Last year, in a writing workshop several classmates were giving me feedback on the first 40 pages of my novel when Don DeLillo’s White Noise came up.
“This part reminds me of White Noise,” classmate number one said.
“Yeah,” nodded classmate number two. “But I think you should go all the way and take out the build-up. Just punch your readers in the face with something really unexpected like DeLillo does with those out-of-the-blue one-liners you’re never expecting.”
Of course I’d heard of White Noise, but I was too ashamed to admit I’d never read the book, so I nodded along as if I knew what the hell they were talking about, taking notes in a serious fashion while I wrote “read White Noise ASAP!” on a piece of notebook paper.
by Don DeLillo
January 1985, 326 pages, $14.00
A week later, I started the book on a plane headed for New Orleans and immediately forgot my fear of flying. While the small propeller plane bounced around somewhere above North Carolina, I lost myself in Jack Gladney, his fourth wife Babette, and their four precocious children from previous marriages.
The book opens as Jack watches a procession of station wagons arrive at the small college where he works as Director of Hitler Studies. His description of the cars as “a long shining line” is reminiscent of a funeral procession, and as parents drop their college-bound kids off at their dormitories, Jack observes the things they lug with them: “...boots and shoes, sheets, pillows…personal computers, small refrigerators…hairdryers and styling irons…the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags—onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut crème patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.”
Here, DeLillo introduces the engines that drive his book—the stuff of everyday life, the clutter of contemporary consumerist society. Right away, I was reminded of Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried, which spends the whole of the narrative describing the things U.S. soldiers haul through Vietnam: “They carried P-38 can openers and heat tabs, watches and dog tags, insect repellent, gum, cigarettes, Zippo lighters, salt tablets, compress bandages, ponchos, Kool-Aid, two or three canteens of water, iodine tablets…maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45(c)caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds full loaded. They carried grief, terror, longing and their reputations….”
While O’Brien’s story concerns the things the soldiers carried as physical and spiritual burdens, DeLillo is playful with his “stuff”. In addition to the list at the opening of the book, he continues to catalog the things of everyday life, including brand names and familiar jingles—Coke Is It, Panasonic, American Express, Kleenex Softique, Selson Blue—yet as the book unfolds, it becomes clear that like the articles the soldiers carry in O’Brien’s story, DeLillo’s items refer to the everyday white noise we preoccupy ourselves with in order to forget or prevent our imminent mortality.
The allusions to pop culture, advertising, television, and radio—the constant daily stimuli that distract us on our journey toward the grave—are prominent from that point on, but DeLillo is never maudlin. Cut with sardonic wit and characters whose acute observations about life often turn the most mundane events into surreal occurrences, the book often teeters on outright hilarity. By the time my plane landed in New Orleans, I was sore from laughing so hard.
One of the funniest scenes occurs in the beginning of the book when Jack and Babette are in the grocery store (a location a lot of the book takes place in). Out of the blue, DeLillo alerts us to a woman who falls into a rack of paperbacks at the front of the store. It’s just something that happens in the background while Jack and Babette are shopping, but the weird depiction is dropped into the narrative so suddenly, you can’t help but bust up. You soon learn this is a trick of his. When you least expect it, DeLillo drops the sudden odd and humorous image into the storyline.
He also uses this out-of-the-blue trick to underline the gravity of the book’s theme. The first time I noticed this is when Jack is describing Baba, how she “shovels snow…caulks the tub and sink…reads erotic classics aloud in bed at night…talks to dogs and cats” and then, in a new line and paragraph all by itself, he wonders, “Who will die first?”
Suddenly I understood what my classmates had been referring to.
After my plane landed, I tucked the book into my rucksack and headed off to my hotel and the subsequent business that took me there. I made a vow not to pick up the book until I was off the ground again. I often do this with books I know are going to have an impact on me. I save time to really absorb them. Years ago, when I started Demian by Herman Hesse, I was sitting on a bus next to a guy who wouldn’t stop clearing his throat and blowing his nose. The incessant rehearsal of phlegm kept me from taking in the book’s worth and I declared never again to read a profound novel where I couldn’t dive in all the way. This time, I had a feeling that running around after endocrinologists in the New Orleans Convention Center wasn’t going to mix well with the brilliant book I had buried in the bottom of my bag.
Back home, when I submerged myself once more into the weird and oddly proverbial world of Jack Gladney, I realized why the book seemed so familiar to me and so exceptional. Not only is it reminiscent of works by other postmodernist authors of the era, but it’s also timeless in the way it captures present-day society. Even though the book was written in 1985, it could easily take place in the 21st Century.
Case in point: “Dylar”, the fictional drug Babette secretly takes in order to cure herself of the fear of death. This is, of course, reminiscent of Prozac and other now-available antidepressants. Jack spends part of the novel searching for the purpose of Dylar after he finds a bottle of Babette’s mysterious pills taped under the radiator lid in their bathroom. When he discovers that Dylar is used to quell the fear of death, he is transfixed and begins to covet the drug for himself. In Part III of the novel, Jack and Babette compete over whose fear of oblivion is greater:
“I wake up sweating. I break out in killer sweats.”
