White Noise – Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo
White Noise
Penguin Books, 1986
Softcover, 326 pages

Laughing all the way to the end

 

Recent comments about White Noise (first published in 1984) have pointed out Don DeLillo’s prescience in relation to the acts of terrorism and environmental disaster—even school shootings–that have riddled American history in the interim. I contend that if you try to list every possible potential cause of death and you have a great imagination, you are certain to sound as though you can predict the future. As they say, even clocks that have stopped ticking are accurate twice every day.

Not that DeLillo should be in any way compared to a stopped clock. If anything, the writing in this novel can best be described as “timeless,” dealing as it does with the ultimate ironic quandary of all thinking humans—i.e., how our awareness of our own mortality can overwhelm our attempts to fully be alive.

A friend of mine bought White Noise for me in 1987 and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. I felt no reluctance to read it—I always thought I would. I just didn’t get around to it till now. (I have quite a few books like that: fortunately for my relationship with her, the same friend didn’t give all of them to me.)

When I finally did start to read DeLillo’s eighth novel (he’s published six more since), I regretted that I had left the pleasure so long—but it is hard to stay regretful when you are enjoying yourself so much. DeLillo is a wonderfully funny writer and several times I had to stop reading White Noise on the bus because I was afraid my bursts of laughter might irritate (or alarm) my fellow travelers. But he is also insightful and compassionate, and his deep love for the characters he has created—quirky though they all are—is one of the great strengths of this novel.

Jack Gladney, the novel’s protagonist, is a professor who has cleverly created a scholarly niche for himself by establishing the first Hitler-studies program at a U.S. university. Jack is also the custodial parent of three offspring from his previous four marriages (which included two to the same woman). He and his fifth wife, Babette, are raising these three and two of hers, and all of the children, like Jack and Babette themselves, are masterful fictional creations. I grew particularly fond of Heinrich, Jack’s 14-year-old son, who in typical fashion for his age defeats every opinion his father ventures with his deadly adolescent capacity for fact-retention.

The long-suffering Babette (“tall and fairly ample. There is a heft and girth to her”) stoically trudges through her days, mothering the children, looking after Jack, trying to tame her figure by running up and down stadium steps every morning, and teaching old people how to keep their balance. (Which occasions one of my many many favourite one-liners in this novel: “We seem to believe we can ward off death by following the rules of good grooming.”)

Babette is being watched very closely by her daughter, Denise, who believes her mother is popping mood-altering pills. The girl nags Jack into investigating what Babette might be taking, which leads him first to attempts to get some of the drug for himself, and then to examine her relationship with her “pusher”— adding another whole dimension to this intriguing plot.

First and foremost, this book is about death and all the subtle ways it can sneak up on us: Jack and Babette are both obsessed with mortality in general, and specifically with which of them will die first. But the novel is also about the white noise of the title. The tv and radio are always on, always providing a backdrop to the routine of the Gladney family—from the drama of breaking news to the inanity of commercials. Those same media focus the family’s alarmed attention during the central event of the novel—which is the accumulation of a black cloud of deadly chemicals over Iron City following a train accident. In that pre-Internet era, the citizens of Iron City are evacuated to makeshift accommodations just outside of town with little real sense of what is happening to them, how serious the risk may be, or how far the the danger extends.

During the crisis, Jack is exposed briefly to the vapours from the poisonous cloud: the potential effects on his health seem to be largely unknown but are much theorized, and everyone in authority seems to agree that at some point in his life, Jack is going to die. His new mortality may differ very little in actual substance from his mortality before the toxic exposure, but his fears of death are mightily compounded–and that makes a big difference.

There are so many quotable quotes in this book that there was no point in copying them all down. I’m sure it is more pleasurable anyway to simply re-read the novel every couple of years and let those brilliant thoughts, observations, and witty lines rise up toward you and surprise you once again.

However, I did find one entire passage near the end of the book so delightful—and so typical of the wry knowledge and humour that distinguishes White Noise, that I reproduce it here in part. It is spoken by a nun who, Jack Gladney discovers, does not believe in God. In response to Jack’s amazement that members of religious orders may not be believers, she says,

Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.

It is no wonder White Noise was recently named one of the top works of fiction of the past 25 years in a poll by the New York Times. It is powerful, brilliant and courageous—not to mention funny as hell.

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1 Comment

  1. Great review. I must reread this novel soon. You rightly pick that climactic scene with the atheist nun as the clincher: here’s someone who should have some sort of inside knowledge about or track to the afterlife, and yet rather than offering anything like solace or faith, only makes Gladney that much less glad.

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