Date finished: April 28th 2017
Life is better when you have a book token. I was fortunate enough to be in this position recently, and went and spent an hour and a half choosing two books to buy whilst destroying a friend’s will to live. The first book I eventually settled on was Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. The second, White Noise, was by a writer often mentioned in the same breath as Pynchon: Don DeLillo.
“It is possible to be homesick for a place even when you are there.”
Jack Gladney, creator of Hitler Studies and lecturer at College-on-the-Hill is our protagonist. He leads a busy life juggling a large, extended family, his job as a college professor, and the general absurdity of a strange but generally happy life. Until one day when a chemical spill causes The Airborne Toxic Event, causing Jack to face his greatest fear: death.
At the place where the state-of-the-nation novel, absurdism and consumerism intersect, you’ll find DeLillo. White Noise meditates on the everyday meaningless of modern life through the farcical ways in which we attempt to create meaning: the topic of Hitler Studies, and its immortal central subject; a colleague’s efforts to get Elvis Studies on the curriculum; the madness of a near-plane crash where the flight attendants needlessly fall to routine in order to find meaning when faced with death; the overwhelming graphic design of products in supermarkets, as loved by Jack’s colleague Murray, who at the same time as marveling at the huge range will only buy items in plain packaging; his son Heinrich’s obsession with the absence of certainty in all things; the superfluous proclamations of the television and radio creating the white noise in the background. We become immersed in a world where everything is happening but nothing matters.
“I’ve got death inside me. It’s just a question of whether or not I can outlive it.”
As a result, there’s a cruel streak of randomness running through the narrative, creating a state of flux that means nothing ever feels truly rooted in reality. The existential dread and idiosyncratic behaviour of Jack and his family are a completely logical reaction to the insane world they find themselves in. DeLillo seamlessly blends death anxiety, the chaotic nature of the universe, modern technology, the product saturation of capitalism, and the faux-intellectualism we use to comprehend our brave new world into a cutting commentary of the cultural malaise that afflicts mankind in the modern era.
DeLillo has a wonderful turn-of-phrase, a quick wit, and a compelling, fluid prose style. There’s an irrepressibly curious philosophical yearning running through White Noise. The book questions and searches, but never deigns to proselytise answers. It’s a snapshot of a life with all the beauty, madness, fear, sadness, wonder, moments of simple happiness, and mundanity that comes with that. If Pynchon was the writer who tapped into the zeitgeist of the ’60s, DeLillo is the man who captured the anxiety, decay and indifference of the ’80s. He depicts a world where everyone’s crying out to be heard but everyone’s too busy crying out to listen to anyone else. And in such a place where every tangible thing is without meaning, the intangible takes on a religious dread.
“Because we’re suffering from brain fade. We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information.”
White Noise is a powerful cultural critique of America, one that holds true to this day. The allied forces of rampant consumerism, the intellectualisation of unworthy things, media saturation, the overwhelming speed of technological progress, the pressures of modern life: all become a background drone, a dread-creating static that makes us question the fibre from which our own lives are made. DeLillo taps into the mindset of the late twentieth century and expertly satirises its foibles and insecurities. What’s left is a compelling, profound and scathing lament on society, which gets under the skin and speaks to the existential dread within us all.
Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman
The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon