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World full of abandoned meanings.
Fear and floating terror.
Data. Drugs. Medicals. Chemicals. News. Tabloids. Catastrophes. UFO`s.*
Welcome to the world of Jack Gladney, a small town American, an academic, currently
a husband to a reassuringly down-to-earth wife number four, Babette, father of several children. Also, the head of Hitler Studies at the local college.
I have been putting off my long-overdue reading of Don Delillo`s novels mostly because the local county libraries don`t seem to have many of them and none in my local branch. Eventually though I got my hands on the `White Noise` and it was an epiphany.
`White Noise` is a wonderful book: full of meaning, brilliantly written, powerful and touching, compelling and engaging. I even dreamt about it (or rather had a dream from it).
To the point though: the aforementioned jack Gladney lives with Babette and a number of children (hers and inherited from his previous three wives) including 15 year old Heinrich, 12 year old Denise, 9 year old Steffie and a toddler named Wilder. The book is narrated by Jack and thus it`s up to the reader if we assume that everything that is told is coloured by his specific neurosis or is of some wider relevance as a comment on the sate of the civilisation or at least its American version. I don`t need to say which option makes for a more interesting read.
Gladney`s life is lived in the landscape of (almost) archetypal Main Street USA, in the framework defined by clean, warm supermarkets, strangely compelling television news, and tabloid shockers that shock nobody. There is a pervading sense of alienation, artifice and a looming menace. The everyday tasks are performed, holidays celebrated, big Hitler conference prepared for and then conducted, but none of these things seem to have envy value nor meaning. Jack is obsessed by his own mortality and very scared of dying.
Then the disaster strikes: a toxic spill from a chemical cistern at a rail depot threatens the local population and forces the evacuation of the town (the description of the whole disaster is a true gem, a masterpiece of absurd, dark comedy if there ever was one). In the process of evacuation, Jack is exposed to the chemical. He doesn`t suffer any symptoms, but the unspecific (and also rather farcical) diagnosis is not terribly optimistic: he`ll die. It might take him twenty years, it might take forty, but he`ll be carrying the chemical timebomb in his body for the foreseeable (and unforeseeable) future. Thus, his unspecified and general sense of dread gets a sort-of label, but at the end of the day and amazingly, nothing really changes: he is still afraid (as he already was), he will still die (as he was going to anyway). There is no catharsis, no restoration of the sense of reality, just thickening of the absurd.
I am struggling to present the plot and at the end of the day, though quite a lot actually happens in the novel, the plot isn`t really the point. It`s the moods, the smirks, the scenes, the dialogue that make `White Noise` into a remarkable novel which left me affected for a long time afterwards.
The fear of death is the main theme, obviously. I was left wondering, though, if what Delillo does is really exploring the age-long, primeval, fundamental aspect of human condition: the fact that we are the only animals on Earth aware of their won mortality.
Or is he, really, drawing a time-sensitive picture, a picture of a society in a state of high affluence and a total decay at the same time, a world that is internally crumbling, so devoid of value that it cannot - even, or anymore - deal with that fundamental aspect of human condition, a world in which people lost the ability to face and contemplate death. There are several pointer that suggest that `White Noise` is a modern satire rather than an universal analysis, the most important perhaps the fact that Gladneys live in a `world of abandoned meanings`, with no spiritual dimension of any kind, and with nothing else that is bigger than them to replace that either.
Jack`s work is truly absurd: full of people devoting their lives to the observation, study and interpretation of the fleeting aspects of pop culture in the hope of finding - what? - perhaps one of the abandoned meanings? The family, apart from reassuringly resistant Wilder, who has not developed the awareness of mortality yet but seems to be in touch with something even deeper than that, has also been touched by the fundamental fear - all the children trying to deal with it in their own way. Jack loves his children, but somehow, even that love doesn`t provide a hope for salvation. It is all lost in the sanitised and safe on the surface but menacingly poisonous on the inside reality. In `White Noise` we have a scathing vision of the world at the pinnacle of the television power, pre Internet. I would love to know what Delillo makes of that addition to the lines of electronic white noise enveloping people!
