White Noise

It is hard to call yourself a Don Delillo fan when he has published 15+ novels and all you have read is Endzone (see earlier review), White Noise, and the short story collection The Angel Esmeralda. Still, I’m a fan. White Noise is a novel I’d heard about and perhaps wondered about for a long time. It was published in 1984, in the midst of the 1980s escalation of the Cold War and it has everything you would expect from a great novelist. A clever setup – Jack Gladney, lecturer in Hitler studies no less, is a man with a certain nervousness around his family and a insecurity complex coming in part from his lack of familiarity with the German language. 
Then the catalyst for change: a chemical cloud, an ‘airborne toxic event’ which hovers gigantic nearby and causes the evacuation of the university town where Jack lives, like a radiation cloud gone astray from its nuclear referent. Around this event the novel circulates, crackles even, with brilliance, particularly in dialogue. Here’s just a few examples. 
Gladney talking to Alfonse, an New York √©migr√©, who explains the purpose of disasters in people’s lives: ‘Because we’re suffering from brain fade. We need the occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information’ (77). Then there’s Jack’s fear of death, a fear he shares with his wife Babette: ‘it’s being left alone that frightens her. The emptiness, the sense of cosmic darkness. Mastercard, Visa, American Express’ (119).

Sometimes Delillo in 1984 is so far ahead of his time it’s frightening. Among a tabloid’s psychic predictions for the coming year:  ‘Members of an air-crash cult will hijack a jumbo jet and crash it into the White House in an act of blind devotion to their mysterious and reclusive leader, known only as Uncle Bob’ (170). Move a few digits and letters left and right and you have the madness of 9/11.

Returning to the theme, Jack and Babette talk about their fear of death, and this piece of dialogue amidst all the comic darkness of the novel:

        'What if death is nothing but a sound?'
          'Electric noise.' 
          'You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful.' 
          'Uniform, white.' 
          'Sometimes it sweeps over me … sometimes it insinuates itself into my mind, little by little'    (228).

In the midst of Jack’s crisis – his exposure to the chemical cloud, his unknown, incurable disease – this familiar sense of panic in a place where white noise is constant: ‘The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers.’ This passage, right at the end of the novel, is worth the price of admission alone. The terminals with their holographic scanners: ‘This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. This is where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly coloured good’ (375). The nuclear fears, the consumerist logic, the uncertainty of the age, all brought together here at the checkouts. 

Is it possible to be a fan of a prolific author when you’ve only read two novels and a collection of short stories? Yes. You only need to read a few pages of a novel written in 1984 at a time when the world seemed incredibly fragile. As it still does, only more so. You hear it forever -- how awful. And how brilliant.   


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