White Noise

by Don DeLillo

Other authorsRichard Powers (Introduction)
Paperback, 2009

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

Penguin Books, (2009). 25th Anniversary Edition

Description

Jack Gladney, a professor of Nazi history at a Middle American liberal arts school, and his family try to handle normal family life as a black cloud of lethal gaseous fumes threatens their town.

Media reviews

The book is so funny, so mysterious, so right, so disturbing … and yet so enjoyable it has somehow survived being cut open for twenty-five years by critics and post-grads. All of that theoretical poking and prodding, all of that po-mo-simulacra-ambiguity vivisection can’t touch the thrill of reading it
1 more
''White Noise,'' his eighth novel, is the story of a college professor and his family whose small Midwestern town is evacuated after an industrial accident. In light of the recent Union Carbide disaster in India that killed over 2,000 and injured thousands more, ''White Noise'' seems all the more timely and frightening - precisely because of its totally American concerns, its rendering of a particularly American numbness.

User reviews

LibraryThing member ireed110
I am surprised to read other reviews and learn that this book is humorous and biting. Mostly, I found it slow and a little boring.

The story centers around a mix-n-match family born of multiple marriages. Part one is kind of Richard Russo - here's a family, here's the town, and this is what it's like here. In Part 2, we're treated to an industrial accident that forces evacuation. Part 3 elaborates the aftermath as perceived by the main character (did we ever learn his name? I don't even remember). There are other issues and events, of course, and they add value to the reading, but all in all I found the substance spread thin.… (more)
LibraryThing member Niecierpek
The underlying existential angst of a contemporary man who goes about his daily activities, but always has the fear of dying lingering in the back of his mind, is like the white noise in the background of other images on TV: always there. That angst is fueled daily by tabloids and media concentrating primarily on wars, plane crashes, environmental disasters, incurable diseases and murders.

Death is the main thing the characters obsess about in White Noise. They try to come to grips with it whether by trying to medicate themselves out of it by taking pills, or by confronting it upfront by staying in the same room with deadly and venomous snakes, or through gathering a deeper understanding of it by studying car crashes, or dead celebrities like Hitler or Elvis. It seems necessary since there is no religion to offer comfort in this modern world. Nobody believes in it anymore, not even the nuns in White Noise.

At the plot level, it’s an intelligent and satirical look at modern American upper middle class suburban family to whom almost all of those hypothetical disasters happen.

I wanted to read it because it was a couple of years ago a defining book for my then eighteen-year-old son. Obsessing about death and uncertainty of reality – this was what attracted him to it. It spoke to me only partially. I failed to get intellectually or emotionally engaged in it, but found it interesting and accurately capturing the Zeitgeist. I loved fragments of it, and a great satirical tone of the narration.
Like all the books by DeLillo I’ve read, it has its great moments in quite hilarious and intense observations- the feel of a great city with its heat and promise of sex, of a shopping abandon, and technology whose sole aim is to fight death, to name just a few.
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LibraryThing member iayork
Déjà Vu: "White Noise" is about death. It is an ultra-dark comedy that mocks consumerism, academia, self-help psychology, and itself. It explores Hamlet's (that most death-obsessed of Shakespeare's heros) question, "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil ..." Delillo's answer is waves, radiation, radio static, the hiss of a blank TV screen, the dull roar of traffic, the antiseptic murmur of air conditioning -- white noise.

Jack Gladney is a brooding hypochondriac, professor, and chairman of the Department of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill in idyllic Blacksmith Village. He and his wife, Babette, live with their children at the end of a quiet street, where at night "the sparse traffic washes past, a remote and steady murmur around our sleep, as of dead souls babbling at the edge of a stream." Their relationship is defined by endless discussion over who will suffer more when the other dies.

