I didn’t read White Noise because I wanted to. Not this time, anyway. I read it again because I wanted to give Don DeLillo a chance to redeem himself before I stashed him firmly in the Junk Pile. Okay, there’s nothing about DeLillo’s books that deserves to be there except that they’re all kind of the same book, written over and over.
The thesis ruined me.
I wrote a post a few years ago (which I haven’t reread…yet) about how White Noise changed my life when I was 14. I really liked it the first time around – as I did the second, when I read it for a class in grad school. I took a Modernism/Postmodernism class just because that book was on the syllabus.
And White Noise is a spectacular book. A Great Book, in fact. Almost everyone agrees that it’s DeLillo’s best novel (though there are some dissenters who claim that Underworld is. I can’t get through it.). White Noise is one of the few that doesn’t follow his usual plot-line involving running away from the media.
Except here, not just one character, but everyone is running away from death. This novel is about the fear of death and what people do either to overcome it or to distract themselves from it.
Jack Gladney is a professor of Hitler Studies in a small college in a small town. He lives with his fifth(?) wife and a mixture of children, both his and hers. Everyone talks about death. It fits snugly into every single conversation. But I’ll get to that in a minute. When I first read this novel, I thought it was about the Airborne Toxic Event that happens around the 1/3 mark. I thought the bulk of the novel was about that. I even forgot that anything happened after they stayed in the Red Cross shelter. That’s not even halfway into the book. There’s more talk about death and some death-fear-avoidance activities, carried about by various characters in different and increasingly extreme ways. Because DeLillo likes the extreme, and any worthwhile action must be an extreme action. I won’t spoil the fun except to say that it’s probably not what you’d expect, even from DeLillo. (I shouldn’t say that. There’s the Superdrug business in Great Jones Street, to name only one random plot point.)
I really didn’t want to take notes while I was reading this novel. It’s just that it reeks of DeLillo (“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it’s impossible to see the barn.”), and there’s the thesis in its final stages, and I somehow can’t disconnect the fiction I don’t have to write about from that which I do. Which is why I’m not refreshing my Goodreads rating: I can’t be objective, so I’ll let the five-star review stand because White Noise is a great novel. I’m just kind of done with DeLillo.
One thing that I don’t like about it is that it’s so minutely planned. There’s a conversation about death around the three-quarters mark that is just too long. It’s like DeLillo had a lot to say and couldn’t stop without saying every single little bit of it even though the novel would be better if half of it had been cut. Every bit of his plan had to be implemented.
That said, doesn’t it have something to do with Great Novels? The best novel I read last year was Stoner. This year, I read Butcher’s Crossing, which is quite possibly the best (though not my favorite). Both are by John Williams, though I somehow didn’t make that connection at the time. Both are intricately planned and structured. Every little bit of the novel fits in perfectly. That’s why they’re so good. Part of Greatness has to be planning and execution of said plans, and that’s a huge point in White Noise‘s favor – if this review was objective. But it’s not because I can’t separate myself from my earlier reactions to this novel and my more recent reactions to other DeLillo novels based on that stupid thesis. There’s too much of a history.
So here is one huge stylistic issue I noticed for the first time: All of the characters sound the same – even the children. Here are two examples from close to the end of the novel (as I didn’t break down and let myself take notes any earlier).
A conversation between Jack and his current wife:
“I don’t mind running clothes as such,” I said. “A sweatsuit is a practical thing to wear at times. But I wish you wouldn’t wear it when you read bedtime stories to Wilder or braid Steffie’s hair. There’s something touching about such moments that is jeopardized by running clothes.”
“Maybe I’m wearing running clothes for a reason.” “Like what?”
“I’m going running,” she said. “Is that a good idea? At night?”
“What is night? It happens seven times a week. Where is the uniqueness in this?” “It’s dark, it’s wet.”
“Do we live in a blinding desert glare? What is wet? We live with wet.”
“Babette doesn’t speak like this.”
“Does life have to stop because our half of the earth is dark? Is there something about the night that physically resists a runner? I need to pant and gasp. What is dark? It’s just another name for light.”
“No one will convince me that the person I know as Babette actually wants to run up the stadium steps at ten o’clock at night.”
“It’s not what I want, it’s what I need. My life is no longer in the realm of want. I do what I have to do. I pant, I gasp. Every runner understands the need for this.
And a conversation between Jack and Willie Mink:
“By coming in here, you agree to a certain behavior,” Mink said.
“Room behavior. The point of rooms is that they’re inside. No one should go into a room unless he understands this. People behave one way in rooms, another way in streets, parks and airports. To enter a room is to agree to a certain kind of behavior. It follows that this would be the kind of behavior that takes place in rooms. This is the standard, as opposed to parking lots and beaches. It is the point of rooms. No one should enter a room not knowing the point. There is an unwritten agreement between the person who enters a room and the person whose room had been entered, as opposed to open-air theaters, outdoor pools. The purpose of a room derives from the special nature of a room. A room is inside. This is what people in rooms have to agree on, as differentiated from lawns, meadows, fields, orchards.”
Maybe these aren’t the absolute best examples, but do you see what I mean? It’s the terse sentences, the cadences. They all sound the same. It’s especially noticeable in that too-long conversation I complained about earlier.
All of that said, no matter what unnecessary text made it into the middle, the beginning and ending of White Noise are excellent, and those parts, alone, make this novel worth reading. You reach the climax and the conversation with the nun, and you’ll see what I mean. White Noise is always worth reading, over and over again. This time, as reluctant as I was to stop my pleasure-reading cruise, I’m glad I picked it up again, and I’m sure that, five or ten years down the line, I’ll say the same thing. White Noise really is a Great Novel, and it makes me feel just a little bit better about slogging my way through DeLillo’s lesser works.