SIGNAL & NOISE by John Griesemer
Kirkus Star


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The laying of the first transatlantic cable offers second-novelist Griesemer (No One Thinks of Greenland, 2001) the framework for a very 19th-century take on the birth pangs of modern times.

Successfully slathering on layers of Dickens and DeLillo, Griesemer goes for the big canvas in a fact-filled and consistently entertaining depiction of the messy, expensive, and dangerous labors needed to connect the new world and the old by means of telegraph wire. The cast includes investors, engineers, artistes, an illustrator, poseurs, visionaries, a whore, mesmerists, servants, the Lincolns, and sailors. The scene shifts between a London stewing in a sewage crisis and a young USA ready to erupt in civil rebellion. Chester Ludlow is the brilliant American engineer at the center of it all. Unfairly handsome, charismatic, and absolutely devoted to the success of the largely British project, he is the unhappy husband of former actress Franny, who pines for the three-year-old daughter Betty, who fell to her death in an epileptic fit. Bullied by a rich American investor into taking the lead in a magic lantern fundraising tour, Ludlow is thrown into harness with the show’s director, Joachim Lindt, and his beautiful wife Katerina. While the show is raising thousands of pounds and Katerina and Ludlow are raising each other’s temperatures in London, Franny is at home in Maine with Ludlow’s brother Otis trying to raise Betty’s spirit from beyond. The heated affair with Frau Lindt never distracts Ludlow from the Great Work, but problems do abound. A surgeon with electrical theories has seduced Atlantic Cable’s directors into unsound science, and there’s never as much money as there should be. On the edge of the action, artist Jack Trace takes in the events and turns them into newspaper gold with his quick and stunning sketches of everything from the ghastly launch of the Great Eastern, the ship that will prove indispensable, to the spectacular end of the doomsday weapon Ludlow forges for the Yankees.

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

Pub Date: May 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-312-30082-4
Page count: 640pp
Publisher: Picador
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2003