When, and why, do we part company with authors? I have always defended Don DeLillo from detractors, from accusations of style over substance, and in the early days of this blog I reported high praise for Falling Man. I had also enjoyed Libra and Americana, and – in common with all those interested in modern literature – I gave up on Underworld somewhere in the middle of the baseball scene. I thought it was time to try what the back cover blurb calls “one of DeLillo’s most highly acclaimed novels” (though the same cover quotes only two positive reviews).
White Noise (1984) is about two people, Jack Gladney and his wife Babette, who are too worried about dying to live well. But living well is not an option in DeLillo’s late 20th century: existence is mediated through cultural ephemera: pharmaceuticals, corporations, the media. (“I want to welcome you all on behalf of Advanced Disaster Management, a private consulting firm that conceives and operates simulated evacuations.”) Gladney is a professor in Hitler studies at college; Babette is addicted to a mysterious prescription drug named Dylar. Between them they have children from previous marriages called things like Heinrich and Wilder. They are satirically modern.
I can tell that when I was younger, I would have lapped up White Noise: its suggestiveness, its modishness, its lists and its non-sequiturs and its media mash, but right now it just feels like a Bret Easton Ellis novel without the jokes. Except it’s pretty clear that DeLillo thinks it’s full of jokes. They are easy enough to spot, but they are the sort of jokes which seek not to make you laugh or smile but to nod and go, Yeah, I’m in on this!
The smoke alarm went off in the hallway upstairs, either to let us know the battery had just died or because the house was on fire. We finished our lunch in silence.
“This is the new austerity. Flavorless packaging. It appeals to me. I feel I’m not only saving money but contributing to some kind of spiritual consensus. It’s like World War III. Everything is white. They’ll take our bright colours away and use them in the war effort.”
The other jokes are clever circular dialogues, which sometimes work but elsewhere are the sort of thing that Geoff Dyer just about gets away with and DeLillo doesn’t. In fact Dyer is a good comparison, because some of DeLillo’s interests in the book – perception and experience, say – are the sort of thing that Dyer writes about much better, by taking them face-on instead of subjecting them to a sort of literary digitisation (“No one sees the barn. Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn”). And other subjects – media, celebrity – are the kind of thing Gordon Burn writes about better.
It is mesmerising enough in places, such as when exploring Gladney and Babette’s death-obsession:
How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink. We manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn’t they paralyze us? How is it we can survive them, at least for a while? We drive a car, we teach a class. How is it nobody sees how deeply afraid we were, last night, this morning? Is it something we all hide from each other, by mutual consent? Or do we share the same secret without knowing it?
These timeless questions, however, are subsumed into a surface of modern – that is, early 1980s – culture. And with its interest in natural and unnatural disasters, White Noise – 25 years old – seems curiously more dated than, say, a 50-year-old John Wyndham novel, because of its reliance on the minutiae of brand names, technology and cultural contemporaneity. At its most specific (and comic), it practically imprints the paragraph with the month it was written.
Once I almost asked her to put on legwarmers before we made love.
Some of the time-stamping comes from product placement. His characters are no less in thrall to brand names (“beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder”) than DeLillo is, ending a chapter with the word “Panasonic” in a paragraph of its own. (The word was DeLillo’s original title for the book.) He also interrupts paragraphs with unrelated phrases from the TV, though they’re clearly supposed to be related in the sense that they add to the whole, oh you know, zeitgeistiness of the thing.
The TV said: “And other trends that could dramatically impact your portfolio.”
Through all of this, the book tootles along without much narrative urge, though there is a little page-turning impulse in parts – notably the Airborne Toxic Event section, Gladney’s investigation of Dylar and the violent conclusion to the book. But I still think that as a study of modern disaffection, it suffers in comparison to other stories of modern disaffection which are also about something else - and that could include anything from Sinclair Lewis to Richard Yates to James Kelman. White Noise seems just to be about itself. “I want to immerse myself in American magic and dread,” says one character, and there is a little of that here, some nice stuff on the appeal of catastrophe and the human need for horror as strong as the quest for meaning. It’s an ‘interesting’ book but often quite a ‘boring’ one too.