I’m a big fan of white noise. I use white noise apps and machines on a daily basis: anywhere and everywhere I need to block out the incessant din of other people and the oft-annoying frequencies they generate, knowingly or otherwise. It’s not for everyone, but the distorted, all-encompassing buzz is both a source of comfort and salvation for this urban dweller (for anyone interested I recommend Simply Noise, and no – this is not an advertisement!).
Don DeLillo’s eighth novel, White Noise was published in 1985, well predating such devices. It wasn’t even his original title – electronics giant Panasonic vetoed DeLillo’s proposed use of its name as the book’s moniker. It’s widely considered DeLillo’s breakthrough novel – the book that, after a decade and a half, took him from a cultish underground following into the literary mainstream and won the first of many important awards to boot.
This being the fifth DeLillo novel I have read – and with three more to come in this mini-challenge – I feel like I’ve settled into his groove now. I go in knowing what to expect from this author – dense and difficult themes explored in clear and concise language, told in first or third person by complicated and complex male narrators/characters, and with no obvious indicators of where the plot is heading or how it is going to be resolved. No one could ever accuse DeLillo of being an easy read, but the rewards are manifest and many for doing so.
And I can safely say White Noise is my favourite thus far in my journey through DeLillo’s back catalogue, although I freely acknowledge I’m only just under a third of the way there. And – oddly for a DeLillo – the first third of the book was a surprisingly easy read, with the pages just flying by (I note he redeemed himself in the latter stages of the book).
As White Noise opens, Professor Jack (J.A.K.) Gladney, North America’s pre-eminent Hitler scholar, is teaching his (somewhat controversial, I would have thought!) subject of choice and happily raising his blended brood of four with his fourth wife (his fifth marriage overall), Babette, in a small American Midwestern college town.
The smart and snappy first section, Waves and Radiation, introduces this eminently likeable, idiosyncratic, modern-day Brady Bunch. Heinrich and Steffie (Jack’s kids) and Denise and Wilder (Babette’s) have settled into reasonable domestic harmony; Jack and Babette also have other children who don’t live with them (Jack’s daughter Bee makes a brief, hardly noticeable appearance in the first section). It is heavily dialogue-driven, sizzling with a satirical sass that quickly pulls in the reader and almost lulls him/her into a false sense of security.
Life is hectic, but good. Scratch the surface and look again. Jack suffers from insomnia, while Babette fights a constant battle against middle-age bulge; both are terrified at the thought of their respective deaths and each other’s, with poignant nocturnal conversations and musings that stretch into the wee hours. Denise, a wary, watchful tween, obsessively monitors her mother’s health and ingestions (with good reason, as it turns out), while her whip-smart, brooding stepbrother Heinrich turns his gaze outwards from the domestic arena.
It is Heinrich, decked out in camouflage, armed with binoculars and perched on a second-story ledge at the family home, who first notices the “airbourne toxic event” that heralds the novel’s second section. It forces the township to evacuate their homes, during which Jack is inadvertently exposed to the noxious cloud of gas while filling the family car’s petrol tank. Tests carried out at the emergency centre lead Jack to believe the exposure will hasten his death, adding another layer to his deep-set paranoia, while it turns out that Babette has drastically and irrevocably taken matters into her own hands when it comes to facing down her fears, as revealed in the third and final section, Dylarama.
While the Gladney clan are front and centre throughout the novel, mention must be made of Jack’s academic colleagues, particularly recent lecturer recruit Murray Jay Siskind, with whom Jack shares friendship and deep philosophical conversations. Siskind is a frequent and often funny presence throughout these pages, popping up in some unlikely situations and circumstances – and a pivotal discussion between the pair late in the book becomes a call-to-arms spur for Jack that threatens to bring about a seemingly unavoidable culmination of events to that point. Nope, no spoilers from me!
This is a canny and astute meditation on modern life and death in late twentieth-century America, from where it had come and where it was going. During one heated family conversation, after the airborne toxic event (there is a US band, still going today, who took the phrase as its name), an exasperated Heinrich warns: “The real issue is the kind of radiation that surrounds us every day … forget spills, fallouts, leakages. It’s the things right around you in your own house that’ll get you sooner or later.” While Jack and Babette are going to extreme measures to outrun their fear of their eventual demise, Murray muses on the real reason behind Jack’s professional focus on Hitler: “(He is) larger than death. You thought he would protect you … the overwhelming horror would leave no room for your own death … ‘Submerge me … absorb my fear’.” Another of Jack’s colleagues, scientist Winnie Richards, crucially reminds him: “It’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need?” DeLillo was closing in on the big five-oh! when the novel was first published, so it’s easy to see from where these preoccupations might have been coming.
Overall White Noise is a brilliant read – pretty much flawless in plot, characterisation and especially dialogue. At only one point towards the end did the potential “wrapping up” of the plot seem a little too obvious to me (something of which one could rarely accuse DeLillo!), but that is a minor quibble. This is a book that stays with you and makes you go on wondering long after you finished the final page.
So. I would have to say if you’re only going to read one DeLillo, make it this one. Of course, I may well a different view in another one, two, three books’ time. Stay tuned!