Jack's confidant at the college is Murray Siskind, ex-sports writer and visiting lecturer on Elvis Presley. In their many Socratic dialogues Murray is a comic doubter, who pursues a negative view of life. Murray at last plays a modern version of Hamlet's ghost (or perhaps Iago), urging Jack to vengeance and cold-blooded murder.

Jack's quest begins when one of the children discovers that Babette has been taking Dylar, an experimental drug, designed to overcome the fear of death. Jack's own fear of death propels him forward, investigating the drug, learning that his wife traded sexual favors for it, and climaxes in a show-down with the dealer.

Death threats are everywhere. Men in Mylex suits and respirators appear the local grade-school after a deadly toxic release. When Jack and Babette retrieve his daughter at the airport they learn that the plane had lost power in three engines, plummeting four miles, "a silver gleaming death machine," before miraculously regaining power.

An insecticide tank car ruptures and emits an airborne toxic cloud filled with the deadly byproduct Nyodene D. The cloud is an enormous dark mass that moves like a death-ship of Norse legend, forcing a general evacuation under the escort of men in Mylex suits and respirators. The cloud produces feelings of déjà vu --- the senseless reliving of senseless events. Jack is exposed, learns he is at risk of developing a nebulous mass, realizes that he will at some undetermined time die, and his desperation for Dylar grows.

The local insane asylum is a metaphor for Blacksmith Village, or perhaps College-on-the-Hill. When it burns down Jack sees a woman in a fiery nightgown walk across the lawn, "so lost to dreams and furies that the fire around head seemed almost incidental." The intensity of the apparition turns madness into reality.

Babette's vagabond father, Vernon Dickey visits. In a premonitory vision Jack sees the old man as "Death's errand runner, a hollow-eyed technician from the plague era, from the era of inquisitions, endless wars, bedlams, and leprosariums." Vernon is a harmless eccentric, but gives Jack a Zumwalt .22 caliber pistol (one of many Freudian symbols -- Vernon has a much larger pistol of his own). This gun, as must any gun in a novel, plays an key role in the unwinding of the plot.

Sister Hermann Marie, a nun at Iron City Lying In, Mother of Mercy Hospital, assures Jack that the nuns' task is to believe things that no one else takes seriously. "The devil, the angels, heaven, hell. If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse."

Delillo's mockery spares little, preaches nihilism, and suggests that life is no more than a form of death, radio static, the hiss of a blank TV screen -- white noise. In the end the brilliant writing turns on itself. The elegant phrases, stunning images, and ingenious trains of thought, leave the reader in awe. And yet, the writing mocks itself and questions its own validity. Jack learns nothing at the end of his quest. Dylar is not at all what it appears to be. The end is like the beginning. Déjà vu.
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LibraryThing member sfhaa
Funny modernism ballardian philosophy hitler.First Delillo read after a break from fiction...this was brilliant. Currently seeking more!
LibraryThing member beserene
Normally I am not a fan of postmodern fiction. I find that most postmodernists, or even postmodern authors who shun the title, are self-contradictory by nature; part of the postmodern mission is to reveal the fallacy and, usually, pointlessness of the human constructs that make up the world, but since the author making that point is participating in and depending upon one of those constructs (the book, for instance) in order to make the point, it seems to undercut itself. The phenomenal redundancy and contradictory nature of such a purpose make it almost impossible to find a truly compelling postmodern novel -- all that pointlessness makes one less inclined to make the effort of reading, I suppose.

At least, that was what I thought until I met Don DeLillo's novel, which compelled me to read it even full as it was with postmodern attitude. I became attached to the characters and their everyday ramblings -- an attachment almost unheard of for me when it comes to a postmodern text. I wanted to know what was coming next and, being thus motivated, I absorbed, investigated and appreciated the cultural commentary at work as well.

