John Pistelli


Don DeLillo, White Noise

White Noise: Text and CriticismWhite Noise: Text and Criticism by Don DeLillo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am interested in the question of whether or not this book holds up. It was long judged exemplary of a cultural epoch: the postmodern novel par excellence, or at least an excellent postmodern novel that undergraduates could reasonably be expected to read in a survey course, unlike Gravity’s Rainbow or, well, Underworld. But the luster—the Warholian diamond dust—has flaked away from postmodernism; twentieth-first-century literature has generally been seeking an escape from the precession of simulacra and the prison-house of language, a return to various forms of authenticity, everything from the supra-linguistic structural and emotional intensities of genre fiction to the quasi-religious moral authority of James Baldwin, from the social realist family sagas of Jonathan Franzen and the gritty neo-modernism of Roberto Bolaño to academic literary theory’s turn toward affect studies and empirical sociology. It is not that we have forgotten, necessarily, that we are only able to communicate in arbitrary signs and the consequent necessity for irony; only that we are also allowing ourselves to be interested in whatever we may be able to access of strong feeling or creditable faith below and beyond the signifying chain.

Luckily for the Teflon Don[1], his signature “postmodern” novel turns out to be nothing other than a search for the signal in the noise. A combination family novel and campus satire, White Noise gives us an academic year in the life of the Gladney family. Its middle-aged paterfamilias is Jack Gladney, professionally known as J. A. K. Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill in a town called Blacksmith.[2] He has recently married Babette—his third wife, and the only of his wives not involved in intelligence. Theirs is a blended family: none of their four children is the progeny of the couple itself, and the children themselves seem, in their preternatural worldliness, to run the household since only they are “native” to the media, medical, and scientific landscape of the 1980s.

White Noise is beautifully structured[3]: it has three parts of unequal length. The first, “Waves and Radiation,” is a sequence of short chapters, themselves composed of staccato sentences and paragraphs, a montage of information, introducing us to the setting and characters. As critics have noted, if it owes something to the domestic realist novel, it also owes a great deal to the exaggerations and comic dialogue of the domestic sitcom, and, like television, the narrative is often interrupted by commercials—paragraphs consisting solely of product names. I know not everyone agrees with this, but for me, DeLillo’s anti-dialogic dialogue is unremittingly hilarious:

On our way home I said, “Bee wants to visit at Christmas. We can put her in with Steffie.”

“Do they know each other?”

“They met at Disney World. It’ll be all right.”

“When were you in Los Angeles?”

“You mean Anaheim.”

“When were you in Anaheim?”

“You mean Orlando.”

The main concern of this section is Jack and Babette’s attempt to evade their fear of death (“Who will die first?” they constantly ask each other) and Jack’s attempt to stave off the meaninglessness and radical uncertainty of an entirely technologized, information-saturated consumer society, where the individual is wholly subsumed in and even constituted by vast impersonal systems. Jack feels blessed when the ATM tells him his account balance matches his dim sense of it. Babette teaches classes in walking, in eating and drinking. An elderly couple gets lost in the mall. Nothing is natural any longer, and nothing is quite known. The result, as shown in a brilliant long dialogue wherein Jack cannot persuade his oldest son to commit to the proposition that it is currently raining as they drive through the rain, is a loss of any individual access to the truth:

“Rain is a noun. Is there rain here, in this precise locality, at whatever time within the next two minutes that you choose to respond to the question?”

“If you want to talk about this precise locality while you’re in a vehicle that’s obviously moving, then I think that’s the trouble with this discussion.”

“Just give me an answer, okay, Heinrich?”

“The best I could do is make a guess.”

“Either it’s raining or it isn’t,” I said.

“Exactly. That’s my whole point. You’d be guessing. Six of one, half dozen of the other.”

“But you see it’s raining.”

“You see the sun moving across the sky. But is the sun moving across the sky or is the earth turning?”

Make no mistake, the kid is right: you really can’t trust common sense or your own eyes. What to do? Jack allows to the reader that he studies Hitler precisely because the dictator’s transcendent evil gives him an anchor in a world wherein the transcendent is otherwise absent.

So Hitler gave me something to grow into and develop toward, tentative as I have sometimes been in the effort. The glasses with thick black heavy frames and dark lenses were my own idea, an alternative to the bushy beard that my wife of the period didn’t want me to grow. Babette said she liked the series J. A. K. and didn’t think it was attention-getting in a cheap sense. To her it intimated dignity, significance and prestige.

