Review: White Noise by Don DeLillo
Posted on December 15, 2012
by Adam Burgess
White Noise by Don DeLillo
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)
“This is the language of waves and radiation, of how the dead speak to the living.”
White Noise is the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at a small liberal arts college in “Middle America” (I envisioned South Dakota, though it is never explicitly stated). Jack and his (fourth) wife have an interesting relationship – a co-dependency of sorts, wherein they’re drawn together both from a sense of love but also from a fear of dying. They have four children, each of whom is special in some way, particularly the eldest son whose brilliance is in a way emasculating to his professor-father. The family dynamic and the parents’ overwhelming, paralyzing fear of death come to the fore-front as a black chemical cloud is accidentally unleashed in the community. This “airborne toxic event” as it is called, is a physical manifestation for the emotional “white noise” that the Gladneys and, in a way, all Americans are experiencing. All of the technological advancements and innovation have brought us great wonders, but at what cost?
3 – Characters well developed.
The Gladney family reminds me of a real modern family. They are recognizable in a distinctly “now” way, as coinhabitants of a specific residence (although, sometimes, there are multiple parents and step-children who do not all live together so, really, they are not even coinhabitants of a residence, but of a stretched sphere). Parents have lost a certain parental authority. Children have gained a certain dominance over their elders because they are growing up with a firmer grasp of the contemporary technology. All of this is represented by Jack & Babette and their bizarre children. Heinrich, who at 14 is already a skeptic and a cynic who reduces everything to analysis – who cannot wish or wonder or find awe in anything. Steffie is overly sensitive, unable even to watch television shows where people are put in danger or made to look stupid (like reality shows). Denise is sharp and bossy, spotting her mother’s drug problem before anyone else and trying, unlike anybody else, to do something about it. Wilder, though mute throughout the entire book, turns out to be one of the most important family members, particularly as a source of comfort to his neurotic parents.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
Combined with the interesting subject matter and the (sad) realism is a great writing style. Dialogue and storytelling are clearly strengths for DeLillo (at least in this novel – I have not read anything else by him). He understands people and contemporary relationships, in particular. This comes across in the way he tells the story, the sense of humor, the movement, the disappointment – it is all there in the language. For a book that is largely about our unwillingness or inability to communicate, DeLillo manages to get the message across loud and clear. White Noise is a masterpiece of postmodern discourse – it is a work of metafiction, cleverly disguised as a family story.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
This is the book I would love to have written. This is the type of book that I think about all the time, that I have tried to write on a few occasions. Nobody knows how to communicate effectively. Kids create drama to get noticed, parents create drama because they are unfulfilled, bored, unsatisfied – constantly bombarded with messages that we are all supposed to want more, own more, buy bigger, have better. We don’t really know our neighbors anymore, or our co-workers. Drugs are prescribed to treat our problems, other drugs are prescribed to control the side-effects of the first ones. We can’t sleep without pills, can’t wake up without caffeine. We take pictures of pictures and lose all sense of or care for original works of art, because we can keep photocopies of these things, oftentimes more brilliant than the originals, in our back pockets. We are constantly connected to instant-information devices, so we learn nothing and remember nothing, because the answers are handed to us at the touch of a screen. We are becoming something other than human.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 14+
Interest: Mass Culture, Paranoia, Cultural Studies, Contemporary Issues, Neurosis, Anxiety, Family, Higher Education, Technology, Chemical Weapons, Pollutants, Postmodernism, Metafiction, Language
“What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. It changes and grows every second of every day. But nobody actually knows anything.”
“Man’s guilt in history and in the tides of his own blood has been complicated by technology, the daily seeping falsehearted death.”
“These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters.”
“Heat. This is what cities mean to me. You get off the train and walk out of the station and you are hit with the full blast. The heat of air, traffic and people. The heat of food and sex. The heat of tall buildings. The heat that floats out of the subways and the tunnels. It’s always fifteen degrees hotter in the cities. Heat rises from the sidewalks and falls from the poisoned sky. The buses breathe heat. Heat emanates from crowds of shoppers and office workers. The entire infrastructure is based on heat, desperately uses up heat, breeds more heat. The eventual heat death of the universe that scientists love to talk about is already well underway and you can feel it happening all around you in any large or medium-sized city. Heat and wetness.”
“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”
“I am the false character that follows the name around.”
“I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters.”
Oooo…I have this on my TBR pile and I’m planning on reading it next year. Now I’m looking forward to it even more.
Don’t you just love and hate books at the same time that are the kind you would have written? Mostly love, in the end, but it does make you feel a little below par sometimes. A book like that for me is The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson.