Winner of the National Book Award in 1985, White Noise is the story of Jack and Babette and their children from their six or so various marriages. They live in a college town where Jack is Professor of Hitler Studies (and conceals the fact that he does not speak a word of German), and Babette teaches posture and volunteers by reading from the tabloids to a group of elderly shut-ins. They are happy enough until a deadly toxic accident and Babette's addiction to an experimental drug make Jake question everything.White Noise is considered a postmodern classic and its unfolding of themes of consumerism, family and divorce, and technology as a deadly threat have attracted the attention of literary scholars since its publication. This Viking Critical Library edition, prepared by scholar Mark Osteen, is the only edition of White Noise that contains the entire text along with an extensive critical apparatus, including a critical introduction, selected essays on the author, the work and its themes, reviews, a chronology of DeLillo's life and work, a list of discussion topics, and a selected bibliography.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
"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."
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.
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?"
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.
At several points in the novel, I got an eerily vague feeling that I had read a certain sentence somewhere before. I'm not sure whether DeLillo somehow does this on purpose (or if it means that I am just as crazy as so many of his characters), but the whole idea plays beautifully into his ongoing discussion of deja vu and how it is inextricably linked to our innate preoccupation with death.
I am not at peace with the density, the over-the-top sensational nature of the plot, the emotional weakness of the characters, the sacrifice of humanity to make a point. Too much cardboard, not enough flesh.
Which, I can only assume, is part of the point.
All in all, I see White Noise as a retelling of Lolita, with death taking the place of a girl. In that, the novel is magnificent.
Underworld, however, is signficantly better.