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"Signal"
by John Lanchester
Originally published in the April 3, 2017 issue of The New Yorker.

I first got to know John Lanchester’s work back in 2012, the last time he appeared in The New Yorker with his story “Expectations” (see the post here). Unfortunately, I didn’t follow up as well as I wanted to. KevinfromCanada told me that I should read Lanchester’s debut novel The Debt to Pleasure, and, while I dutifully bought the book, I still haven’t read it. So, I know Lanchester only briefly through his own work and slightly better by reputation. I hope this story is a good reminder.

I look forward to your thoughts on the story and, if you’ve read more of his work, on John Lanchester.

By | 2017-03-27T12:48:00+00:00 March 27th, 2017|Categories: John Lanchester, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. Archer March 27, 2017 at 4:17 pm

    Oh, boy. This was… not good. A lumbering, ham-fisted attempt at a Jamesian ghost story that inexplicably turns into a PSA on the dangers of texting and driving. I thought it was ridiculous.

  2. Roger March 27, 2017 at 10:12 pm

    I share Archer’s verdict, though I did like the scary twist near the end, which made for an enjoyable surprise after all that ham-fistedness. The super-wealth of the main character’s friend Michael, and the cartoonishly extravagant house, reminded me of “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” which seemed like an odd coincidence given the recently published Fitzgerald story. I’m puzzled that Lanchester didn’t identify that story in the interview when asked what other stories had influenced this one.

    On the flaw front: early on, the main character assures his wife that Michael “never forgets.” Yet near the end of the story, the m.c. is asking Michael if he might have invited someone to the house whom he’s forgotten about. Sure, he can change his assessment, but you’d think he’d recognize and acknowledge the change.

    Much of the story seemed contrived. Of all the super-fancy homes Michael might have bought, why did he buy one stuffed with playrooms for kids? Michael has no children of his own, and I don’t see children otherwise in his life, so what’s with all the video games and pinball machines etc.? Their sole purpose seems to be to set up the big surprise ending.

    And Michael’s argument that the five foot, two inch Hector is “tall” because he’s tall-for-a-Bolivian, while funny, lacks credibility.

    Not good, as Archer states….

  3. Trevor Berrett March 28, 2017 at 12:04 pm

    a PSA on the dangers of texting and driving

    That sounds awful!

  4. pauldepstein March 28, 2017 at 5:22 pm

    Trevor Berrett, Wild digression here (and since I haven’t read the story I can’t do much else) but the recent famous PSA on texting and driving is really excellent. You can view it by going to Youtube and entering “Cassie Cowan”.

  5. Sean H March 30, 2017 at 2:43 am

    I’m a fan of Lanchester, both his novels and his essays (I recently referenced his last New Yorker piece, “Expectations,” an excerpt from his excellent novel Capital, while reviewing Anne Enright’s “Solstice”) but his lack of familiarity with the short story form certainly shows here. He has a grasp of writing and at the sentence level it’s fine, but not only is the short story not Lanchester’s forte structurally, the supernatural horror story isn’t exactly his bag either re: content. Stephen King this isn’t, nor is it a more literary version of the form, a Poe, or, as someone mentioned above, a Henry James. It just kind of sits there trying to be allegorical and contemporary. The woes of technology are an all but inexhaustible topic in 2017, but it just isn’t carried off well here. Ham-fisted, used above, is a word I never thought I’d use in description of Lanchester’s writing, but it’s unfortunately rather apropos here. A disappointment from one of our better contemporary British scribes.