I am the false character that follows the name around.

And Jack’s colleague, Murray Jay Siskind, who acts as the novel’s oracle, praises this “society of kids” and seeks insight in the supermarket where the town convenes in lieu of church:

The supermarket is the privileged place for a phenomenology of surfaces. Murray is a devotee of generic brands, and he takes their “flavorless packaging” to be the sign of a new austerity, a new “spiritual consensus.” The packaging on supermarket goods, he says, “is the last avant-garde. Bold new forms. The power to shock.” But even unprocessed and unpackaged foods take on the form of packaging: “There were six kinds of apples, there were exotic melons in several pastels. Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright.”

Telling his students that “[a]ll plots tend to move deathward,” Jack pleads, “May the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to a plan.”

Such hubris is always punished in fiction. Part II, “The Airborne Toxic Event,” one long novella unto itself without chapter divisions, advances the action: a toxic leak afflicts the town of Blacksmith and the Gladney family is forced to evacuate. This section brilliantly portrays the media’s euphemisms (“airborne toxic event” is the comparatively lethal culmination of a sequence of mollifying labels that begin with “billowing cloud”) and the effects on our very body of media miscommunication: the Gladney children acquire every symptom of exposure to the toxic cloud that the media warns about, but they are always behind the updated symptom list; at one point, Jack even wonders if his nine-year-old daughter will suffer a miscarriage when that is announced as a possible side-effect. In this section of the novel, society regresses to the Middle Ages, plagues and wonders, as Jack confronts the archaic specter of death lurking behind ultramodern or postmodern society. While officials deal with death in circumlocution—

“Am I going to die?”

“Not as such,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Not in so many words.”

“How many words does it take?”

—the section’s imagery tells a different story:

The enormous dark mass moved like some death ship in a Norse legend, escorted across the night by armored creatures with spiral wings. We weren’t sure how to react. It was a terrible thing to see, so close, so low, packed with chlorides, benzines, phenols, hydrocarbons, or whatever the precise toxic content. But it was also spectacular, part of the grandness of a sweeping event, like the vivid scene in the switching yard or the people trudging across the snowy overpass with children, food, belongings, a tragic army of the dispossessed.

And Jack’s son, the one who had been unable to concede it was raining in the rain, laments not our death but our detachment from life:

“Can we make a refrigerator? Can we even explain how it works? What is electricity? What is light? We experience these things every day of our lives but what good does it do if we find ourselves hurled back in time and we can’t even tell people the basic principles much less actually make something that would improve conditions. Name one thing you could make.”


“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.”

The novel’s third section, “Dylarama,” returns to the short-chapter mode of the first, and narrates Jack’s attempt to learn more about an experimental drug, Dylar, that Babette has been taking to cure her fear of death. Highlights of this section include a visit from Jack’s father-in-law, an emissary from a vanished world (to speak in present media argot, of “the white working class”) who brings a German-made gun, and a Socratic dialogue between Jack and Murray wherein the oracle counsels our narrator that the only way to avoid the fear of death is to become death’s master by killing someone else. When Jack attempts to take the advice by committing murder—in the lead-up to the act, with the potential for violence bringing clarity, he “knew for the first time what rain really was”—a comic anti-climax ensues. An extraordinary conversation with some German-speaking nuns in Germantown draws to a conclusion and reverses the novel’s German motif, where Germany stands for a deadly Romantic-Hitlerian escape from the unlived life; the nuns inform Jack that they do not actually have faith but that faith is necessary all the same:

“It is for others. Not for us.”

“But that’s ridiculous. What others?”

“All the others. The others who spend their lives believing that we still believe. It is our task in the world to believe things no one else takes seriously. To abandon such beliefs completely, the human race would die. This is why we are here. A tiny minority. To embody old things, old beliefs. The devil, the angels, heaven, hell. If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse.”


“Of course pretend. Do you think we are stupid? Get out from here.”

“You don’t believe in heaven? A nun?”

“If you don’t, why should I?”

“If you did, maybe I would.”

“If I did, you would not have to.”

