Friday, April 23, 2010

White Noise

I wish I wish I wish I had read Don Delillo when I was in high school. Man, I would have absolutely adored his cosmopolitan, nihilistic, brainy style. I would have poured over every word and felt so much smarter than my peers for reading the great works of a postmodern master. Alas, I did not. Instead, I read Palahniuk, a pale imitator. I have finally rectified my mistake by reading Delillo's 1985 National Book Award winner White Noise.


Jack Gladney is a college professor in small town America, the creator and head of a new academic field called Hitler Studies. He is generally happy, living with his fourth wife, and their children from various previous marriages. They are constantly bombarded by never-ending crass commercialism and products and brands, all exemplified by the supermarket. A fellow professor, Murray, and Gladney have long interesting conversations about the meaning of America and American culture. This all changes (or doesn't) when a mysterious toxic cloud appears in the sky, with nebulous and enigmatic effects on humans.

The above plot summary is merely a superficial scanning of what happens in this novel, which is of the least importance, really. What is more relevant in talking about White Noise is the uncertainty of reality and the questions upon questions. The narrator, Jack, is never really sure about anything, and the narrative is peppered with constant questions about the nature of things, about the surface of things, about everything.

What strikes me most strongly about Delillo's novel is the sense of control I get. It feels like every single word, every single element of punctuation, of dialogue, of chapter breaks was carefully and meaningfully chosen. There doesn't seem a wasted moment in this novel as each scene presents the themes, or at least a variation of the multitude of themes present in this work.

The themes, of course, range from the fear of death, which haunts the novel's characters literally and figuratively, and apparent division between reality and artifice. Every major character's identity and sense of self gets questioned by themselves or another character. The idea of "self" is shifting and seems predicated on perspective. This protean aspect of self is paramount to the novel.

Delillo shows this tension between real and not-real in an absolute devastatingly clever scene. One of the apparent side effects of the toxic cloud is déjà vu - the illusion that one has experienced something before, even if they haven't. Jack's daughter shows signs of déjà vu, but Jack wonders if she only has it because of the power of suggestion, that the radio announcer said she would get deja vu. Jack wonders if there is a problem with a "real" symptom of déjà vu or a "fake" symptom of déjà vu, which is an illusory and "fake" experience altogether. Is a symptom a sign or a thing, even?

One can see the problems faced by the characters already. This doesn't even touch on the themes of the pervasiveness of technology, over-medication, the symbols of Hitler, of sunsets, of even of the titular white noise.

This is a fascinating novel of ideas all shaped by Delillo's intense and, frankly, stylish prose. A large number of critics have complained that it is over stylized, that there is no substance to it, but I can't possibly agree with that charge based on White Noise alone. Rarely has a novel of ideas ever been matched to a perfectly pitched tone and voice. I loved Delillo's flat and spacey tone. I loved the way his characters only ever just talked at each other rather than to each other. I completely understand why Bret Easton Ellis is consistently compared to Delillo.

White Noise is a fantastic novel full to the brim with ideas, hilarious moments, brain-twisting moments of philosophy, and a style that matches the subject. I said above that I wish I had read Delillo when I was a teenager, but that isn't to say that White Noise is sophomoric or adolescent. Rather it is the opposite; this is a masterful novel, mature and intelligent beyond a lot of books I've read. I look forward to reading what is often considered his masterpiece, Underworld. Check back here for a review. Thanks for reading.

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