The postmodern perspective reveals itself in the idea of "white noise" -- random snippets of radio broadcasts and commercials that are inserted throughout the text, connecting us with concepts of technology, meaningless communication, and other constructed illusions that take the place of genuine relationships -- and the laughable academic "analysis" of everything from cereal boxes to Hitler. The academic setting, of course, appeals to me, but so does the attitude with which it is approached: the central scholar wears dark glasses and cultivates an imposing posture in order to "present" the figure of a distinguished department chair; the pop culture department faculty throws food and punches over film reviews and collective memories. These are exaggerations -- though not too much so -- that ask us to realize the ridiculousness of those who wrap themselves in the pursuit of false, socially constructed knowledge. The novel questions how we conceive of the world, mocks the power-construct of academia (again, even while existing within the system of scholarly literature) and interrogates the cultural and individual fear of death that is endemic in the United States.

This text is intrinsically linked to its era -- the 1980's -- through attitude and direct (pop) cultural reference (cassettes and leg warmers abound), but it also escapes those limitations and allows the reader to reflect, to question, to interrogate her own cultural moment, a process that is always worthwhile.

This may be the first postmodern text that I have genuinely liked.
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LibraryThing member Dr_Flanders
This novel is a great read. I realize that some of the reviews claim that the plot is choppy, and there is some true to that. With all due respect, I think that some people who disliked this book felt like the book was about "the airborne toxic event" when this book is really about the fear of death. Another big theme is that of the modern family in the wake of an American consumer culture. The book is also really subversively funny. The main protagonist is a professor of "Hitler Studies" who is terrified of death. Nuns who do not believe in God make an appearance. There are many absurd moments that somehow ring true. The plot is a bit choppy, if you are waiting for big events...but this book does not need a well oiled plot to serve it's purpose.… (more)
LibraryThing member ehines
The thing about this book is that, contrary to the published review here, it is just so wrong--it's a book in search of easy, rather snide, answers to big complex questions.

The secret of this book's appeal is that it takes those hard questions--mortality, meaning, the nature of society--and makes the reader feel as if he or she has confronted them, when actually you haven't--it's just an occasion for self-congratulation and a bit of not-too-clever satire.

Someone mentioned Richard Russo, who is obviously brought to mind by this book--but Russo is funnier, a keener observer of both people and institutions, and altogether more honest. One doesn't walk away from Straight Man with the false sense of superiority which, I imagine, is DeLillo's strongest appeal for twenty-somethings (at least when they first read him) who lionize him.
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LibraryThing member LovingLit
Thanks to my poor memory, and that I first read this book over a decade ago, I was able to re-read this book and yet feel like it was my first time (bonus!!). This may actually be the book which turned me into a reader. I can't say why I absent-mindedly picked it off a friend's shelf and started it back then, had had no inclination to ever do that with a book before- but it blew me away. The insights the author had about how life was just resonated with me. I found it comforting that someone else thought so much how about the little things (which are actually the big things). Anyway, I loved it then, and I loved it again this time.

Rather than talking about the plot, which to me is usually secondary to the experience of reading, I will talk about a few things that the book made me feel. It made me feel like we (as human beings in the Western world) are kidding ourselves that our consumerist lifestyles are making us happy. This book slyly and drily makes this point, I think. Jack is the man whose comments and observations bring to light a scepticism about the benefits of modern life that many are able to quell in the hubbub of our daily grind. Through his and his families experience of a "toxic airborne event" there are hints dropped about how the way our society is structured hinders our ability to be at ease within it. When reading this book I was thinking about how we are persuaded to think differently about things via advertising and bureaucratic dictates - how we are distracted and removed from basic common sense ways of handling ourselves.

