Something is wrong in a small college town in Middle America. There’s an unexpected sense of malaise, and the teachers and students at the local school are falling mysteriously ill:
Investigators said it could be the ventilating system, the paint or varnish, the foam insulation, the electrical insulation, the cafeteria food, the rays emitted by microcomputers, the asbestos fireproofing, the adhesive on shipping containers, the fumes from the chlorinated pool, or perhaps something deeper, finer-grained, more closely woven into the fabric of things.
J.A.K. Gladney (Jack) describes this nonspecific menace with a kind of serene detachment and optimism. Surely things will get better! But he can’t quite mask his own disquiet and his nagging fear of death, and eventually this manifests as a poisonous cloud — an “airborne toxic event” — the result of an industrial accident, that floats over the town, requiring evacuation. In the aftermath, Jack and his family must confront their secrets, their poses, their fears, their ideas about the meaning of life and love, and a new set of quite extraordinary sunsets.
I’ve read a bunch of reviews of this book, including the introduction to my edition, written by Richard Powers, and none of them have addressed what I think is really the heart of the book. Don DeLillo does a spectacular job — prescient, even — talking about American consumerism, reality TV, psychopharmaceuticals, and the ways we connect before the Internet even existed in any real way. There are scenes sprinkled throughout this book that are gems, and I’ll talk about a couple later on. It’s a serious book, about death, fear, love, and meaning, and it’s also extremely funny: the founder of Hitler Studies who doesn’t speak or read German, for instance, or the mantras that come at random from radios and televisions (“Now we will put the little feelers on the butterfly,” “Only your code allows you to enter the system,””It’s the rainbow hologram that gives this credit card a marketing intrigue.”) His characters speak almost in code, as they use snatches of advertising in their dialogue. (Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it.)
But as I was reading, I kept thinking how warm this book is for a postmodern tour de force. This is no Pale Fire or even Pnin. It doesn’t dazzle, even in its best-constructed scenes. This book is essentially a domestic comedy, almost a satire. The relationships between Jack and Babette and their children and stepchildren and many exes from all over the place are the center of the book. We get to know Heinrich, the gloomy teenage boy; Denise, the tenacious girl; Wilder, the wordless toddler and his epic, day-long crying jag; Jack, who watches his children sleep so he can sleep himself; Babette, generous in every way; Jack’s ex-wife, who reads and interprets novels for the CIA. At the heart of this maelstrom of personalities lies the fear of death that feeds the accidents of the rest of the book: the airborne toxic event, the self-aggrandizing behavior on campus, the self-medication, the consumerism. One of the central questions of the book is whether fear and death can poison the family love that is the real topic of White Noise.
I’ve mentioned that there are several memorably well-constructed scenes that are absolute gems. If you’ve read this, I could probably just name them and you’d know: a scene in a college classroom, comparing Elvis to Hitler; a plane that almost falls out of the sky. Maybe my favorite was the Most Photographed Barn in America, in which Jack and his friend Murray go to see this site. As they approach, they see several signs for it, and then people setting up their cameras to photograph it.
“No one sees the barn,” he said.
A long silence followed.
“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated side, replaced at once by others.
“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be a part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”
Another silence ensued.
“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.
Of course, then we realize that we are observing Jack and Murray observing the people taking pictures of taking pictures. It is an exceptionally elegant little piece about signs, simulacra, and the meaning of tourism, and there are other parts of this book that work with the same precision, punch, and humor. One of DeLillo’s main ideas is that the map is not the territory: we are not to confuse the sign with the reality, something that becomes more and more difficult in a postmodern world.
White Noise made a real impression on me, and I also thoroughly enjoyed it, something that’s been on my list for a very long time. I can see its long shadow and its influence on other authors, especially on David Foster Wallace, who I am certain must have read this book with great attention. Have you read this, or something else by DeLillo? What did you think?