“I chew gum because my throat constricts.”
“I have no body. I’m only a mind or a self, alone in a vast space.”
“I seize up.”
“I’m too weak to move. I lack all sense of resolve, determination.”
“I thought about my mother dying. Then she died.”
Another present day familiarity that the book addresses is the no-longer-traditional family unit and the dysfunction often found within. While the television and radio announce various ominous statements in the back ground, Jack’s family swings from one event to the next with an eerie detached resonance that brings to mind the bouts of magical realism present in books like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 or any Kurt Vonnegut Jr. novel.
One of the most effective and memorable scenes occurs when we are first introduced to the Airborne Toxic Event. As a strange chemical cloud begins to form and move toward the Gladney house, the family watches with a cool eye—all except Heinrich, Jack’s astute 12-year-old son, who studies it with binoculars from the attic.
Later, as the family sits down to dinner and air raid sirens begin to howl signaling an evacuation attempt is in effect, DeLillo writes: “We went on eating, quietly and neatly, reducing the size of our bites, asking politely for things to be passed.” Here, DeLillo masterfully deals with denial—a facet so ingrained in contemporary society and familial relationships. After Heinrich informs the family that a car with a loudspeaker has instructed, “Evacuate all places of residence. Cloud of deadly chemicals, cloud of deadly chemicals”, DeLillo writes: “We sat there over sponge cake and canned peaches.” The only response comes from Babette, who assures everybody: “I’m sure there’s plenty of time…or they would have made a point of telling us to hurry.”
Heinrich, it turns out, is the generator of most of the humor in the book (as well as my favorite character). He is wise beyond his years, cynical, serious, with a scientific mind and droll intellect. He’s a small adult trapped in a 12-year-old boy’s body. Constantly questioning his father’s knowledge of the world, Heinrich is the incessant devil’s advocate, arguing with his father about whether it’s really raining outside or whether or not the media is covering up the fact that household appliances can destroy mankind faster than any toxic chemical spill.
Jack sums his son up in the beginning of the book when he tells us: “He seems to bring an animal danger to him. It collects in the air, follows him from room to room. Babette bakes his favorite cookies. We watch him at his desk, an unpainted table covered with books and magazines. He works well into the night, plotting chess moves in a game he plays by mail with a convicted killer in the penitentiary.”
Like Heinrich, Murray Jay Siskind—Jack’s friend from the university—also produces a lot of the book’s comedy. Murray, a visiting lecturer on living icons in the Department of Popular Culture, is embarrassed by his colleagues, telling Jack, “I understand the music, I understand the movies, I even see how comic books can tell us things. But there are full professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes.”
Murray makes many guest appearances in the book, usually at the supermarket where he shops for generic brand products or in dark parking lots where he solicits odd favors from prostitutes. Sometimes he’ll pop up at Jack’s house to talk to Jack’s children as part of a study he refers to as “the society of kids”.
One of the most amusing scenes (actually, it goes well beyond amusing—it made me cry) occurs when Jack makes an unexpected visit to Murray’s classroom. Murray is in the middle of a lecture on Elvis Presley and the unnaturally close relationship he had with his mother, when Jack walks in and suddenly announces, “Hitler adored his mother”.
The two men proceed to have a verbal match of wits, each trying to prove his icon loved his mother more. “For the rest of his life, Hitler could not bear to be anywhere near Christmas decorations because his mother had died near a Christmas tree,” Jack proudly declares only to have Murray counteract with reference to Elvis’s odd behavior after his mother died: “Elvis made death threats, received death threats. He took mortuary tours and became interested in UFOs.”
After the cases are made, Murray finally succumbs to Jack and takes a seat on the floor with several students who have come in to hear the “lecture off”. Jack is grateful, but proud of his own generosity in allowing Hitler to be compared with “an infinitely lesser figure, a fellow who sat in La-Z-Boy chairs and shot out TVs”.
I’m sure it was no accident that DeLillo made Murray Jewish and Jack obsessed with Hitler. Yet the two men adore each other and there is no evidence that Jack admires Hitler. He just seems fixated on his power as a figure who orchestrated so much death—a topic Jack and much of the book are obsessed with.
Which brings me to this: aren’t we all apprehensive about dying? Haven’t we all pondered our existence and what it will mean when it ends? I spent a good deal of my young adulthood “wondering what it’s all for” and thinking about the location I would like my ashes sprinkled in one day. It’s an obviously universal preoccupation and nothing new, but DeLillo’s treatment of the topic is fresh, funny, and heartbreaking all at once. One of the most poignant lines in the book comes from Murray when he tells Jack, “A person spends his whole life saying good-bye to other people. How does he say good-bye to himself?”
Even if you aren’t worried about death, DeLillo’s observations of life are worth the $14.00 from Amazon.com. If you’ve ever found yourself having an existential crisis in a supermarket; if you’ve ever wanted to smash your head against a wall to get rid of an annoying television jingle that’s stuck in there; if you’ve ever wondered if that’s really rain on the windshield or a figment of a collective imagination, or even if you’ve ever found yourself attracted to women in leg warmers, then you need this book in your life.
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// Marginal Utility
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