And it's funny! Maybe because we all worry about life/death/stuff, and we know that we can distract ourselves from this by keeping busy and sticking to the programme. Jack ends up varying wildly from accepted forms of distraction, but in a way that seems quite rational given his thought processes. All this is very cleverly laid out and was a dream to read.
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LibraryThing member Meggo
Confession time - I don't get Don DeLillo. I had previously read "Falling Man", and didn't enjoy it much, so it was with trepidation that I picked up "White Noise". Ultimately, its inclusion on several lists of "Books You Absolutely Must Read Right This Second" tipped the balance. This was not a bad book, per se, just one that I didn't particularly enjoy. The story of some academics in a small college town and various things that happen to them, including an evacuation. The problem was I just didn't feel empathy for the characters. I blame me, rather than DeLillo - my tastes appear to be much too lowbrow for his style of writing, alas.… (more)
LibraryThing member msaucier818
I have a really hard time with these types of books. It had no real plot. It just sort of meandered along with all of the characters being hopelessly cynical about life and death. I felt like the author could have made his point in 100 pages rather than three times that many. Maybe it is me - I just don't enjoy a book where the characters take no real joy out of life. Especially when that seems to be the point of the book.… (more)
LibraryThing member kwbridge
Almost every review of this book mentions how funny it is. I don't think it was funny at all ... I thought a lot of it was dull - even an evacuation was tedious. Maybe I don't get it and maybe I would have liked this more when it first came out but ... ho hum.
LibraryThing member ReginaR
This is my first novel by Don Delillo and my first modern satire. It took me some time to adjust to the writing style and to what the author was trying to accomplish with White Noise. But once I entered the pace and got what the author was trying to do, I loved it. It is surprisingly funny -- laugh out loud funny and made me think about topics such as dying and fear.

White Noise begins as an examination of a "modern" family. The members' relationship with each other, technology and their fear of death and aging. White Noise was written in the mid-1980s, but it still has resonance. The characters philosophize and make interesting observations but at a certain point in the novel the town that is the setting of the book faces an environmental disaster that could be deadly for all of its inhabitants. White Noise follows the family, observes their reactions and ultimately makes a comment on how we live our life.

American society has a deep fear of death and aging. We seem to imbue the elderly and those that age with some blame for getting old. But when faced with dangers to ourselves, we often adopt apathy and fail to react. Perhaps because it seems hopeless or we feel helpless or it is bigger than us. An example I think of is BPA, I know it is a danger, I know it is out there but I have stopped trying to figure out all the ways it may harm me and my family because it is exhausting to keep on top of it and this quote captures so well my personal exhaustion on trying to protect/detect all the ways chemicals could affect my family:

"The smoke alarm went off in the hallway upstairs, either to let us know the battery had just died or because the house was on fire. WE finished our lunch in silence."

and,

"They want us to evacuate," he said. Babette said, "Did you get the impression they were only making a suggestion or was it a little more mandatory, do you think?" "It was a fire captain's car with a loudspeaker and it was going pretty fast."

White Noise has a brilliant side critique of academic life and its perhaps irrelevance with respect to daily life of human beings. The main character in a quest to establish himself as unique has created a "Hitler Studies" department at the college where he teaches. Yet he cannot speak or read German. His colleague is hoping to create similar staying power by creating an Elvis Presley Studies and has been invited to teach a course on the cinematography of car crashes.

What do our relationships mean with other people? Are we involved with them because we love them? Or because they do something for us? The main character of White Noise is ridiculously self-involved, after all it is a satire. When his wife faces an emotional, marital and physical dilemma the main character is focused on how she is no longer satisfying what he needs her to satisfy -- he will say I need Babette (his wife) to be full of life, to be happy, you are no longer the Babette I married. "I depend on you to be the healthy outgoing former Babette. I need this as badly as you do, if not more." Similarly, both his wife and himself are focused on how their youngest son makes them feel, brings them joy yet he is stunted emotionally and intellectually. They refuse to recognize this because the point of their son's existence is not to be an individual.

The main focus of the book are the characters obsessive fear of dying. And the absurdity of trying to stop the slow descent. Babette, the main characters wife, bizarrely enough teaches a class on proper posture to elderly people at a local church. As if they have just forgotten how to stand properly. As if this class will allow them to suddenly stand straight up and no longer remind us of what we will all become.

