Don DeLillo: White Noise

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.


  1. This sounds very, very annoying. I had a very slim DeLillo knocking around for a year or two, but never got around to reading it. From your review, I suspect that’s a good thing.

  2. Well… not necessarily, Rob. Despite my opening sentence, I don’t think I have parted company with DeLillo entirely. I still rate Libra highly, and liked Americana too, though it’s a few years since I read either. I just hope that I wouldn’t dislike them now.

    The slim one is probably one of his post-Underworld titles: The Body Artist or Cosmopolis. The latter was pretty widely panned, but I’m not sure of the former.

  3. I was unmoved by “Underworld” and whilst I appreciated the skill in some of the writing I felt unconnected and wondered if he was one of those male writers that I just don’t get. A friend recommended “White Noise” as being far superior, so earlier this year I read it. I preferred it, and the death fears chimed with me. I thought it quite witty and clever, but again, was unmoved. The characters are distant and busily angsting in an intellectual, professorial manner.

    You say “White Noise seems to just be about itself” which strikes me as true, and I wonder if it is all about DeLillo loving how clever DeLillo is.

  4. DeLillo is a weird writer. Fairly often people are very impressed by the first book they read from him, whatever title that may be, to struggle with whichever books they try next.

    In my case, I thought Mao II had something going for it, that I ‘ve never been able to find in any other DeLillo book.

  5. I often find myself wondering why some books from 100 years ago manage to feel fresh and modern even today, while others from only ten years ago already feel stale and dated. And as someone who wasn’t alive for almost all of the last century, a book that, as you put it, seems dated because of its reliance on the “minutiae of brand names, technology and cultural contemporaneity” may not sit well with me, even if it sounds like a quite bizarre book.

  6. “I can tell that when I was younger, I would have lapped up White Noise”.

    I read it in my early twenties and loved it. I don’t remember too much about it now to intelligently defend it (or even put across an alternative point of view). I may reread it to see what I think now, a decade later.

    It may interest some readers of the blog to know that it was in part inspired by Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, which confronts the topic of fear of death (and was written just before the author died of cancer). It’s an incredible book, and worth investigating. I thought that in my early twenties too, and will definitely be rereading it.

  7. I thought you’d have some strong detractors here, John, but it looks like most people (so far) agree or accept your analysis. I’m afraid I’m one of them. I read this a couple of years ago because three highly respected and highly intelligent friends considered it their favorite book. When I was halfway through I told them I wasn’t enjoying it much at all. So they sent pages of critical essays as well as theoretical essays to help me understand what Delillo was doing. I admit, I did learn somethings from these essays, but after reading them I was further disenchanted (if that were possible) because suddenly it was like Delillo was merely trying to narrate some of the theories that were actually much more exciting first hand.

    In my friends’ defense, they’d all read it when in their early twenties while at graduate schools, so perhaps that combination put them in a strange mindset, one I like to think I grew out of.

  8. Hm. I liked White Noise both times I read it (my late 20s and mid-30s), and thought Underworld and Libra were the best Delillos. On the other hand, I thought Americana was awful, so go figure. I haven’t had the least interest in the last few.

  9. My experience tends to confirm ijsbrand’s hypothesis: Underworld was the first Delillo I read, I not only finished it, I liked it so much that I quickly bought a number of other titles. Some (like Libra and Americana) I finished in disappointment — others like White Noise I couldn’t finish. And Falling Man annoyed me so much that it went to the trash can (Canadian for rubbish bin) after 50 pages — so bad, that I didn’t want anyone else to read it. So we have reached similar conclusions about Delillo, but from totally opposite directions (yes, I would reread Underground. I’m not sure if it would be worth the effort, but I can’t help but wonder after reading this most useful review and the comments that it has provoked if Delillo isn’t an author who is initially impressive but wears very, very thin on increased exposure.

    1. Falling Man annoyed me so much. . . so bad, that I didn’t want anyone else to read it.”

      That line made me laugh out loud — four times. Ok, now five times.

  10. For what it’s worth I think you’re wrong about White Noise. I’d agree that the tone might put some people off (that high irony can get wearing) but I think DeLillo carries it off – and it’s written in that tone for a reason, as is his deliberate placing of it in a specific time (hence the references to fashion and geegaws – what else was he to do?). I also think it’s very funny.

