker by his lover. Nonetheless, Gaiman apparently can’t resist inserting an irony here (or perhaps he just couldn’t overlook that he’d allowed himself to go too far with this eulogy), and appends the lover’s name and the date of her eulogy-rambling to it “1 April 2000”. Ah, an April Fool’s prank. (Originally written in 1995, by pointing to the year 2000, the book points of course to the approaching ending millennium as well.) Regardless, the April Fool’s gesture seems meant to turn the signal of the eulogy to noise.

Along similar lines: many of the title pages for chapters have largely incoherent text on them; the author (vainly or politely) distances himself from this by noting near the last page that “intertextual material was created with the assistance of a Canon Lasercopier 2000, and the Babble 2.0 text sampler programme” (116), i.e., a random text generator. Thus, just as a reader might have foolishly made sense of the filmmaker’s lover making (foolish) sense of his life on April Fool’s day as both the end of the world and the book approached, so might they have foolishly tried to make some kind of sense of the senseless intertextual material. Thus, just as the April Fool’s announcement turns the signal of the eulogy to noise (or tries to), the announcement of random text generation turns whatever signal of sense the reader made of the intertextual material into noise as well. Of course, while this attempts to disabuse the reader of her reading, the missing part hinges on the fact that these negations themselves amount to signals: specifically, “you were deceived in your reading.”

While these facile gestures reflect the theme of disintegration (signal to noise) that the author seems to want to push, the fact that the process of reading proceeds cumulatively entails that no matter how much doubt about the narrative events the author should pile up in a reader’s brain that she or he no longer could say what has or has not happened, nonetheless this attempt to declare everything “noise” must fail, even if the writer employed Babble 2.0 for the entire text.

In other words, Gaiman handles this structural theme in a self-canceling way, albeit on several levels. The filmmaker (an artist reflecting on life) never produces (but he does make) the film—shall we call that noise to signal or vice versa? And Gaiman (a lifer reflecting on art?) produces (but fails to make?) this book—shall we call that signal to noise or vice versa? The filmmaker’s lover—named after one of the great goddesses of Mesopotamia—provides a sense-making of the filmmaker’s life, but Gaiman makes a joke of it? He labours over his text (one supposes) then throws in Babel (also from ancient Mesopotamia) to make a joke of it? This “epistemological” muddle only “works” in the way Gaiman wants if you willfully pretend that these sorts of gestures do not themselves assert a specific meaning, i.e., a signal. In other words, “everything is noise” already transmits a signal, not a noise.

I wonder if Gaiman thinks the book really runs signal to noise—as if he believes the early parts of the book transmit as as crystal clear (unambiguous signal) and then undergoes, despite further iterations, disintegration to noise. If so, both assumptions seem false.

One of the most obnoxious features of Hemingway’s writing: he seems never to evince any grasp that different readings of his text could occur. He gives us that Jake Barnes has no balls and feels sorry for himself that he’ll never fuck again, so that apparently Jake (and Hemingway alike) can’t imagine any other sexual pleasure than erections require, i.e., the pleasure of giving a woman head or, even less, receiving anal intercourse–or even just getting hi limp dick licked. In a similar fashion, Gaiman equips his story with a celebrated (male) artist, endowed with a devoted love interest, and then gives him cancer. The filmmaker (and Gaiman apparently) takes this as an unavoidable death sentence, so that he even refuses treatment, &c, because (of course) cancer (as signal) can only mean a death sentence (disintegration to noise). However, the very choice of cancer seems inapt; the metastatic growth of cancer represents further articulations of signal (order), however lethal it proves for a body. So, try as he might, the theme and imagery (especially in McKean’s illustration of progressively more and more torn up pages of the film’s treatment), the purported shift from signal to noise doesn’t come across. More succinctly, whatever disorder Gaiman intends “noise” to signal, the human experience of disintegration (and even noise per se) involves it as a signal, never noise.

At the outer level of the book, Gaiman seeks to implicate the reader (I think). You encounter a random intertextual item, and you make some kind of sense of it (or, like me, you don’t), and later on you can feel foolish (or not) for falling prey to the stunt, just as you can fall prey to the “joke” of life that tricked you into thinking that it had something more than “noise” about it, and so on. Alternatively, you can disregard the fundamental error Gaiman indulges in here and read the story for the signal (from start to finish) that it presents without accepting the annihilating attempts embodied in these meta-aspects (in phrases like “signal to noise” or “how do you make sense of your life”).


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Gaiman, N., and McKean, D. (2007). Signal to noise (second ed.), Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse Books, pp. 1–117.

[3] Gaiman, N., & McKean, D. (1995). The tragical comedy or comical tragedy of Mr. Punch: a romance. 1st paperback ed. New York, N.Y.: Vertigo/DC Comics, pp. 1–96.

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