BOOK REVIEWS/REPLIES (2014): Gaiman and McKean’s (2007) Signal to Noise [Part 2]

30 December 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 2]

This continues (from here) my reply to Gaiman and McKean’s graphic novel.

Coming at the heart of the culture wars (the mid-1990s), when the shift further and further away from anything resembling consensus in culture put more and more of an emphasis on “sentiment” as the only thing deemed real, this book simply puts that out in front: “it’s all noise, whatever signal you read out of it, that’s your fault [or, joke’s on you] or …” It offers merely support for (the intellectually incoherent position of) reader-response criticism, in addition to dovetailing nicely with the hyperindividualism of late-order capitalism. It technically remains immune to criticism because, like deconstruction, no criticism can ever state a fact about it and, anyway, a pseudo-plurality of such criticisms constitutes (the theory goes) a healthy expression of culture.[3]

Curiously (or sadly, or obviously), the part I found most compelling about this book concerned the actual film imagined by the filmmaker. We see only snippets, and I less found the content per se compelling and more the setting or the premise. I find this interesting because also in Mr Punch, the far more interesting aspect of that book for me centred on the original story of Punch that Gaiman built his narrative around.

In other words, in this and that book both, I found the apparent source of Gaiman’s inspiration more compelling than what he actually did with that source. This book made me want to watch the film, not read the book, just as Mr Punch made me want to see a Punch and Judy play. This, then, runs contrary to my hope that when Gaiman didn’t have a pre-established framework to work with (i.e., when writing for a comic universe) his talents would flower more. Instead, it seems I have yet to find a work by him that doesn’t have a “core” text that he then appends “commentary” to.

Because this book smears a layer of “self-consciousness” over itself (or at least seems to), discussions about it will readily veer into dead-ends, with readers making claims about it that centre on their experiences of making it into a coherent narrative rather than focussing on the actual content, i.e., the comparatively lazy writing by Gaiman (and even the relatively desultory art by McKean–saying this, again, within the whole context of his output). Per usual, McKean’s art provides an immense buoyancy to the text that allows Gaiman to waste his time more than typically on his text. This seems an unreasonable claim? The drivel at the end of the book (all nine pages of it) suggests otherwise. The last time I read something so inept by someone acclaimed as talented, Hemingway had slogged through his awful For Whom the Bell Tolls (although Tarantino’s absurd Death Car also comes to mind).

And so we can have a range of reader-response (criticism) that runs either, “More the fool you for reading that as signal when it was obviously noise” (see the “1 April 2000” bit at the end) or, both more likelily and dishearteningly, “No! I found that part really moving. It’s great”. And all the while, this allows the text to seemingly exist as signal and noise simultaneously (in the domain of criticism), as if that comprises a real, much less the only, critical point. In other words, just as the whole notion of “signal to noise” dismantles itself thematically in the text, that this plays out in a similar way at the level of responses to the book doesn’t accrue merit to Gaiman’s writing. By existing, humans never do anything but make meaning; the obligatory, and thus tragic, requirement of that in human existence cannot get avoided except by death or its equivalent. So, to make a “question” of this (at the level of theme or criticism) already involves a false premise, that such a thing can open up to question–again, the converse of sense-making entails (literal) human death.

Whatever unconvincingly portrayed relationship Gaiman supplies for “sense-making in life” for his filmmaker, he again gets Hemingwayesque by his conventionally trotting out a eulogy by a loved one—with or without meaning to declare it an ironic joke (or a prank) at the end. After all, however meaningless one tries to make life, those who love us have a particular and privileged experience of us that argues (strongly) against that meaninglessness. But this loved one also serves for us as proof that we lived meaningful lives–as if having produced a work of art or having had experiences with friends or even our simple day-to-day activities amongst other people for some reason or somehow cannot convincingly make this argument to anyone else. In other words, Gaiman’s resort to a loved one’s eulogy makes for a very maudlin and sentimental appeal, undermined or not.

And since we can do nothing as human beings except find patterns in the (quantum) noise of a mostly empty cosmos, then even to point to that fact already constitutes an identified pattern. And since we can do nothing except find such patterns (so long as we remain alive and not in a disordered mental state), then claiming this as a “falsehood” does nothing. Let life constitute a problem, the alternative offers little by way of a solution.

Or one could say all of this merely involves a reader reading patterns out of the noise—so that nothing means anything and most of all not Gaiman’s book. Why did anyone pay any money for it then (or spend any time on it)? And in precisely this fact we see exposed the presence of a value for this kind of narrative for our current culture–one that, in its cheap nihilism, readily espouses a political quietism in the face of power.

But of course, one needn’t feel held hostage by a rampant cultural relativism (that can’t agree even on what to agree upon about responses to cultural offerings) or by the present articulation of capitalism that atomises the social order even more than it has already so that it normalises political disenfranchisement (and thus neutralisation of human opposition). Most simply, I found Gaiman’s book surprisingly boring and McKean’s short pieces at the front also boring.

