Review: White Noise by Don DeLillo

Jack Gladney, Chair and inventor of Hitler studies at a middling college in middle America, is scared. Scared, specifically, of death, even though he initially protests that he “was comfortable with it, I was on top of it”, just the sort of things that someone who is neither comfortable with it or on top of it would say. He lives a middle age, middle class life, the stuff of suburban parody-horrors like The Stepford Wives, Edward Scissorhands or Desperate Housewives, or Stranger Things. I imagine DeLillo might view that show’s cheerful nostalgic spookiness as the snake eating its tail.

Jack has a wife, Babette, “a full-souled woman”, and a Brady-bunch household of four children from their various early marriages. He goes to work at the college wearing dark glasses so he’ll be taken more seriously. Various older children from other marriages come to visit them, they watch TV, they go to the supermarket. His daughter Denise discovers Babette may be taking some unknown medication and hiding it from them all. He philosophises with his colleague Murray, an ex-sports writer who wants to build a discipline around Elvis and who is something of a guru of middle class American life. It’s silly and funny and you can imagine exactly its highly affected dialogue being performed deadpan by Adam Driver in a Wes Anderson or indeed a Noah Baumbach film. Take for instance this exchange between Jack’s daughters:

“Why are the mountains upstate?” Steffie said.

“Mountains are always upstate,” Denise told her. “This way the snow melts as planned in the spring and flows downhill to the reservoirs near the cities, which are kept in the lower end of the state for exactly this reason.”

I thought, momentarily, she might be right.

Then, in the second part of the novel, a train runs off the rails and releases a cloud of potentially toxic material into the atmosphere. Initially there’s some concern about what to call it, “a feathery plume”, a “black billowing cloud”, before at last coming to rest on “airborne toxic event”. The town and everyone in it is forced to evacuate to get out of the path of the chemical. Symptoms of exposure range from nausea, heart palpitations and de ja vu to certain death. In the third section everyone returns to the lives they were leading before, or at least that’s how it seems superficially, posing the question of how much of you really comes back? Like the various doctors that attempt to analyse Jack’s vitals and predict with hilarious precision his prognosis, White Noise often feels like a diagnosis of Western society at large, and it’s terminal.

White Noise is driven by fear of death. It is the noise of the title, humming in the background like cosmic background radiation or transmission towers. “You hear it forever. Sounds all around. How awful … Uniform. White,” Jack describes with a shudder. “The irony of human existence,” he notes, is “that we are the highest form of life on earth and yet ineffably sad because we know what no other animal knows, that we must die”. But this is a very specific kind of fear, a Cold War, post-nuclear, 1980s, Reagan-era fear of death. It is I think the fear that John Steinbeck described in Grapes Of Wrath, of the “great owners, with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away”. Or the fear that Mark O’Connell described in his analysis of contemporary apocalyptic thinking, seeing it as a crisis of white American masculinity, of people “who were never fully convinced of the idea of society in the first place”. It’s the fear of losing what you were never entitled to. Or the fear of the social safety net coming undone. “These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas,” Jack complains when they are evacuated, mirroring almost word-for-word O’Connell’s diagnosis of apocalyptic fear, “Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and uneducated who the main impact of natural and man-made disasters”. “In situations like this you want to stick close to right-wing fringe groups,” Jack later thinks, precisely identifying the politics that most thrives off these fears.

Certainly the characters of White Noise try to suppress their fear through consumerism, and particularly TV, that great media panic of post-1950s society. “It’s like a myth being born right there in our living room,” Jack says of the glowing box, “Like something we know in a dreamlike and pre-conscious way,” full of “sacred formulas”. Pills, diets, brands, ads — these are the new opiates of the masses. Even so, Jack longs for a simpler time. “We didn’t grow up with all these shifting facts and attitudes,” he complains, and running through White Noise is a rather delicious parody of post-modernism, post-structuralism, all those -isms I learned in arts at university, things slipping from their meanings, fiendishly difficult to pin down. If everything can mean anything what’s the point? What is real? Is if the chemicals and radiation, the physical properties of the world? It is the moral, social and political structures we’ve made? Is it the mediums or the messages? Questions that have become more pointed but also finally somehow less important in the age of social media — these days we seem better able to accept intuitively that mediums like Tik Tok are both real and highly constructed at the same time.

Except it’s not quite a parody, because the novel seems to yearn for Murray’s perspective, who sees this dazzling world of brands and products as full of meaning. This for me is White Noise’s greatest joy, rendering the contemporary world humming and strange, full of secrets and codes like chemtrails and powerlines. I was less moved by the DeLillo’s grim outlook for humanity than the pervading atmosphere of retro-strangeness. For instance:

Everything is concealed in symbolism, hidden by veils of mystery and layers of cultural material. But it is psychic data, absolutely. The large doors slide open, they close unbidden. Energy waves, incident radiation. All the letters and numbers are here, all the colours of the spectrum. All the voices and sounds, all the code words and ceremonial phrases. It is just a question of deciphering, rearranging, peeling off the layers of unspeakability. Not that we would want to, not that any purpose would be served. This is not Tibet. Even Tibet is not Tibet anymore.

Indeed, Murray is not describing Tibet, but the supermarket, transforming it into the spiritual heart of consumerist society, and rather than deriding it, allowing in it the possibility of meaning.

Gay rating: not gay.


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