On top of that all, there is even something wrong with the death itself, even the death has changed, the death that jack fears is an `artificial death - like stink of burning plastic`, not a real one, like a `proper` fire. `It`s shallow, unfulfilling. I don`t belong to the earth or sky`. But then, isn`t it just our modern illusion that a deeply felt connection with natures provides shelter from our civilised fears?
The book is wonderfully written, the language both crisp and floaty, imagery sharp and eerie at the same time. It is also, very, very funny, not perhaps in a ha-ha-ha way, but certainly provides many smirks and a few chuckles.
Delillo`s eye and ear for observation are superb: the family scenes are simply awesome, the parent-child dialogue completely spot on, the absurdly farcical and the painfully touching intermingling all the time.
The satire is pretty savage: from the most photographed barn in America to the lecture comparing the iconic power of Hitler and Elvis, to the SIMUVAC bent on creating a perfect simulation of a disaster for which the real thing is a convenient rehearsal and ending with UFO`s, those UFO`s...
There is many, many layers in this book. I don`t want to write a treaty or a dissertation, just offer a handful of impressions it made on me. Overall, definitely recommended.
Available for £6.39 on Amazon, from £1 in their marketplace and if you are not a library user (or even then, perhaps), worth every penny.
Trial read link below:
*The first, second and fourth phrase are quotes. I couldn`t write anything that good.
While not being one for literary critique (I feel I can't achieve justice), 'White Noise' has captured my mind (and in places, my heart) enough to compel a review. This is my first encounter with the renowned, erudite force that is Don DeLillo, and I will further champion his efforts by adding another few titles to my (increasingly sophisticated!) collection. For those in-the-know, I understand White Noise shows DeLillo in fine fettle; for newbie's, he seems to be one to check out, if only because the author of my favourite books recommended him (David Mitchell). The book was strangely written in 1985. I say strangely because I thought it to be quite new - this says a lot for its profundity and pertinence to modern 'Americana' (the title of another of DeLillo's novels). White Noise is an intellectual offering though far from being impenetrable, it makes for enjoyable reading. It is saturated with ideas, psychological propositions and thick satire, launched heavily at the American neurosis. White Noise deals with death; in fact it is death - "what is death if nothing but sound? Electrical noise...Uniform, white." The lead protagonists Jack Gladney and his wife Babette concern themselves with "who will die first?". Jack's son Heinrich seems to revel in the impeding doom that is 'the airborne toxic event', to which his father is an unwitting victim and the drug Dylar features heavily. DeLillo himself sees, "almost a metaphysical connection between the craft of acting and the fear we all have of dying". This goes someway to understanding the manner in which writes here. The book is far from gloomy and much insight is drawn into the fears, ideas and behaviour of the quite absorbing characters. For me, the most absorbing characters are the family siblings (especially Heinrich) who seem extraordinarily bright and judicious. Sometimes I felt the book was written as the promot
ion of children; for their hidden depths and significance - "Self pity is something that children are very good at, which must mean it is natural and important"! White Noise is neither a tract nor diatribe; it never deviates too far from what fiction does best (telling a story). DeLillo manages to charter the events of the family microcosm, in a small American settlement, while abstracting these innovative and ingenious assaults on various topics; see the line which sums up the book "In the commonplace I find unexpected themes and intensities" and the pertinence of consumerism (Jack's friend lectures in "anything from music to cereal packets" and the Supermarket is a fundamental location). Overall, it is a book of rumours, weirdness, dailiness, metaphysics, Hitler, family, transcendence and shifting textures, written in an engaging, cerebal, measured and funny ("It wasn't Death that stood before me but only Vernon Dickey, my father in-law") way. Recommended!