    Personally I prefer Libra too, but think Underworld is probably his masterpiece – even if it does need one hell of an edit. I prefer the towering, ambitious DeLillo from the high-ironic one of White Noise, even if both have their place. Dismissing Underworld having only read part of the introduction seems an odd tactic.

  11. An interesting review, John. I’ve had this one in my reading queue forever — I picked it up in an Oxfam shop for £2. Unfortunately, I’ve never really been able to bring myself to read it, partly because a guy I went to journalism school with used to rave about this book – the best he’d ever read, no less – and he was kind of a nutter. He was also a book thief — he still has my collection of David Malouf novels — but dropped out of the course and moved interstate before he could give them back.

  12. I hated White Noise, it reminded me of a plate of boiled marrows. Wholesome but ultimately boring. I think that Other authors such as Yates, Updike, Roth and Franzen do the same thing as delillo, except with more panache.

    btw I’ll be reviewing swallowing the sun by tonight or tomorrow – thank you so much for pointing it out to me 🙂

  13. Thanks for all the comments, everyone. I’m glad some people think I got the book wrong, as I do respect DeLillo as a writer and there’s clearly something here: just not for me, right now. It’s also clear that (to adopt KevinfromCanada’s coinage) for me, the tree started tipping against this book quite early, and it is difficult for any book to recover from early bad impressions.

    I do think ijsbrand might have a point, as Libra was the first DeLillo I read and remains my favourite. Then again, it’s true for very many authors that my first book of theirs is my favourite.

    Matt, thanks for dropping by. I take your points in relation to the reasoning behind White Noise. As to my comment on Underworld, that was intended by way of a joke, though I take responsibility for the fact that it evidently didn’t come across as such to you.

    kimbofo, I’m guessing that Maloufgate must have taken place 15 or 20 years ago. In which case, let it go! You’re never getting them back!

    deucekindred, I’m glad your copy of Swallowing the Sun arrived safely and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it.

  14. John – sorry, I was having a slow day. Alway miss the jokes!

    And I meant to say, thanks for the site – long time reader, first time commenter.

  15. More on baseball and Underworld:

    For those who forget or haven’t read the book, the unifying baseball in the book is the one from the famous “shot heard round the world”, Giant Bobby Thomson’s home run that stole the 1951 National League pennant from the Brooklyn Dodgers.

    I could not help but notice, while reading Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn today, that he references the importance of Thomson’s home run and its impact on Brooklyn as Tony tries to get Eilis prepped for her first baseball game. I can’t help but wonder if this is not some small homage from Toibin to Delillo. (Toibin does try to get to more familiar ground by quickly moving on to hurling, but I digress and doubt that Delillo will ever return the sporting favour.)

  16. I have to say, I’ve had Underworld on the shelf for a long time, but I opted to read White Noise first. If it weren’t for the length I would have read it to see if I just didn’t like White Noise or if it was distaste of Delillo in general. I’m more encouraged here, but the length, the length!

  17. Mao II, Libra and Underworld are great books, but even they are hampered by being over-zealously didactic at times. When Delillo is over-conscious of a ‘message’ – where exposition becomes a ridiculous regurgitation of borrowed philosophy – it can rankle and it clunks and clangs along like an elaborate but ungainly machine. When he tries to capture a scene – crowds, streets, noises, flashing imagery, cumulative chaos – he is brilliant. Dialogue sometimes feels as though it’s been precision manufactured and can feel sterile, mounted on a plinth as it were. Books such as The Names and Cosmpolis are disastrous because they utilise all the Delillo elements that don’t work – cod-philosophy and Warhol-empty-speak.

  18. I managed to make it all the way through Underworld but still think that the opening baseball scene is the best part of it (to back that up isn’t it published as a separate book by someone?). The rest of the book felt like a constantly transparent attempt to write something worthy of the Great American Novel title. The only other DeLillo I’ve read is Libra which I thought was fantastic, making Ellroy’s American Tabloid seem a bit…well, dumb, in comparison. It seems that by limiting myself to those two I may have made a wise, if passive, choice.

