Book Review: White Noise
White Noise, written by Don DeLillo and published by Penguin, is a first-person novel told from the point-of-view of Jack Gladney, frequent divorcee and head of the local college’s Hitler studies department. Though Jack’s married for what he hopes will be the last time, he still manages to parent most of the children from his former marriages and his wife’s children, all while learning German for the big Hitler conference his college is hosting. Meanwhile, a chemical tanker has a terrible accident in their small hometown of Blacksmith, releasing a dense, black fog, an airborne toxic event, into the local atmosphere. As Jack and his family flee with the rest of the population, he learns through his wife’s depression that there is no outrunning death.
This was part of a little book trade between me and my co-worker/drinking buddy. I gave him End Zone, he gave me White Noise. Fair trade? We’ll say yes, but not really. This is my fourth DeLillo book and, I’ve got to say, this author has wormed his way into my top ten. Though a little hesitant, I dare even say he’s my favorite living author. In addition to End Zone, I also read Americana and Running Dog too, but I’ve got to say that White Noise takes the cake. Unlike the other DeLillo novels I’ve read, this one has a much more abstract idea of running. The book, for all the chaos in the toxins and the drugs and keeping the Brady Bunch together, is about one man’s escape from death, much in the same vein of Running Dog. The two share another common brush stroke: Hitler. I can’t quite explain DeLillo’s interest in the Nazi dictator, but I’m so insufferably curious as to how many other books reference Adolf after reading this installment of DeLillo’s catalog. Truth be told, I kept waiting for characters in this book to call attention to some of the events from Running Dog—the lack thereof being my only disappointment with this novel.
Unlike Running Dog, DeLillo draws focus to a single character again—Jack’s a man who tries his very best to remain uncomplicated, but fails at doing so. He’s a guy who likes to hide—whether it be behind the sunglasses he teaches in, his lackluster German, or a figurative Hitler, Jack tries to stay just out of reach of everyone. Even his family has trouble maintaining an attachment to him, his oldest son slowly departing in a youthful existential crisis while his youngest seems unaware that Jack even exists. However, his entire family has one thing in common: a fixation with death, whether it be the hurry from or the forced ambivalence to it. Heinrich, his oldest son, is best friends with Orest, a boy wishing to test death by sitting in a cage with poisonous snakes to beat the world record of something like 63 days. Jack’s daughter, Steffie, starts playing dead in emergency reenactments. Denise, Jack’s step-daughter, combs through ingredients, drugs, chemical names in order to understand what substances will kill a person. And Wilder, Jack’s youngest son, is anything but safe from death without a parent to hold his hand. All the while, Jack’s wife, Babette, suffers from depression as a result of fearing death and Jack, himself, finds himself drawn to death more and more as the story progresses, resulting from the chemical tragedy overlaying town.
This thematic progression compels the story forward, even when nothing in this book actually changes. People come, people go, but it’s a small town. Nothing is supposed to change. However, DeLillo never bores us with it, pulling us away from the main theme to paint several composites of small town life before he yo-yos us back into death again when we least expect it, manipulating the audience toward the final, dramatic conclusion of the novel, confrontation with death personified. Though the children in Jack and Babette’s household are extraordinarily intelligent for local, midwestern youth, the family dynamic is rich and true, featuring youthful rebellion and the eager clinging as this family comes to terms with a local tragedy. While some of these children begin to edge out from their shells as a result of this tragedy, the family foundation falters and settles again as these very real, very human characters are cut from each other and bounced back together again. Death tears people apart, death brings people together. Death is ever-present in DeLillo’s world—like white noise, scattered in the background.
Death isn’t the only theme of this story though—well, not entirely at least. DeLillo also draws media into it. The TV age, where people leave their sets on to play whether or not they’re even watching it, has a component to the theme just as much as family does, and likewise, it has a component to family just as much as death does. These cyclical themes, constantly affecting each other and being affected by each other, create a masterful fugue of storytelling in the novel’s progression. To consider even writing a book without carefully funneling several themes together in this fashion almost seems like a waste of time now and I’m considering the themes in my own works-in-progress to see whether or not I’ve accomplished half of what DeLillo built so elegantly. Only time will tell with that one, but there’s certainly a lot more to be learned here than I picked up from merely one reading. Of course, DeLillo is a pro with mixing themes—in his works before, he’s proposed two themes in tandem: college football and nuclear war, conspiracy and porn, family and the road that spans from them. However, none are done so masterfully as in White Noise. And how he saw television in the 1980’s? Hell, thirty years later and it’s only gotten worse.
Needless to say, the writing is brilliant and DeLillo’s vocabulary makes me ashamed of my own. Phrases like “airborne toxic event,” have worked their way into popular culture, ironically enough, like the popular band, for instance, and oddly as an insult in an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. In fact, I’m listening to the Airborne Toxic Event right now and I’m pretty goddamn sure I’ve heard them before. They’re everywhere it seems like. I would have never guessed they’re named after a DeLillo concept. But wording only goes so far—it’s also how DeLillo manages to tie the most mundane of things to the theme, like grocery shopping or chewing gum. It’s these little, intimate details folded into the very origami of DeLillo’s themes that make this novel so effective. One might read this book and find it boring due to how deeply and carefully he goes into descriptions of casual events in the American lifestyle, but it’s that careful description that makes it all so fucking profound.
Honestly, why are you even bothering reading this review anymore. Just go out and buy this book. You’re doing yourself a disservice by not reading it thoroughly, over-and-over again.
The Riahi Rating:
Other reviews of Penguin books:
Americana, by Don DeLillo
End Zone, by Don DeLillo
The Diamond As Big As The Ritz, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
On The Road, by Jack Kerouac
Piercing, by Ryu Murakami
The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand