WHITE NOISE – Don DeLillo (1985)

white-noiseWhite Noise is a famous novel. It’s one of the prime examples of postmodern literature, and it’s the book that made Don DeLillo big. It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1985 – Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home was nominated as well. It’s been analyzed to death: there are editions with the novel’s text & criticism side to side.

So yes, indeed, all of the stuff you have read about White Noise is true. There’s irony. Critique on television. Critique of consumer society. A lot of enumerations of consumer products. Enumerations of other stuff. Tiny snippets of commercials, documentaries, radio news, manuals. A protagonist that has been married 5 times to 4 women and who’s a professor in Hitler studies. Musings about death. Stuff about popular culture. General stuff. Specific stuff. Bleak stuff. American stuff. Meta stuff. 310 pages and about 10 meta lines for the literature post grad to feast upon. The novel is self-aware indeed.

I thought that when tradition becomes too flexible, irony enters the voice. Nasality, sarcasm, self-caricature and so on.

A description like that might be off putting to some. But it also misses the point, as postmodern meta-ness is not even the novel’s strength: it’s all fairly transparent anyway. What’s missing in most of the scholarly analysis I’ve read, is the humanity that underlies it all. White Noise, for me, was first and foremost a book with remarkable and deep emotional understanding of family life and fatherhood.

The women crisp and alert, in diet trim, knowing people’s names. Their husbands content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging, accomplished in parenthood, something about them suggesting massive insurance coverage.

or

Make no mistake. I take these children seriously. It is not possible to see too much in them, to overindulge your casual gift for the study of character. It is all there, in full force, charged waves of identity and being. There are no amateurs in the world of children.

DeLillo has a great nose for the reality of late 20th century Western humans. It’s ironic that in a so-called textbook postmodern book – no certainties, only irony, what is meaning? – the author manages to insert so much Truth.

Certain reviewers claim the characters are caricatures & the dialogue to be unrealistic. They also claim that because of that White Noise is bereft of emotions. They think it’s shallow, superficial. I do not agree. I didn’t feel the characters to be caricatures at all, and there’s a lot of emotion in the book. The dialogue is stylized at times, yes, but it’s never far off from real life banter between snappy intellectuals, young academics rutting, having a ball, enjoying talk. And yes, the characters serve a purpose, are bent to the plot, a bit stylized too. But caricatures? Not complete humans, no. Like in most fiction, we see only parts of them. I know real life people who show the very same parts DeLillo shows. If you think the book’s off in portraying reality, I can only advice you to expand your circle.

It was important for him to believe that he’d spent his life among people who kept missing the point.

It struck me how fresh this book still is. It has not aged at all. Society – the Internet notwithstanding – and it’s obsession with consumerism and televised media hasn’t changed in the thirty years since White Noise‘s publication. The prose still is extremely readable, a genuine feast. One could easily approach this as a long prose poem.

So, for now, DeLillo has managed to write a timeless classic indeed. A classic that exposes contemporary society for what it is: just another attempt. There’s a bit of drag in the final fourth of the book, but that shouldn’t hold you back. If you like stuff like this big chunk of quote, go get yourself a copy already.

“Here we are in the Stone Age, knowing all these great things after centuries of progress but what can we do to make life easier for the Stone Agers? Can we make a refrigerator? Can we explain how it works? What is electricity? What is light? We experience these things every day of our lives but what good does it do if we find ourselves hurled back in time and we can’t even tell people the basic principles much less actually make something that would improve conditions. Name one thing you could make. Could you make a simple wooden match that you could strike on a rock to make a flame? We think we’re so great and modern. Moon landings, artificial hearts. But what if you were hurled into a time warp and came face to face with the ancient Greeks. The Greeks invented trigonometry. They did autopsies and dissections. What could you tell an ancient Greek that he couldn’t say, ‘Big deal.’ Could you tell him about the atom? Atom is Greek word. The Greeks knew that the major events in the universe can’t be seen by the eye of man. It’s waves, it’s rays, it’s particles.”
“We’re doing alright.”
“We’re sitting in this huge moldy room. It’s like we’re flung back.”
“We have heat, we have light.”
“These are Stone Age things. They had heat and light. They had fire. (…) If you came awake tomorrow in the Middle Ages and there was an epidemic raging, what could you do to stop it, knowing what you know about the progress of medicines and diseases? Here it is practically the twenty-first century and you’ve read hundreds of books and magazines and seen a hundred TV shows about science and medicine. Could you tell these people one little crucial thing that might save a million and a half lives?”
“‘Boil your water,’ I’d tell them.”
“Sure. What about ‘Wash behind your ears.’ That’s about as good.”

This book is not for pretentious academics. It’s a book that humbles, and sets the record straight.

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2 responses to “WHITE NOISE – Don DeLillo (1985)

  1. The last quote in your review did indeed hit a nerve: we think of ourselves we are so civilized, so much better than our ancestors, and yet we are so sadly incapable of survival without the technology we take for granted and about which we know nothing about – a passage that was both enlightening and scary. This sounds like a book that makes you *think*, and think hard.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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