Ben Heels

Everything I do, all in one place.

Don DeLillo – White Noise (1985)

Disclaimer: The following review contains mild spoilers.

After my recent Thomas Pynchon kick, in which I read V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow over the course of several months, I decided to read a novel by one of Pynchon’s good friends, Don DeLillo. Pynchon and DeLillo have been rumored to lunch together; Pynchon even wrote a favorable review of DeLillo’s Mao II. Literary critic Harold Bloom has ranked DeLillo and Pynchon as two of the four major novelists of his time, including Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy. Considering all of the above as a fan of Pynchon’s work, I went into this book with high hopes.

It’s clear that DeLillo is a smart guy. I’ve had that impression of him since reading the first few chapters of this book. I can see what he’s trying to say, more or less, but I have a hard time taking it seriously.

White Noise is a postmodern novel told from the perspective of Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies at The-College-on-the-Hill. The narrative follows Jack and his family’s experience with “The Airborne Toxic Event.” The book is split into three major sections, roughly before, during, and after the aforementioned event, and is further broken up into forty chapters or episodes. Surrounding the arc of the toxic cloud is DeLillo’s countless commentaries on American consumerism, technology, and death, among other topics.

DeLillo’s observations on tabloid news, television, and flashy food labels are valid, but there’s not a lot of substance to what he says. More often than not, they read like ”Look how trashy and fake this news article is! Look how generic this food brand is!” Observations like these permeate the novel and the point is ultimately beaten to death. One aspect I like, though, is how TV and radio dialogue is woven in in-between lines of dialogue, like a presence or character that always has something to say.

Another point DeLillo addresses is people’s obsession with their medical well-being, about what medicine they take (legitimate or placebo), as well as their routine ruminating of death. “Who will die first?” is a question that comes up often in dialogues between Jack and his wife, Babette. The first time it’s asked, the question is striking, almost funny in its interjection. Over time, death overlaps with other themes, namely the way it is handled in television and mass media.

The family interactions in White Noise are almost entirely unbearable, and I have a hard time telling whether or not this is intentional. That being said, I kind of like the idea that the family unit perpetuates false information and gossip:

“The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error. Overcloseness, the noise and heat of being…The deeper we delve into the nature of things, the looser our structure may seem to become. The family process works towards sealing off the world. Small errors grow heads, fictions proliferate…The family is strongest where objective reality is most likely to be misinterpreted.” (81-82)

Whenever the family talks in their station wagon, all facing the same way in a closed space, it functions literally and figuratively like an echo chamber, in which people seek to hear their own ideas bounced back at them with little opposition or conflict. Misinformation is hardly questioned, rumors are shrugged off.

Babette’s dialogue was especially hard to read because of her frequent, pseudo-intellectual, platitudinous questions like “What is wet,” “What is talk,” and “What is night?” Babette talks like this throughout the novel. Her dialogue is stale, shallow, and annoying.

Heinrich, Jack’s fourteen-year-old son, is a fair character. For the most part, I liked his small rant on brain chemistry:

“Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? … It’s all this activity in the brain and you don’t know what’s you as a person what’s some neuron that happens to fire or misfire. Isn’t that why Tommy Roy killed those people?” (45)

Part of me likes this, the idea that human experience can be dumbed down to neurons being on or off. The rest of me wants to dismiss it as a shallow, angsty rant, like a majority of Heinrich’s dialogue.

The surprise visit from Babette’s dad is far too convenient for my liking. I don’t know what the opposite of ‘deus ex machina’ is, but this is it. He shows up out of nowhere (“Ooh, maybe he’s death!”), delivers a device to further the plot, and leaves. Hmm, the professor of Hitler studies who obsesses about his own death, has frequent hate-daydreams about the mystery man who slept with his wife, and has been told that his own death is somewhere in the distant future has suddenly acquired a firearm. Surprise! Only one of two things can happen at this point. The ending is no surprise, and little is learned or resolved.

If I really missed the point, overlooked something, or if you have something to say, feel free to comment or send me a message.

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