The foundations for Don DeLillo’s reputation as one of America’s most important contemporary novelists were arguably established with 'Underworld', his ‘black comedy about the psychic fallout of nuclear terror’. Having made such an emphatic impression on British bookshelves, it would have been strange if some of the more cynical reviewers hadn’t privately doubted his ability to maintain these high standards but these have been firmly dismissed with his masterpiece, White Noise (winner of the 1985 American Book Award). Such was the tremendous response that DeLillo found himself catapulted from relative obscurity onto the American academic reading lists at University level. After being gifted a writing style comparable to Thomas Pynchon and a talent for tapping into the cultural concern, he is also one of the few ‘post-modern’ fiction writers to refrain from alienating his readership with obscure technical language (David Lodge take note) which also contributes significantly to the success of his wonderfully layered novels. Often branding an author as ‘post-modern’ will risk driving readers away since the perception is that of some erudite, esoteric academia that is both dry-as-dust and impenetrable for those who aren’t in on the topics but this is one charge that cannot be levelled at White Noise. Whilst the main subject is satirising consumerism and the contemporary obsession with prolonging life through various medical practices, DeLillo infuses an unrelenting comic streak that strikes deep at the heartland of middle America. Although his bravery regarding risque topics has not gone unnoticed, he has also acquired a number of critical opponents who seek to denounce his work – surely these debates alone ought to install this as a modern classic! Jack Gladney is Professor of Hitler Studies at College-on-the-Hill and lives with the various progeny he has gained from his and h
is wife’s past relationships. The fascination with Fascism and Hitler is a favourite of DeLillo’s and Gladney’s course is focused on examining the importance of Hitler in our present society. Aside from deprecating an academic system that seeks to quantify everything, there is concern in the form of Dylar, a drug that is able to banish the fear of dying, which Babette (Jack’s wife) has begun taking. One of the key points in Jack and Babette’s relationship is the indomitable spectre that hangs over them ; who will die first? Given that this was written in 1985 there is certainly something prophetic about DeLillo’s perspective since the almost Faustian temptation for defying death and physical decay came into its own during the 90s plastic surgery boom. This obsession with refuting mortality is intensified when an ‘airborne toxic event’ (now probably known as biochemical terror) occurs in a nearby neighbourhood and when Jack is diagnosed the suggestion seems to be that he will have to wait until he is eighty in order to determine full damage that this poisoning may have caused (he is in his 40s at this point). Add to the pot another academic whose focus is the ‘popular culture – anything from music to cereal packets’ and what comes about is a diverse, viciously scathing attack on the society that DeLillo draws on so richly for such priceless material. It is by no means a coincidence that his first novel was titled ‘Americana’ since he seems determined that no facet of US life will escape his prodigious pen and ingenious eye. As odd as this novel and brief synopsis may sound, White Noise really is worth giving a go since the essence is, as DeLillo himself reveals ‘"It's about fear, death, and technology. A comedy, of course." The white noise can be seen as signifying a multitude of sins that we are all guilty of employing to block out our own fears and
worries which is why this novel is so successful; there is no one I’ve encountered who can stimulate and represent a nation’s psychosis, stirring the darkest concerns from their hiding places before mercilessly satirising them for a eager audience. After already gaining recognition from the US judges it would be scandalous for White Noise to disappear unread into the graveyards of American writers who have failed to gain an equivalent measure of success outside of their own shores. This final quotation from the novel itself is a good indicator of the themes and issues that recur throughout White Noise: ‘Before pop art, there was such a thing as bad taste. Now there's kitsch, schlock, camp and porn.’ Here is a novel that epitomises style, oozes ability and is simply superb; certainly one of the finest American writers I’ve had the pleasure of reading.
Jack Gladney, head of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill, is afraid of death, as is his wife Babette and his colleague Murray who runs a seminar on car crashes. The author exposes our common obsession with mortality, and Jack and Babette's biggest fear - who will die first?