In one respect, it tells you nothing to say I found it boring. Boring how? Boring why? In general, I find myself bored by a cultural offering when I cannot discern why it slogs along with whatever it insists on going on about.If a piece either (1) does not sufficiently signal to me in what sense I should pay attention to it, never mind that I actually feel interested to pay attention to it or not, or (2) doesn’t do enough in its surface dynamics to make me indifferent to whether or not I should care to pay attention in the first sense, then I will tend to feel lost an adrift in the work’s presence and that feeling registers s boredom for me. This can happen, of course, sporadically during the duration of a piece as well–a passage in a symphony might become boring because (1) I have failed to connect its relationship to the piece in general, or (2) it may seem like a needlessly wandering interlude, &c. And, of course, while this sense of boredom obviously implicates my own experience of the piece–e.g., I may have missed something crucial and so can only fail to connect the present boring passage to what has gone before–it does not only depend upon my experience. While you an I might disagree passionately about which sections in a piece actually bore us, the fact that we both experienced boredom implicates the piece as well.

But also, the question of “interest” (as the opposite of boredom) has a similar texture here. Or, to put this all another way, a sterile, dogmatic distinction between “work” and “audience” leads only into critical dead-ends. Neither the “work” nor the “viewer” stand independent of “culture” (in the first place) and to understand how a “work” gets received by a “viewer” involves culpability on both sides. Every artist knows this to some extent, and so selects those images likely to get the desired response: put a child onstage and blow its brains out in front of its father, voila, instant sympathy for the father or, just as predictably, disgusted cynicism over such arch manipulation by other viewers. Of course, still other reactions may and will occur, but for the artist who strives for a certain effect (a certain intention), that these two responses cover 95% of likely responses will in all likelihood suffice. And so, to continue this illustration, an artist may supply a bunch of horrified human faces witnessing this murder and one nasty, arch-cynic declaring, “Well, I hate to be a killjoy, but as brain-splatters and murders go, that was really not very aesthetically pleasing.” &c.

Thus, the story Gaiman tells bores me, because dying in and of itself (just like a cancer diagnosis in and of itself) does not yet have any significance. Rather, when confronted with a cancer diagnosis, what do you do—therein lies the significance of the event.

And this particular case, the filmmaker isolated himself, rejected the opportunity for any treatment, and spent his last weeks and months writing a film he would never see produced. Perhaps even more importantly still, he cut himself off from those who loved him–and for that shittiness, gets nine pages of eulogy from his (female) lover at the end, April Fool’s joke or not. His actions send a very loud signal to others in his life, one that hardly seems rationalised merely on the ground that he suffers.

But also, in general texts about artists—about artists engaging in the artistic process—bore people, again because the mere act of struggling to make art has little significance in and of itself. Thus, bio-pics of artists focus more often on their volatile love lives, &c., while self-indulgent novels wallow in dramatising writer’s block, &c. And I would point out again that in these endeavours (gay and straight versions alike), the idealised or thankless support of “loved ones” takes centre-stage. Just like the facilely named great goddess Inanna in this text, nothing but unconditional love will do for the artist, which makes these pieces merely masturbatory fantasies rather than serious art pieces about art. And, in fact, takes a particular sensibility to pull off these kind of pieces successfully, e.g., Barton Fink, About Julia, The Actor’s Nightmare, Bullets over Broadway.

The brainlessly assumed significance of a cancer diagnosis makes Gaiman’s text necessarily maudlin, and no surprise, since Gaiman never seems to prefer to swim into emotionally deep water—and doesn’t swim well when he attempts it (again like Hemingway).[4]

The fact that the book’s film-maker already has celebrated films to his credit attempts to lend heft and weight to the film he imagines while committing suicide (i.e., letting the cancer take its course without resistance); but why not make this his first film? Or make him not even a film-maker, but rather a vision that possesses him, even though he has worked as a plumber all of his life? Why not tell that story? Or should we infer that those who get diagnoses of cancer have an easier time of it when they have no fame behind them? Do the non-mighty fall only a little and stub their toe while the mighty … oh how the mighty fall? Here we have an echo of that sickening non-wisdom in Ecclesiastes, where a decaying ruler carries on and on about the utter vanity of life, having had nothing but privilege and a spoilt existence the whole time, only to cap his whole bout of self-pity off with the command to follow the dictates of religion.

Throughout his career, Gaiman seems consistently all plastic-coated pretext, whether delivering “product” for the comics shelves or, apparently, producing pseudo-profound pulp that McKean elevates to at least a visual degree of interest. I don’t doubt that some would call this book a meditation, but I’d wager we would hear that more often from people who have never meditated.


[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] Numerous critics have noted the reactionary character of Deconstruction, which expresses in part simply the hypertrophied individualism of late-order capitalism.

[4] I don’t mean he doesn’t attempt it ever, and I don’t mean that his fans haven’t wallowed in his cliché depictions.


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