"There's something I promised myself I wouldn't tell you." "Can it wait until morning?" she said. "I'm tentatively scheduled to die. It won't happen tomorrow or the next day. But it is in the works." I said.

How does a person accept dying? That is the core of White Noise. "How does a person say good-bye to himself. It's a juicy existential dilemma."
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LibraryThing member siafl
One of those intellectual books. Comical, philosophical, insightful. For a while I didn't know where the book was going, but towards the end references came together nicely. It feels to me that I've missed a lot of hidden connections as I skimmed through some places, but over all I have a nice impression of the book, and will probably read it again in the future to rediscover all the intricate intentions of the author.

Great for anyone who's a thinking kind of reader and who appreciates shrewd observations. There were laugh-out-loud moments that were just priceless, and that are not to be found anywhere else.

"Are you a killer or a dier?"
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LibraryThing member ggarfield
Data Deluge and dull hum crowd out Meaning.

At one level this seemed like an interminable plumbing of the notion of self absorption. Then again, perhaps self absorption is a form of “white noise” and as such tedious by its very nature. That being the point. Self absorption as a form of our culture’s unique blindness to larger more expansive ideas and opportunities. What with Jack and Babette Gladney’s angst about death, but on another it is quite unsettling and philosophical. Amazing in its prescient quality when one realizes it was written before the advent of the Internet and all it’s “noise” dulling forces.

Somehow the constant presence of “fear of death” juxtaposed with the daily hum of the “white noise” of life. All the meaningless and unintelligible babble makes it hard to discern real meaning from the “noise”, the din of the day. But “noise” takes center stage in our daily lives and the book seems to suggest stripping it away to find the real thing. I found the notion that fear of death is derived from wanting to live and not feeling like we’ve finished our work/our contribution, hopeful. The clarity of the statement “If we could learn not be afraid, we could live forever” to somehow be the diamond in the rough of this book’s meaning. Life without fear (without “White Noise”) might give us a glimpse of immortality or at least the larger and infinite spiritual realities.

Or not. You be the judge. It’s definitely worth the read.
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LibraryThing member trilliams
I blazed through this in about four hours. Still haven't quite figured it out. Comfortingly different from all the other "classics" I've read, and makes me wonder about the weirdly high amount of pop culture I've consumed. Rather than go on about that, though, I leave you with this: "Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom."… (more)
LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
Nobody really talks in the way that DeLillo has his characters communicate in his books - this one especially. The world would seem a far more interesting, erudite place if they did, but that's never going to happen.

"White Noise" is like information overload, with discernible patterns beneath and around the confusion. Chemical spill drills, Hitler symposia, death; all are treated here, and properly with caution; the result is compelling and enjoyable without being over-worked.… (more)
LibraryThing member twallace
A darkly humorous look into a possible future (or present) of technology gone awry. Narator Jack Gladney and his family deal with a mysterious noxious cloud, drugs that make unreasonable promises, the church of the supermarket, and the constant background noise of television and radio.
LibraryThing member eas311
2 1/2 stars depending on my mood. I am positive it was better back when it first came out.
LibraryThing member alexrichman
Neither as dark nor as funny as the hype had led me to believe. There's an interesting family of characters and a couple of interesting moments, but ultimately this is pretty forgettable.
LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
This is a quick absurdist look at the contemporary world. You'll find yourself disgusted with society and or laughing at various points, and you'll move through the book quickly. I'd recommend it as an escape or simple entertainment that will end up leaving you thinking about the situations despite yourself.
LibraryThing member jbushnell
I could re-read this novel a million times. It's a book that's both full of hilarious one-liners and equipped with tragic heft and sweep. It's essential reading for anyone who lived through the late part of the twentieth century, and it looks like it will continue to be relevant long into the twenty-first.
LibraryThing member glennfeole
Excellent, humorous, insightful. One of my favorite authors.
LibraryThing member Zommbie1
This is a postmodern novel and I have a complicated relationship with postmodern literature. On the one hand I can see what he is trying to show. He is trying to show the fragmented nature of the postmodern society and how we all put on different personalities depending on who or where we are. However on a personal note I guess I am not that postmodern in my outlook on life. I will buy that we accentuate different facets of our personalities depending on where we are and who we are with but I still think that we all have things that are fairly unique to us, aspects of our personality that will shine through no matter where we are or who we are with.