The highly episodic narrative does not quite end; it only stops with the school year. What does it mean? A wicked satire on postmodern living? A Frankfurt School lament over crypto-fascist consumerism? We shouldn’t expect a thesis from a work of imaginative literature. If you want to send a message, use Western Union, or, updating the reference, waste your time on Twitter. People who want to explore their and our ambivalence write poems and novels. DeLillo, I would argue, is ambivalent. Part of him would almost certainly prefer some return to religious and cultural tradition, as shown in novel’s academic satire. One of the novel’s first images is “the orange I-beam sculpture” at the center of the college’s campus, signifying not only the meaninglessness of postmodern art but also its hypertrophy of the self, the “I,” and its replacement/mockery of labor (the beam no longer used in construction but as an aesthetic object); “there are full professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes,” we read, and I can only read it as a seriously-meant send-up of the destruction of culture by who but its appointed custodians.[4]

On the other hand, DeLillo takes transcendence where he finds it. Flipping through the critical essays collected in the back of the Viking Critical Edition, which run from the late 1980s to the late 1990s, you can see the scholars slowly growing aware that this famous scene is not meant to be a joke:

She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant.

Toyota Celica.

A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform. It made me feel that something hovered. But how could this be? A simple brand name, an ordinary car. How could these near-nonsense words, murmured in a child’s restless sleep, make me sense a meaning, a presence? She was only repeating some TV voice. Toyota Corolla, Toyota Celica, Toyota Cressida. Supranational names, computer-generated, more or less universally pronounceable. Part of every child’s brain noise, the substatic regions too deep to probe. Whatever its source, the utterance struck me with the impact of a moment of splendid transcendence.

The signs of a commercial or mass culture are even more arbitrary than signs in general, but perhaps that is just what we need: when you get meaning out of the way entirely, you return to the glossolalia of the mystics, language as mesmerizing mysterious surface, an emanation from another world. Language doesn’t have to mean to be; we don’t have to believe to know the truth—whatever it may be—is potentially out there.

So, in age sick of the last century’s concluding and self-satisfied pronouncements that the novel and the self and the subject and the truth and God are all dead, White Noise, a novel that manages to be a satire and an earnest spiritual autobiography at once, not to mention an original and almost unbelievably inventive piece of narrative prose, more than holds up.

[1] See Randy Laist’s paper, “TrumpLillo: American Misshapens,” at around 19:25 in this video for a catalogue, only half-serious, of similarities between Donalds DeLillo and Trump. Trump is certainly, in the precise Toni Morrisonian sense, the first Italian-American president, as well as the first Jewish-American president. In its portrayal of the New York émigrés, White Noise suggests a similarity or fraternity between Jews and Italians in American life, and so, just as Bill Clinton was in Morrison’s account attacked with “tropes of blackness,” so is Trump condemned with tropes of Italianness and Jewishness: he is assailed as a pushy, crass, and ostentatious NYC parvenu, corruptor of American traditions, child of immigrants, immersed in “family business,” oversexed, mobbed-up, and loyal to a foreign power. Please note that my point here is not to defend Trump—like Clinton before him, he provides plenty of genuine grounds for robust criticism—only to understand American culture.

[2] The novel’s precise geographical setting is left unspecified, but certain quasi-fictional references—e.g., Iron City (a Pittsburgh beer), Germantown (located, among other places, in Wisconsin)—evoke the Rust Belt or Upper Midwest, a setting thematically necessitated by the novel’s concern with the vanishing of labor and laboring know-how.

[3] The novel’s portrayal of humanities academia in the era of its transition to theory and cultural studies but before its demographic shift toward much greater female participation and its total and uncompromising ideological commitment to left-wing causes is fascinating: College-on-the-Hill’s professoriate is comprised entirely of “New York émigrés,” tough-talking Jewish and Italian males studying the cultural detritus of their youth. Murray’s comparison of city- to town-living is instructive here:

“In cities no one notices specific dying. Dying is a quality of the air. It’s everywhere and nowhere. Men shout as they die, to be noticed, remembered for a second or two. To die in an apartment instead of a house can depress the soul, I would imagine, for several lives to come. In a town there are houses, plants in bay windows. People notice dying better. The dead have faces, automobiles. If you don’t know a name, you know a street name, a dog’s name. ‘He drove an orange Mazda.'”

Now that this era—should we call it “the age of Lentricchia”?—has passed, White Noise can be read as a mischievous and satirical tribute or even elegy.

[4] A few months ago, a commenter and I were speculating about the influence of Mrs. Dalloway on The Crying of Lot 49. I now wonder about the possible influence of To the Lighthouse on White Noise: these two novels of family and death are both arranged in three parts, with the central section a brief line or corridor of death and destruction joining the more expansive first and third sections.


Still from Radiohead’s video for “Fake Plastic Trees,” 1995 (via)

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