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White Noise (1984)

de Don DeLillo

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9,491140576 (3.78)1 / 330
Jack Gladney, a professor of Nazi history at a Middle American liberal arts school, and his family try to handle normal family life as a black cloud of lethal gaseous fumes threatens their town.
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    David_Cain: Everything good in White Noise is better in Underworld
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Mostrando 1-5 de 139 (seguinte | mostrar todas)
I've had a deep ambivalence towards DeLillo's goofy writing style in the past; his silly dialogue, wacky characters, and shaggy-dog plots work well when they work, but they come off as boring and frustrating when they don't (I liked Mao II but gave up partway through The Names). Fortunately White Noise makes all of those elements work fairly well, and even DeLillo's inexplicable addiction to bizarrely precocious Woke Toddler child characters can't ruin what turns out to be a fairly thoughtful exploration of mortality, family, and consumerism in an unstable modern world. White Noise was tagged with the infamous "postmodern" label when it came out in 1985, but from nearly 35 years later, it doesn't feel nearly as weighty/experimental/metafictional/revelatory as what I usually think of as postmodern novels. Instead it feels more like a humble comic novel with some serious bits rather than as a serious novel with jokes, and consequently it stays on the safe side of the implausible/insufferable chasm that it turns out DeLillo was working in before most other writers. His offhand jokes about doing things purely to be seen doing them are some of the best writing I've seen from him, and it was truly an unhappy realization to see how accurately DeLillo's parody America resembles what's now the real thing.


The premise is pretty funny: protagonist Jack Gladney is a professor of Hitler Studies in an invented Midwestern college town along the lines of Ames or Champaign-Urbana. He doesn't even speak German at first, instead concealing his utter academic uselessness behind hilarious pyrotechnic pomposity whenever he's forced to do anything that resembles teaching. This sort of light-hearted sendup of professorship was probably done better by Nabokov in Pale Fire but is still funny here, even if the fact that real-life universities have made amusingly specialized liberal arts positions like this essentially extinct renders this premise a parody from another era. Gladney and his family evacuate their town when a chemical accident, the Airborne Toxic Event, temporarily engulfs the town, and upon their return he has to confront his own changed sense of mortality, as well as that of his family, since he discovers that his wife has begun an affair to gain access to a drug that helps her cope with her fear of death. After an extended walk-and-talk with a colleague about whether he's at heart "a killer or dier", Gladney attempts to murder the other man, but changes his mind at the last minute. The novel ends with an examination of the supermarket and its emotional centrality to the population of the town.

My main complaint about Don DeLillo's writing style was that it seemed like he wrote himself out of anything really affecting. Coming into White Noise, I felt that his characters were so artificial, with such relentlessly absurd dialogue and odd worldviews, that whenever he tried to drop in "profound" observations into their speech or as a description of a character action it mostly comes off as annoying. I was concerned at why what's so clearly supposed to be a lighthearted, easygoing style wasn't working for me, until I realized that he was just ahead of his time. He perfectly predicted that awful snappy banter dialogue pattern like in Marvel movies where what's clearly supposed to be a meaningful moment is immediately drained of all gravity by some stupid snarky quip and you're onto the next scene before there's a risk of anything actually mattering to the characters. It's aggravating, but it's supposed to be that way.

That said, I still had to actually read this stuff, and it's inarguable that DeLillo isn't the prose stylist that other comic authors are, and often seems to genuinely be trying too hard to be funny when a more naturalistic approach might have worked out better. Sometimes he will have good lines like "Fear is self-awareness raised to a higher level" or that "The twentieth century is all about people going into hiding even when no one is looking for them", but you have to work through a lot of zany chaff to get there. Luckily not all of White Noise is afflicted in this way, and the meandering puffery that Gladney spouts off is funny when he does it, it's just when it's in the mouth of his son Heinrich that it's not so charming. Thomas Pynchon, who DeLillo is often compared to, had a thoughtful take on this exact thing in the Introduction to Slow Learner, his collection of early short stories:

At the heart of the story, most crucial and worrisome, is the defective way in which my narrator, almost but not quite me, deals with the subject of death. When we speak of "seriousness" in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death - how characters may act in its presence, for example, or how they handle it when it isn't so immediate.

I think this is true, and seen in that light, the adamantine goofiness every character has is not so bad, in fact it's almost endearing, as they infodump, dodge, and avoid real matters when speaking to each other in just the way that every character in most mass-market entertainment does these days. Likewise, one thing I will give DeLillo is that his depictions of celebrity/voyeur/parasocial culture are not just vivid but incredibly prescient. "The most photographed barn in America" that people drive out of their way simply to photograph and never actually see is a brilliant representation of the increasingly engineered tendency to perform activities just for the sake of being seen. It wasn't new even in the 80s to ponder how many people (yourself included) have documented something without ever actually looking at or enjoying the ostensible subject, which is not even the "real" subject anyway, but rarely have I seen it captured so pithily as DeLillo does here.

