Novel * Don DeLillo * The Postmodern Condition * 1985
Attempting to summarize a book like White Noise is something of a fool’s errand. What happens in the book, and even to some extend who things happen to is almost beside the point. The characters here don’t necessarily have the feel of actual, sympathetic human beings. People don’t generally talk like any of these characters talk. They don’t act like these characters tend to act. These ain’t normal folks. The events they find themselves involved in aren’t things that actually happen to people, not really. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that White Noise is extremely stylized, and the mirror it holds up to American reality is inherently warped. Yet for all of that, which I offer as something of a disclaimer, this book feels right. It manages to pinpoint the undercurrent of dread and unease that lies below the projected American image of optimism and opportunity. DeLillo is a deft craftsman, and it seems like every other page has a brilliant sentence in it that I’m super jealous of. Someday, I’m going to write a scholarly article about this book and I’m going to call it “We’re a Silver Gleaming Death Machine,” (colon: something something) and it will be fantastic, but only because of the title. Anyway, this is a book about the crumbling decline beneath the veneer of American technological dominance. It is a book of subtle human implosion in an age of information overload. This is the whole point of White Noise.
Yeah, all right, but what actually happens in this book? Well, to be honest, not a lot! The narrator is a man named Jack Gladney, who is a professor at College-on-the-Hill and the creator of Hitler Studies. All of that is funny as shit, by the way, so just know going in that’s the kind of humor which is woven throughout the novel. DeLillo is particularly savage towards academia – which is well deserved – and what makes that all the better is the fact that White Noise is something of a postmodern darling, taught in English programs across the country. Anyway, Jack lives with his family which is comprised of his third wife (fourth marriage) and an assortment of children and step-children. They are all super weird, but they all effect traits and peculiarities that fit in with the unnerving, uncanny-yet-familiar tone of the book. About a third of the novel seems to take place within a supermarket and many profound things are said about that weird place. For best effect, feel free to listen to The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket” while reading these passages. The text is interspersed with random asides from TV and radio. Waves and radiation. Panasonic.
The centerpiece of the novel is the airborne toxic event. I say that, because it is the key happening of the book, and it occurs about halfway through the novel. This event sets up the back half of the story, which is more focused on Jack and Babette’s overwhelming fear of death. The airborne toxic event is a joke, but a deeply unsettling joke that isn’t particularly funny. Regardless, it spurs the characters into new behaviors and highlights all of the other details and observations that have been brought up in the pages preceding it. Look, this is all very vague, I know. It’s a difficult work to talk about casually. This is not to say that it’s a difficult book. Quite the contrary, it reads quickly and isn’t particularly long. That belies the depth of the novel, however. It’s a book of amazing sentences, if you can dig that.
Okay, so there’s a hundred things to talk about here, but I suppose it makes sense to speak to the aspect of the novel that touches on our suppressed feelings of impending Apocalypse. You know, that feeling we all share as Americans? No? You don’t know that one? Maybe you’re not American. If not, and you’ve read this book, perhaps that explains some things about our questionable behavior. Regardless, the feeling I’m trying to pinpoint is the one that is felt by people who live comfortably with all of their basic survival needs met. Once a society has achieved that for many of its citizens, it then create a sliding scale of human worth. At the top of that scale are the mega-successful capitalists. At the bottom, the garbage people (you know, the poors). In between is everyone else, awash in the detritus of (post) modern American life. All right, I’ll illustrate. This is Jack speaking about the airborne toxic event when it is first introduced and he’s attempting to explain to his son why he’s not worried about it:
“I’m not just a college professor. I’m the head of a department. I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event. That’s for people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the country, where the fish hatcheries are.”
First of all, that’s hilarious. More importantly, it’s a window into the type of person Jack Gladney represents. I said above that none of the characters in this book are particularly realistic, and that’s true, but they do approximate subliminal attitudes and fears that are pervasive in the American psyche. There is a good deal of White Noise that is dedicated to the idea of our response to disasters, and attempts to reconcile threats of violence and danger with a technologically-enhanced, soft existence of general safety. If one has never personally experienced a cataclysmic event, then the only knowledge that can be had is through the media. Disaster packaged as entertainment (which is another something that comes up often throughout the book). In that context, the above quote makes a horrible kind of sense. The airborne toxic event is an incursion into orderly American life, a disruptive force. However, it is also without definition and its principle consequence is not to kill and destroy, but to sow fear and doubt.
The airborne toxic event is a chemical cloud that acts in unknown ways, a disaster that is every bit as amorphous and nebulous as the cloud itself (which progresses from a ‘feathery plume’ to a ‘black billowy cloud’ before finally becoming the somehow more ominous ‘airborne toxic event’). It’s a postmodern disaster for a postmodern country. It lacks substance, causes a good deal of psychological harm, and is utterly unpredictable. Now, the most obvious consequence of the event is to send Jack down a spiral of fear and pathos based in his amorphous, general terror at his own mortality. There is a point where Jack is exposed to the cloud, which alarms him to the point of finding an official looking person so that he can ask what the consequences of exposure are. Jack learns that almost nothing is known about Nyodene D (the chemical component of the cloud), other than it persists in the human body for thirty years, is bad for rats, and generates bracketed numbers with pulsing stars in the computer. The official then tells him not to worry about it. Jack responds: “But you said we have a situation.”
“I didn’t say it. The computer did. The whole system says it. It’s what we call a massive data-base tally. Gladney, J.A.K. I punch in the name, the substance, the exposure time and then I tap into your computer history. Your genetics, your personals, your medicals, your phychologicals, your police-and-hospitals. It just means you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that.”
That’s funny and terrifying. And true. Jack doesn’t respond well to this news. “Death had entered,” was how he put it, and going forward he is slowly undone by his inability to cope with mortality. Eventually he turns to an absurd medication for solace, and eventually settles on a scene of primal violence, which also fails to ease his overwhelming death anxiety. Everything that happens in this book is in response to the free-floating, general anxiety disorder of society. Technology, in this instance the database, confirms Jack’s essential existence – he is, after all, the sum total of his data – but now it has turned against him by also confirming his eventual demise. Yet the data itself is a kind of slow-acting poison. The entire novel is a heap of broken American images (there’s your sly T.S. Eliot reference for the day; you’re welcome) which weave in and out of the narrative like waves and radiation. Each image is a partial reflection of an all-encompassing, meta-level, apocalyptic disaster. The study of “American magic and dread” does less to alleviate this general anxiety than it does to give up and wallow around in it. This is essentially how the novel closes out, with the acknowledgment that Armageddon isn’t coming, it’s happening in slow motion, and it’s an American brand.