  6. David March 30, 2017 at 11:33 am

    I have been trying to figure out what went so terribly wrong with this story. For one thing, I can’t imagine how he thought it was really scary at all. We don’t learn that the tall man is a ghost until the very end, and when we do that deflates any fear that might have been created rather than adding to it. But what is there that is really scary here? A family visits a house and there is a peculiar man who never talks but happens to be quite helpful, especially with helping the kids. This results in the parents jumping to wild conclusions about how the man might be a predator despite no evidence beyond his helpfulness. And that’s it. Nothing else is even supposed to be even a little bit scary. I can understand why, in the interview, he says when he read it to people they said to make it scarier. It is almost completely devoid of that quality.
    .
    Without reading the interview I would have offered a very different diagnosis. I would have thought that the story is not meant to be scary at all and is not really a ghost story but a failed attempt at comedy. Consider the wealth of evidence. The man begins by talking about the typical frustrations of trying to get his kids to behave when they visit an old friend and succeeds only to the extent that his son blurts out a quick greeting before quickly asking about the password, which is his only real interest. Then there is the man only described as very tall and constantly looking for a phone signal. I was put in mind of John Cleese more than anyone very worrisome. There also is the obvious attempt at comedy with the whole “tall for a Bolivian” bit. But there is also Michael’s odd conversation style and that “his face would look like what a rebooting computer’s face would look like, if it had one”. The shooting trip is unconnected to anything else in the story except for the weird competition the narrator has with the Hungarian physicist. Even the wild jumping to conclusions the man makes that the tall man could be a predator seems more ridiculously funny than a realistic worry. One could count these as the comic moments scattered around in a scary story to break the tension except that there is no tension to break. And when we get to the end and find out that the man is a ghost doomed to eternally looking for a phone signal because of how stupidly he died, surely that is supposed to be funny. So while the author interview is at odds with this analysis, it strikes me as more obvious that this is failed comedy, not failed horror.
    .
    Roger was worried about flaws related to whether or not Michael is forgetful and why he has a home full of playrooms. Those are fair questions, although if the story was meant to be a quirky comedy that might explain them too. I was more struck by the oddity of the tall man being a ghost who roams all over the house and who is encountered many, many times in just a couple of days by this family (including the very moment they arrive) yet Michael, who lives in the house, seems to have never seen him nor did any of the other guests. But it feels to me that looking at logical flaws is just piling on. If it was meant to be a horror story it utterly failed to be scary. If it was meant to be a comic story it utterly failed to be funny. That I can’t tell which it was mean to be is probably the worst failure of all.

  7. William April 3, 2017 at 6:48 pm

    I loved this story! I guess I’m just a ham-fisted reader. I liked the way he set it up so that we don’t know at the outset whether the tall man is a child molester or a ghost. I liked the way it turned out to be a ghost — it takes courage to write a supernatural story these days. The notion that the poor tragic guy was seeking for his lost children with his cell phone was sad — he just couldn’t get a signal. Also, nice juxtaposition between technology and old-fashioned love of children.

    Archer — Your take on this story as a “PSA on the dangers of texting and driving” is one of the more shallow comments that has appeared on this site since I’ve been contributing.

    David — the story wasn’t meant to be “scary”. It was meant to be fun!

    You guys are pretty ridiculous with all your semi-logical pseudo-rational arguments about why he bought this house and why there was a “tall” Bolivian etc etc. You all have this great need to appear super-sophisticated. Let yourself go once in a while.

    By the way, I consider this superior to “Turn of the Screw”, which I think is overrated, along with everything else that William James’ less-intelligent younger brother wrote.

    Also — Sean H saying “Stephen King this isn’t” can only be a compliment in my estimation. I’ve tried several King novels and only made it through one.

  8. Dennis Lang April 4, 2017 at 1:25 pm

    William–You’re the man!! Love your comments. Always a breath of fresh air. A good dose of healthy contrarianism lights up the conversation!!!

  9. William April 4, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    Thanks, Dennis. I’m waiting to hear your reaction to the story. Do you agree with the people who dissed this effort?

  10. Dennis Lang April 4, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    Hah! Your remarks incited me to get to it. If you’re “ham-fisted”, I’m the bleacher bum in the cheap seats commenting on this fiction. I’ve been into the A.I.I and immortality essays in the same issue.

    (BTW trusting all critiques received in the good spirit I know they were intended!)

  11. jennifer4657 April 4, 2017 at 11:09 pm

    I liked this story. It was a nice departure from the typical New Yorker style, which I love too. But I thought this story had wonderful atmosphere and I enjoyed the commentary on parenting–the minute you relax something goes wrong, wrong enough to make you feel you’re a neglectful father or mother. I like that the New Yorker went out of their box.

  12. Dennis Lang April 5, 2017 at 9:49 am

    I get that sometimes when commenting on an author’s work it can be helpful for context to place him/her in an idiom similar to other authors. Maybe this has particular merit in this genre–the horror/ghost story (?)
    I really enjoyed the breezy plotting setting this one up so maybe I’m doing it a disservice in recalling the only Steven King novel I’ve ever read–“The Shining”. It was decades ago but the effect on me was consistently unsettling. I’m sure an intention fulfilled, at least on me. (I was at the time taking a screen writing class from Mark Frost, years before “Twin Peaks”. He recommended it.)
    So, that said, we have an expectation that the plot clues deliver us to a revelation in some way jarring but following the interior logic of the narrative. (Have you folks read “The Invention of Morel”? I think a masterpiece in this regard.)
    Ultimately, this one for me was just air going out of the balloon.
    What did I miss?