White Noise deals specifically with the fear of death that is so prevalent in today’s society. Jack and his wife Babette fear death over all else. Maybe it is my warped personality but I don’t fear death. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to not wake up tomorrow, but at the same time I try to live each day to its fullest. I try to take every opportunity that comes my way because one does not know when things will end. Jack and Babette on the other hand seem to spend a lot of time worrying about death, to the point where Babette takes pills to stop worrying about it. These pills make her distant and forgetful, she is missing out on her children out of fear. To me that is rather sad.

The book does discuss some interesting aspects of what reality really is and how we construct it. I especially enjoyed the the sequence that I presented in my Teaser Tuesday. If we all go do see something that is billed as unique then is it still unique.

I wasn’t to fond of the way the book presents dialogue. I found it difficult to follow along who was speaking when. Many of the characters have a similar ‘voice’, this is part of the books postmodernist structure but it makes it very difficult to follow along in the conversation. I also disliked the family conversations, Jack and Babette and their children seem to talk AT each other not TO each other, or something. It just seems off.

The novel did make me think, but in all honesty, had I not been assigned it for school I don’t think I would have finished it. Not because I didn’t like it but I got bored. There are large chunks of the book where very little happens. There is a lot of naval gazing and discussion of death. All in all a bit boring.
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LibraryThing member mattviews
WHITE NOISE muses on an inescapable subject that confronts all of us: death. The narrative swiftly zooms in and out of Jack Gladney's outward poise as an academic authority and his inward sepia maze of jittery moments, fear, and nightmare of death sweat. The text, despite its crispness and modernity, radiates an epic quality as if the novel becomes a literary event of death. Jack is the chairman and the creator of the department of Hitler Studies, a well-established system of the Nazi figure that endows the college to fame. Together with his colleague Murray, who anticipates on founding an institute evolving around Elvis on the same magnitude, they muse on death.

Happily married to the Hitler expert is Babette, who possesses a careless dignity of someone too preoccupied with serious matters to know what she looks like. She seems to be pretty content with her family life, which comprises of children from both her and his previous marriages, but, like her husband, Babette is overly death-savvy. The question haunts them: who will die first? The thought of her husband's dying first leaves an abyss in her life, and she is set to engage in a clandestine experimentation that might to lead to a pill that rids of the fear of death. As their touching unfolds against the backdrop of an airborne toxic event that sends the whole town into juggle and paranoia, WHITE NOISE exposes the human obsession with mortality and fear of death to the fullest extent.

Jack and his wife's irrational conviction to overcome the fear of death might have overleaped to the point of morbidity; but the universal fear of mortality is confirmed through the paranoid state stirred up by the chemical spill. WHITE NOISE candidly exposes people's lingering fears about themselves and those whom they love. Do they simply wear a disguise or pretend the fear is not there? Do they think indifference will drive away the fear? Do they just hide the fear from one another out of mutual consent?

Jack's sense of danger is valid in the sense that death is so vague and about which nobody knows. Death is a substatic buzz. An electrical sound. White noise like the TV fuss. A power of suggestion. On top of the social comedy and a disaster, WHITE NOISE is a philosophical musing on how death, despite its immutability and eternal threat, provides a boundary and gives a precious texture to life. Death embellishes life with a sense of definition, to guage the beauty and meaning of what a human being does in his lifetime.
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LibraryThing member miriamparker
One of those amazing reads that just brings it all together and so prescient...it's like he wrote it yesterday.

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