Thursday, October 27, 2011

Twenty-five years later, White Noise still teems with power, mordant humor

Book 112: White Noise by Don DeLillo

The shape of our fears has changed since Don DeLillo wrote White Noise in 1985.

In DeLillo’s mordant, prize-winning (National Book Award), post-modern novel our fears take amorphous shape: in an “airborne toxic event” created by a chemical spill, in waves and radiation, in the background noise of our daily lives, in experimental drugs, in the unknown expressed by noxious smells and men in Mylex suits.

Today, our fears are no less threatening, but more concrete: planes fall from the sky, pulling down buildings, forcing people to choose between leaping to their death or dying in a crush of concrete and steel; in removing our shoes before we can board an aircraft because of the threat of shoe bombs; in the chilling, perplexing phrase “home-grown terrorist” and the mythical promise of WMDs.

Bluetooth. Wi-Fi. Tablets. Smart phones.

What would White Noise look like if it were written today, 10 years after 9/11 rather than 16 years before that nation-transforming day?

So many changes since the 26 years when White Noise first appeared. The cultural context has shifted, yet DeLillo’s novel remains powerful – and powerfully amusing – because the fears DeLillo taps into have not changed.

NSA. TSA. U.S. Cyber Command. CSS.

White Noise is the story of the Gladney family. Jack is a professor at The-College-on-the-Hill, where he is a pioneer in the field of Hitler Studies. Married five times to four women, Jack and his current wife, Babette, are parents to a brood of children and step-children. 

After toxic chemicals spew into the air following an accident in the train yard, the Gladneys must flee their home, although Jack resists.  "These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas," Jacks tells his family. "Society is set up in such a way that it's the poor and uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters . . . I'm a college professor."

Jack is briefly exposed to the chemical cloud and assured by some nameless man with a computer that he is dying.

Erectile dysfunction. Viagra. Cialis.

Both Jack and Babette share an extreme fear of dying.  Her fear leads Babette to search out chemical solace through an experimental drug.  She confesses to Jack that her in desire to obtain the drug, which promises to free her from her fear of death, that she engaged in a month-long tryst with the drug's designer. Her confession leads Jack down dark roads. 

On the surface, DeLillo explores our fear of death and dying. But a closer look reveals DeLillo is examining our fear of life and living. The threats to our existence – then and now -- are so pervasive, so unfamiliar and impossible to defend against , that death takes on a certain appeal. 

Google. Facebook. Twitter. Wikipedia. Dropbox.

The humor in White Noise is the darkest shade of black.  Some of the richest moments are when the Gladneys are all together (inevitably in their car) and engage in a serious, but uninformed discussions.  Discussions that a smart phone, Google and Wikipedia would stop before they started today.

Authors have been known to re-visit their creations.  I can’t think of another author whose take on modern times I’d like to read quite as much as DeLillo. 

DeLillo’s mordant, knowing voice perfectly captured the world of 1985.  It seems suited for our times too. 

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The completion of White Noise brings me near the end of the Internet reading challenge issued by The Roof Beam Reader. The 2011 TBR (To Be Read) Pile Challenge is to read 12 books from your to-be-read pile in 12 months. The challenge began in February, so I am in good position with a few months remaining.

I have started Mr. King's Under the Dome. It's fat book, but once it's finished I will have only two books remaining:

1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
3. War and Peace by Mr. Tolstoy
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
5. The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
6. Under the Dome by Stephen King
7. White Noise by Don Delillo
8. Yogi Berra Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra
9. The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
10. Winter in the Blood by James Welch
11. Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson
12. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich  

1 comment:

  1. That's an interesting take on it. I just finished the book myself (I've posted my own review and I'm afraid it's far too long-winded) and while I found it well-written I just couldn't connect with it. I was only two when it came out so the world it describes seems very distant. Most of it just left me cold. Also, I thought his dialogue was awful. I guess I'll have to read a more recent book of his.