  13. Diana April 5, 2017 at 11:59 pm

    Initially I thought “Oh good, a scary story.” But then quickly just I got aggravated. For starters, who lets a 7 and a 9 year old alone hours at a time for days at a time in an enormous house filled with 2 dozen strangers that the parents know nothing about, AND a swimming pool! While ghost stories don’t have to be realistic, there has to be some verisimitude in the set-up to pull the reader in for the scare to come. The father/narrator’s host and friend (Michael?) – was there a character in there somewhere? The tall Bolivian – what was the author trying to do with that shaggy dog? Literally no description of any setting so everything is taking place in the formless ether (which might be good for a ghost story except I’m pretty sure that was not the authors intention.) Very disappointing.

  14. Greg April 8, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    Sean – I agree 100% with this comment of yours:

    “He has a grasp of writing and at the sentence level it’s fine, but not only is the short story not Lanchester’s forte structurally, the supernatural horror story isn’t exactly his bag either re: content. ”

    David – Thank you for taking the time to perform a comprehensive analysis for us….I enjoy reading your thoughts in this space every week!

    William – Did you actually say Henry James is overrated? Whoa….

  15. William April 8, 2017 at 6:19 pm

    Greg —

    I did say that Henry James is overrated. Someone should have taught him to write a comprehensible sentence. I’ve taken 3 starts at “The Ambassadors, and, although I can see that the characters are interesting, I’ve given up around p. 150. James would have fit in nicely with today’s motto “No pain, no gain.”

  16. Greg April 9, 2017 at 3:46 pm

    This is too hilarious William – “The Ambassadors” is James’ personal favourite of all his works!

    (Hint: First try James’ early work, “Portrait of a Lady”)

  17. William April 9, 2017 at 5:02 pm

    Greg —

    I have a brand-new copy of “Lincoln in the Bardo” on my coffee table — why should I bruise my brain on James’ writing?

  18. Greg April 10, 2017 at 10:50 pm

    William –

    Henry James has withstood the test of time…plus it’s fun to challenge oneself!

  19. William April 12, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    Greg —

    About the value of the test of time: In the Oxford Anthology of English Poetry you can find poems by Christopher Smart (“For I Will Consider my Cat Jeffrey”) and Isaac Watts. Have you ever heard of either of them? Watts is best known for Lewis Caroll’s parodies of his work (“How Doth the Little Crocodile”).

    About James’ reputation: the Noble Prize for Literature was established in 1901. Between then and his death in 1916, James was nominated 3 times, but never won.

    About challenges: I’m a runner and I run in races of various distance, all on solid ground. There are races called mud runs or obstacle runs, which would be challenges. I never enter them. I don’t see the point. Reading James’s prose is like a mud run — a hard slog without a proportionate reward.

  20. Greg April 12, 2017 at 10:17 pm

    Thanks William for sharing your thinking process. I now completely understand where you are coming from.

    So then, I am curious – Did you experience the same feelings when reading “Ulysses”?

  21. William April 13, 2017 at 8:15 am

    Greg, you sly dog — can’t tell if your question is serious or if you are pimping me. I have never read Ulysses, as I think you have probably guessed. In fact, in my last reply, I was thinking of coupling James’ novels with Ulysses as books whose genius is observed more in the breach than in the observance.

    What was your experience reading Ulysses?

  22. Greg April 14, 2017 at 12:57 am

    You have surprised me William with your “pimping” lingo!

    And I must confess that I found “Ulysses” difficult to get through….but it was at the very top of many lists for the best novel of the 20th century.

    Lastly, please tell me William that you have at least read “Gravity’s Rainbow”?

  23. William April 15, 2017 at 10:29 am

    Greg —

    Perhaps I should have used the British expression — “taking the piss”.

    I don’t see the point of persisting with reading a novel when I’m not enjoying it just because other people say it’s really really good That takes the pleasure out of reading. Plowing through the classics is something you have to do when you’re in school. When you are a grown-up, you get to read what you like.

