Monday 3 December 2012

White Noise – Don DeLillo (1985)

Was it a coincidence that I had to abandon reading Pox, a book about syphilis and how it influenced certain historical figures, at the chapter about Hitler so I could begin White Noise in time for my book club? Most likely, but somehow I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was significant that White Noise’s protagonist - Jack Gadney, happened to be a professor of Hitler studies. It was also just the kind of trivial coincidence that is elevated to profound significance throughout the novel. Jack and his academic colleague - Murray, would have been suitably impressed and pondered its meaning over many paragraphs.

DeLillo is considered to be a significant postmodern novelist, and White Noise is his most postmodern novel. The book touches on almost every significant postmodern concept available to literature and this is undoubtedly the key to understanding the novel. White Noise utilizes meta concepts, hyperreality, irony, parody, deconstruction, media saturation, cultural fragmentation and the nefarious influence of high capitalism on culture. The novel could also very well be a parody of postmodernism itself (I strongly suspect that this is the case). White Noise is also an extremely funny book and perhaps a bit too clever for its own good, which in this case is a good thing. Perhaps it is pretentious, but personally I love a good dose of pretension.

The Gadney clan sits at the centre of the narrative, a fragmented family of children from three or more different marriages. The children are, for much of the time, more adult than Jack and his blonde bombshell wife - Babette. Their son - Heinrich, is a fast-talking deconstructionalist who argues with Jack about whether the rain outside the car actually exists, particularly if the radio has stated that it wasn’t going to rain. DeLillo uses the Gladney family as a means to explore both the decline of the traditional family unit and the lack of certainty that comes with it. Jack Gladney neurotically searches for meaning in a modern world in which meaning is constantly shifting.

In the first of three titled sections - Waves and Radiation, Jack discovers that Babette is secretly taking a mysterious drug. Both Jack and Babette also suffer from a profound fear of death. The adult Gadneys are obsessed with death and the many new ways of dying that the modern world has manifested all around them. They argue over who will not cope the most if the other dies, but meanwhile they take great pleasure in watching disaster footage on television, totally divorced from the reality of what they are witnessing.

Hyperreality, in which simulations of reality are mistaken for the real thing, is a concept that dominates White Noise. Babette reads absurd pulp magazine articles to the blind and no one questions their validity. In the second section - The Air-Born Toxic Event, the disaster management organisation called SIMUVAC regards the real disaster merely as good preparation for the future simulations they plan. When they do carry out a successful disaster simulation that features noxious gas, there is an actual noxious gas cloud the very next day, but no one responds because it doesn’t seem real.

The dubious truths presented by the media also feature prominently, with Babette’s addiction to talkback radio and the frequent non-sequitur interactions from the TV that masquerade as mystical messages.  Murray only seems to talk in theories, deconstructing the world whilst also negating it with his hyperreal academic argot. Murray is also obsessed with the plain packaging isle at the supermarket, which are hyperreal versions of ‘real’ food. In many ways Murray is the most significant character in White Noise – he is a bullshit artist and genuine at the same time, like a personification of postmodernism.

Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of White Noise is the parody of academia. Jack is the professor of Hitler studies, but can’t speak German. Murray is trying to establish himself as professor of Elvis studies. The meaning of “Hitler’s achievements” (as Jack un-ironically states) is subverted into meaningless pop academia in a superb scene in which Jack trades off comparisons between the two figures with Murray in a lecture that ends with the two being mobbed by the students, as if they themselves were rock stars. Jack’s fellow academics also argue frequently about trivial cultural experiences and act like petulant teenagers, rather than serious academics.

There is so much crammed into this amazing book that a lengthy essay is needed just to begin to address its significance. DeLillo playfully parodies academia, but at the same time he wrote the perfect book to be studied by English Literature students. This is how I first came to read White Noise and now having read it for the third time I remain just as impressed. If you decide to read White Noise you’ll find out what Dylar is, why Jack and Babette covert baby Wilder’s company, the significance of atheist nuns and why it’s always a good idea to have a full tank of fuel in the car in case of air-born toxic events. Out of all the DeLillo novels I’ve read, White Noise is his most fully realized. If you read just one DeLillo novel, make it this one.


  1. What a fantastic and insightful review. I too have read White Noise three times - in fact, it is the only DeLillo book I've really engaged with at all - but I saw it through fresh eyes reading your review. When you speak of Murray being a bullshit artist and genuine at the same time it reminds me of the guy who runs the advertising agent in Jonathan Dee's Palladio.

  2. Hi Annabel. Thanks for your kind comments. I haven't read Palladio, nor your books I'm afraid! We have them both at my library. I remember thinking that A New Map of the Universe was great title for a novel.

    Have a great Christmas.