White People With White Problems: Don Dellilo’s White Noise

4 Jul
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BOOK REVIEW

White Noise

by Don Delillo
Reviewed by Shane

One of the things that make it difficult to review an author with an affinity for the post-modern—a category that Delillo always seems to fall into mainly by association—is that an argument can always be made in favor of the author concerning hiccups in the text. The author (or the author’s devotees) will tell you that the rough patches in the books are conscious distortions.
 
Delillo doesn’t provide us with the luxury of studying the book too deeply for ourselves. Within a story structure so tight that the theme is arranged like an opening thesis, we’re guided by the narrator, Jack Gladney, as he makes it clear pretty early on that this book is going to be a study on the fear of death. After he gets done telling his Hitler Studies class that, “all things in history, science and nature are working towards a death of some sort”, he says to himself, “Is this true? Why did I say it? What does it mean?” Peppered all throughout the book are meditations on the horrors of consumerist society. Perhaps meditations isn’t the right word. He merely talks about topical consumerist trappings in a horrified, suspicious tone. Sprinkle that with lots of private thoughts about the fear of dying (toward the beginning) and lots of discussions about the fear of dying (toward the end) and what do we get? Perhaps … just consumerism and a fear of dying.

Much has been said about the dialogue in this book. With that said, most of the characters (with the possible exceptions of Babette and Vernon) sound exactly the same. Not only do they sound like each other, they all sound like the monologue of our first-person narrator. But I’m willing to forgive this particular quirk because the sameness of voice offers a sort of comically skewed version of reality, even if it is hard to say that the length of the book doesn’t compromise its effect.

Like Joseph Heller, Delillo employs repetition as both a plot device and a comic device. He applies anxiety to commonplace situations as in one scene where a character interrogates another in a discussion about James Dean:

“Where the hell were you?” he said, as if the thought had just occurred to him that the actor’s death was not complete without some record of Grappa’s whereabouts.

“I know exactly where I was, Alfonse. Let me think a minute.”

“Where were you, you son of a bitch?”

“I always know these things down to the smallest detail. But I was a dreamy adolescent. I have these gaps in my life.”

“You were busy jerking off. Is that what you mean?”

“Ask me Joan Crawford.”

“September thirty, nineteen fifty-five. James Dean dies. Where is Nicholas Grappa and what is he doing?”

“Ask me Gable, ask me Monroe.”

“The silver Porsche approaches an intersection, going like a streak. No time to brake for the Ford sedan. Glass shatters, metal screams. Jimmy Dean sits in the driver’s seat with a broken neck, multiple lacerations. It is five forty-five in the afternoon, Pacific Coast Time. Where is Nicholas Grappa, the jerk-off king of the Bronx?”

“Ask me Jeff Chandler.”

The dryness is interrupted enough times to have a laugh-out-loud effect.

The book isn’t without  ambiguity and sometimes pseudo-poetic description: a squirrel moves in a “passage so continuous it seemed to be its own physical law.” The January light has a “hardness and confidence.” A black cloud is “more or less shapeless”—does that mean it is kind of and kind of isn’t shapeless or just one or just the other? Despite this, Delillo is a comic genius and brilliant at pacing. While Part One of the book is episodic and anxiety-inducing, Part Two consists of a single novella-like chapter about “the air-born toxic event” that will bring the characters and their fear of death to a more immediate place in their lives. Part Three is almost entirely plot-driven, a product of Part Two which involves a medical conspiracy.

Despite a few awkward places in the text (some intentional and some, I fear, not so intentional) Delillo is capable of perceptions that are almost Proustian in range:

The women laughed, six heads bobbing. It was insider’s laughter, a little overdone, meant to identify them as people bound together in ways not easily appreciated by the rest of us.

Or:

Once I almost asked her to put on legwarmers before we made love. But it seemed a request more deeply rooted in pathos than in aberrant sexuality and I thought it might make her suspect that something was wrong.

It’s easy to point to Delillo’s predecessors. His wit is Helleresque, his obsessions are Kafkaesque (but perhaps all obsessions are), his paranoia is Pynchonian. And after all these esques and ians are clear, what distinguishes Delillo enough to make something Delillian or Delilloesque? Maybe he’s not presenting us with new materials he can claim to his own name, but it would be hard to say that he isn’t a kind of bridge between generations. His strains of influence seem to reach as far as David Foster Wallace, Chuck Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis and perhaps Zadie Smith. One thing that seems to distinguish his pace toward the end of the book is his lack of fear in depicting characters who have a real tenderness toward one another (which “pomo” authors so easily and happily fail at), despite the formal experiments that go great lengths to achieve a tone of emotional draught throughout the book.

Despite the formal experiments, White Noise offers an articulate narrative with plenty of memorable chuckle-inducing moments. But be warned, the book will force you to think about death. And I don’t simply warn you about this because death is a weighty subject; I warn you because it will keep making you think about death (and not even that deeply) long after it’s interesting. Perhaps his ultimate joke was–by saying something with many words that he could have said with few–to make us aware that after the book has been put aside, we will look at the clock and realize how much closer we are to his main subject.

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