    Lastly, I have not read Gravity’s Rainbow. Sorry to disappoint you. Am I now disqualified from commenting on this site?

    All in fun, as Dennis Lang says.

  24. Dennis Lang April 15, 2017 at 11:14 am

    Greg and William–love the back and forth! (A little “My Dinner with Andre”?) Ah, “Gravity’s Rainbow”. All I recall is “A screaming comes across the sky.” That might have been the first sentence (it is pretty terrific) and I immediately bogged down after that.
    While I’m at it, a timely Happy Holiday to All!!!

  25. Greg April 16, 2017 at 7:19 am

    Happy Easter to you too Dennis!

    And William, I will defer kindly to Trevor on your viewpoint of not having to “plow through the classics”…. because as you know, he chose to name this splendid website after Joyce’s tale!

  26. William April 17, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    Greg —

    Wait — If I say “plow through the classics” that is dissing Trevor, But if you say It was “difficult to get through” that is not. How does that work? Anyway, I think Trevor will forgive me if I don’t read one of his favorite books. I’ll certainly forgive him (and you) if you haven’t read The Dalkey Archive.

    Lastly, did you read Gravity’s Rainbow? How was the experience? Did you enjoy it?

    Dennis —

    Glad you are enjoying this exchange. It’s fun, but also I think it deals with some fundamental ideas about reading.

  27. Trevor Berrett April 17, 2017 at 12:40 pm

    I have enjoyed this conversation! I have some confessions: I’ve never read Gravity’s Rainbow, and I’ve only read Finnegans Wake in passages (which fortunately was enough to give me the blog title! I like to try the classics, even the difficult ones with the assumption that they are classics for a reason. Sometimes I don’t think the reason is a very good one! I don’t force myself to finish anything, so if it’s not doing it for me on some level (maybe even on a level of simply being proud to be getting it under my belt) then I don’t continue.

    There are so many treasures out there!

  28. Dennis Lang April 17, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    Hey Trevor–I’m a little late to the party, but the Mookse is a super idea! Focusing on short fiction that changes weekly and is accessible to all (and did I mention the fiction is “short” so no hardship to actually read it!)?
    You know, what’s becoming almost of equal interest to me are the regular contributors– a sensibility starts to emerge. There’s the thoughtful conversation of William and Greg foregoing, and then there’s always resident anarchist, Sean H, who has no issue calling an author a “no talent hack!” (I think referring to the lovely and precocious Emma Cline.)
    All viewpoints welcome!

  29. William April 17, 2017 at 1:48 pm

    Trevor ==

    Thanks for weighing in with these words of wisdom:

    “I don’t force myself to finish anything, so if it’s not doing it for me on some level (maybe even on a level of simply being proud to be getting it under my belt) then I don’t continue.

    There are so many treasures out there!”

    I couldn’t agree more!

    Dennis —

    I’m with you — the psychology begins to be as interesting as the stories and comments on the stories. “Resident anarchist” — I like that. We’re so meta!

  30. Greg April 17, 2017 at 10:17 pm

    Trevor – Thanks for being completely honest about not reading the entirety of “Finnegans Wake”. And I admire your non-snobbish approach to reading!

    William – “Gravity’s Rainbow” was a delight, but there was lots that went over my head….is “The Dalkey Archive” challenging too?

    Dennis – Your enthusiasm is contagious…. thanks for joining us!

  31. William April 18, 2017 at 8:45 am

    Greg —

    I admire your willingness to engage with difficult books and your honesty in admitting that you don’t completely get them. We need those attributes in what we do here.

    “The Dalkey Archive” was written in 1964 by the Irish postmodernist Brian O’Nolan. He was actually one of the earliest postmodernists — “Dalkey” is a follow-on to his novel “The Third policeman” from the ’40s. Both were written under the pseudonym Flann O’Brien. He also wrote many satirical columns in The Irish Times under the name Myles na gCopaleen. “Dalkey” and “Third” are difficult, but in an entirely different way from “Ulysses” or “Finnegan’s Wake” or Henry James or, based on what you and Dennis said, from “Gravity’s Rainbow”. They are entirely comprehensible on a sentence-by-sentence level or an event-by-event level. The difficult part is in interpreting what O’Brien is getting at. However, they are witty and great fun to read.

  32. Greg April 18, 2017 at 9:49 pm

    Thanks William for your recommendation of “Dalkey”.

    I will get back to you!

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