(Originally read in April 24, 2011)
Many would claim Don DeLillo’s White Noise deserves to be numbered as one of the greatest 20th century novels ever written. Scholar Tom LeClair, whose essay appears in Bloom’s collection cited below, breaks down the novel into three parts. He notes the first half of the novel titled “Waves and Radiation” parodies the genre of bourgeoisie realism about suburban life and troubled marriage (which is often found today filling the pages of various contemporary literary magazines), the second half of the novel, which is entitled ”The Airborne Toxic Event,” recalls elements of the disaster story (think of films like: Independence Day, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, etc.) , while the third part “Dylarama” is a drug paranoia novel (such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson), all framed around an extended parody of the college novel. In other words, we get three interrelated novels in one brought together by a larger apocalyptic vision of modern life and an additional novel “type”: the college novel.
Jack Gadney is a professor of Hitler studies in a small town called Blacksmith. He lives with his fourth wife, Babbette, and their kids from multiple previous marriages. The opening introduces his life at the college, mostly interacting with the immigrants from New York that make up the American Popular Culture department, and his family life at home. In the second part of the novel, a hole gets blasted in the side of a train and releases a toxic chemical. Jack Gadney takes his family and escapes to an evacuation center, but not before getting exposed to the toxic chemical. In the third part, this exposure leads Jack to obsess about his impending death. He learns that his wife has been taking an experimental pill that relieves the fear of death and that his wife had an affair with the project manager to get the pills. This jealousy gnaws at him, while he continues to worry about his own impending death from the exposure to the chemicals. He wants to both find the pills to relieve his fear of death and take revenge on the man who turned him into a cuckold. He finds this man, known as the mysterious Mr. Gray, attempts to kill him, gets shot himself, but then at the last minute has a change of heart and saves the man’s life instead. All of this plot description barely touches the surface of all the little details that make up the body of the novel, full of the white noises of radio and television and billboard advertising. The plot of the novel doesn’t really begin until the second half, while the first half seems an extended introduction told in the manner of a slice-of-life story, which is typical of bourgeoisie realism.
One of my favorite elements of the novel is how Jack Gladney’s Hitler studies pokes fun at modern academic trends. This satire of academia is explored further through the ridiculous things the department of American Popular culture chooses to study, telling us that some professors no longer read anything, but cereal boxes. However, on a deeper level beyond the playfulness at poking fun at the ridiculous academic trends that are unfortunately real (as anyone who has attended higher education in a humanities discipline knows), the reader comes to realize that Gladney’s study of Hitler is meaningful to the larger scope of issues the novel addresses. Scholar Paul Cantor notes that Gladney’s Hitler studies declaws the horribly violent and brutal nature of Hitler and his blood-thirsty regime much like television desensitizes us to violence and transforms it into mere entertainment and spectacle. Modern media transforms real tragedy into the modern day gladiator arena where other peoples’ tragedies become our entertainment. The media transforms our consciousness and prevents us from dealing with the reality of the tragedy. The media doesn’t just report on reality, but transforms it, shapes it, and separates us from the true event and its true impact.
At the heart of the novel then is how technology and the fear of death prevent us from experiencing reality. As Murray, one of the American popular culture professors, who befriends Gladney and with whom our protagonist engages in long Socratic dialogues, tells us after seeing a sign for the most photographed barn in America, we can no longer see the barn in its actual reality once we view that sign. Instead what replaces it is the media image of the barn; the barn is now special because the sign tells us it is special and we can no longer truly judge on our own or see the barn itself without that information impinging on our perceptions.
Jack Gadney and his wife, Babbette, suffer from an intense fear of death that prevents them from enjoying life. The book hints that all our technological inventions, all our innovations, all our desires, hopes, and dreams are born from this fear of death. Our species progresses in order to conquer death. The novel points out that man’s curse is his higher status on the evolutionary chain that allows him to possess the intelligence to produce technology to better his life, but also is a double-edged sword in making us aware, unlike other animals, that we will someday die. Despite being a college professor, Gadney, fears knowledge as much as death, because he believes that by making himself ignorant of knowledge about the world, he can escape death (emphasized in the scene in part II where he refuses to believe he will have to participate in a mass evacuation from the spilled chemical because such things don’t happen to bourgeoisie college professors). His kids, on the other hand, embrace all the diverse forms of knowledge found in modern society. They are know-it-all types who turn to reference books about diseases and chemicals to be able to comprehend these fearful disasters that could kill them, with the exception of Wilder (the youngest child) whose childish ignorance prevents him from worrying about death at all.
A running motif is the inability of the elderly to adapt to the changing world, the changing social order, and most importantly the changing technology underlying all these fundamental shifts in the world. The old and elderly constantly are terrified of the outside world and death. This image is reinforced in the end when the constancy of the supermarket (presented as a safe haven from an ever-changing world) disappears after management rearranges all the aisles; the elderly are lost and confused, unable to cope with this change, unsure how to find the groceries they require. However, technology again tries to establish order amidst the chaos.
“The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. . . . Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.”
The strangeness of technology reasserts itself in this image. The holographic scanners, not only literally scan the barcodes of the items, but decode the people buying them, their identities and needs tied-up in their consumerism. Too much of our identity is caught up in what we buy, what we listen to, what we watch, not in our authentic selves.
Technology produces a false sense of order in the novel, while it simultaneously creates more chaos in the world. During the Airborne Toxic Event, Jack shares his observation that people need leaders and information from experts to tell them what to do in order to deal with the situation and the unknown, but the information they receive over the radio constantly changes (such as the ever-changing symptoms of exposure to the toxic Nyodene D). The lack of accurate information from these technological sources only creates more chaos. This issue pervades the novel beyond just this single scene; we find technology is meant to disseminate information faster than ever, but only ends up creating more confusion. Technology (television and radio) brainwashes us to constantly worry about death, so we’ll buy more creations of technology to prevent death. Even as technology provides means of curing cancer and other medical advances, it alienates us from human experiences, and as these technologies become hyped in the media, it also engenders a fear of death by creating a hyperawareness of the fact that we can die and we need these technologies to cure our ailments. In other words, all this technology and worrying about death prevents us from enjoying life for what it is.
While this novel is certainly complex novel, has an important perspective about the modern world, and is extremely funny at times, there were problems with it as a story. I’m not always convinced with the verisimilitude of DeLillo’s characters. For example, Gladney’s fifteen year old son Heinrich often challenges his father with an argumentative relativistic world-view (one scene has Jack arguing with his son that it is raining and his son won’t acknowledge that it is in fact raining giving all sorts of sophistic relativist reasons for his doubt). While this proved an amusing dialogue that successfully parodies the relativism of postmodernism and its overemphasis of differing perspective as truth over empirical facts, I still had a tough time believing a fifteen year old kid would say some of the things Heinrich does. This problem pervades the novel with other characters as well. DeLillo seems content with sacrificing verisimilitude for the expedience of making a joke or adding an additional layer of subtext. I find this problem also afflicts his language. Sometimes I find myself admiring his prose, while other times it seems overwrought and forced, and certainly not what any normal human being would say or think.
Select Essays from Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Don DeLillo’s White Noise edited by Harold Bloom