There's a little riff on California and natural disasters that I swear must be exactly how Donald Trump watched their recent wildfires:

"We're suffering from brain fade. We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information."
"It's obvious," Lasher said. A slight man with a taut face and slicked-back hair.
"The flow is constant," Alfonse said. "Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom."
Cotsakis crushed a can of Diet Pepsi and threw it at a garbage pail.
"Japan is pretty good for disaster footage," Alfonse said. "India remains largely untapped. They have tremendous potential with their famines, monsoons, religious strife, train wrecks, boat sinkings, et cetera. But their disasters tend to go unrecorded. Three lines in the newspaper. No film footage, no satellite hookup. This is why California is so important. We not only enjoy seeing them punished for their relaxed life-style and progressive social ideas but we know we're not missing anything. The cameras are right there. They're standing by. Nothing terrible escapes their scrutiny."

It's really disturbing to recognize the President of the United States in a discussion where one of the characters is a Professor of Hitler Studies, and even more dispiriting to remember that Trump's victory depended on winning the votes of exactly the Midwestern consumerism-addled dimwits that populate this novel, but somehow it seems fitting that reality has only recently caught up to the absurd, too-stupid-to-be-real comedy of the past. Oh boy. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
DeLillo's super-goofy book concerns the problem of heightened consciousness --in the medium of the junk mass communication, junk consumerism, and junk academics that we're all living in now --leading to existential problems, and at the end, a pretty goofy attempt to reconcile those problems with decisive experience.
But don't let the super-silly characters' absurd story deter you in the beginning. DeLillo's prose is, as always, extremely beautiful, full of information-packed APPOSITIVES, as an English-teacher friend has informed me it's called, that writers like me love to copy off him. Read the book for the prose, stay for the philosophy. I think Babette's dad is the best character, so stick around for him.
The book builds pretty slow so lazy, "post-literate" or admittedly illiterate people need not apply. The last third's payoff is brilliant. ( )
  EugenioNegro | Mar 17, 2021 |
Surely the best book about supermarkets ever written
  trotta | Mar 4, 2021 |
This is a great book, but it took me three tries over five years to finally read it all the way through. It's immensely quotable, fascinatingly post-modern and bordering on surreal because it is so heightened and odd. I would highly recommend it, and I'd love to see it as a movie some day. I imagine that most other people who pick it up for fun are more likely to actually read it all the way through on the first go... ( )
  unsquare | Feb 16, 2021 |
White Noise is a novel I can appreciate intellectually, but it is not one that I enjoyed reading. It is filled with incredibly beautiful sentences and sharp satire, both of which I enjoyed. But it was flat, intentionally flat, but flat nonetheless. I know this is the point. There is no difference in the cadence and emotional resonance of the different voices -- as if the world exists on a flattened plain. I cannot say it is a collection of beautiful sentences without a plot, because there is a plot, even though it is not a plot-driven story. In fact, I am not convinced it is a story at all.

I think White Noise is an excellent representation of a particular moment in the post-modern absurdist mindset. A part of me remembers being a student of literature, remembers studying twentieth century literature. I think of DeLillo as an heir to Barth but I may have appreciated Barth's humor more. While I was reading, I could not help being struck by the cruelty of its intellectual conceit -- the cold sardonicism, the deliberate mocking tone. DeLillo was writing about how modern invention had created a simulacrum of life, hence the flatness. Reading this novel brought to mind the philosophy of Baudrillard, which I had been quite happy not to think about for some 40 years. In the end I think DeLillo wrote a simulacrum of a novel, although it did prove good fodder for discussion in my book group. ( )
1 vote dooney | Feb 4, 2021 |
Mostrando 1-5 de 139 (seguinte | mostrar todas)
The book is so funny, so mysterious, so right, so disturbing … and yet so enjoyable it has somehow survived being cut open for twenty-five years by critics and post-grads. All of that theoretical poking and prodding, all of that po-mo-simulacra-ambiguity vivisection can’t touch the thrill of reading it
 
''White Noise,'' his eighth novel, is the story of a college professor and his family whose small Midwestern town is evacuated after an industrial accident. In light of the recent Union Carbide disaster in India that killed over 2,000 and injured thousands more, ''White Noise'' seems all the more timely and frightening - precisely because of its totally American concerns, its rendering of a particularly American numbness.
 
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"The greater the scientific advance, the more primitive the fear". Jack to Babette when talking about genetically engineered micro-organisms that would digest the 'airborne toxic event'.
"The airborne toxic event is a horrifying thing. Our fear is enormous. Even if there hasn't been great loss of life, don't we deserve some attention for our suffering, our human worry, our terror? Isn't fear news?" Television carrying man's speech when the family is stranded in Iron City.
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Jack Gladney, a professor of Nazi history at a Middle American liberal arts school, and his family try to handle normal family life as a black cloud of lethal gaseous fumes threatens their town.

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