  19. I don’t think there is anything wrong with striving to write ‘the great American novel’, as an awful lot of great work has come out of such self-conscious grandiosity. And I think, whilst the opening sequence is pretty much a landmark in American (or any) fiction, that Underworld largely sustains a level of brilliance that makes it a valid candidate for such an accolade. Libra is superb as mentioned earlier, but suffers from occasional admirable stretches of wooden dialogue that seems to be trying to shoehorn in too much exposition, always a klaxon-blaring weakness with Delillo. He doesn’t seem to trust either himself to convey complex ideas indirectly or subtly or us to understand what he’s driving at. Shame, as at his best he is magnificent.

  20. So, it looks like Libra is the place to start in DeLillo. Is that accurate? John and Richard (and James Wood) think it is one of DeLillo’s best and nobody seems to have knocked it. Shamefully, I have not read DeLillo yet, but I will start with Libra unless someone waves me off.

  21. And if I refreshed my screen from yesterday, I would see that two more (Matt and William) also like Libra. But there is dissent. KevinfromCanada did not like Libra. Well, the majority wins. Libra is going in the TBR queue.

  22. I have Underworld at home, though haven’t read it or any De Lillo yet. Since clearly after reading one De Lillo one thereafter hates all others, I’ll stick to that on the basis I already own it…

    On an arguably less highbrow aside, I have read a fair bit of Ellroy. I thought American Tabloid far from his best, and I had to give up on The Cold Six Thousand about a hundred pages in. The style. Too obvious. Even for me.

    Ellroy was a much better writer in my view when he was less ambitious in his goals. He’s moved from being a top notch crime writer whose books addressed wider themes to a middling writer of big themes whose books contain a surprising amount of crime still.,

  23. I agree Lee that a lot of great work has come from those attempts, and some of my richest reading experiences have come from those who tried. The only thing wrong with striving to write the Great American Novel is the idea that you could possibly sum up a nation like that. You don’t hear the British or other European authors talking about trying to write the Great British Novel etc… The very enterprise seems to be a uniquely American thing.

  24. William,

    I think in some way it’s a manifestation of the idea of American exceptionalism, that there is some peculiarly unique American experience.

    But there probably isn’t, not in a way capable of summary anyway. Rather there’s a complex web of experiences, some of which are likely unique to America just as some are unique to France or Ghana or wherever but no overarcing single national narrative thread. That, and the most important experiences aren’t American but universal – love, death, fear, loss, hope, the spectrum of human emotion.

    The Ballad of the Sad Cafe to take an example is in one sense peculiarly American, a story that really couldn’t easily be set anywhere else. But it’s also universal, because its themes go beyond American experience into human experience.

  25. ‘I think in some way it’s a manifestation of the idea of American exceptionalism, that there is some peculiarly unique American experience.’

    I think the idea that American writers might feel that way lends itself to interesting fiction in itself; that there is this feeling and sense of nascent power and myriad possibilities that doesn’t necessarily exist in the same form elsewhere. I think there is a vim and vitality about writers from or based in that part of the world that is not remotely as prevalent elsewhere, and I think it underpins the idea that such a thing, the ‘great American novel’, symbolises the deep-seated sense of possibility and boundless potential for great art that should be nourished. It is unique; it is giddy, inexorable and unbidden, and it is distinct and unique.

    Within all fiction lies the universal elements you refer to; it seems to me to be cast in a certain effervescent, unshackled, joyful and alluring way through the prism of Americam by the American writer, be it Faulkner, J Robert Lennon or Delillo. An insatiable striving for the impossible

  26. The word ‘Great’ is the one that intrigues me. Modern America seems to have grown from that ‘deep-seated sense of possibility’ and has been seen by many generations from many different parts of the world as the place where anyone can achieve anything. I can see why that positivity might lead artists into believing that such a country is deserving of a Great response, but given the vastness of the country itself the ‘great’ often applies to the country or the size of the art rather than the quality or achievement of it. Many people think that a slim novel like Gatsby comes closest to expressing something uniquely American. Given the wildly different cultures and communities now at work and play in America it seems almost impossible (and arrogant?) to presume that a novel could hope to represent them all.

    In the UK we have seen an increase in those voices from countries that were previously part of the Empire, or who came to England in a similar spirit of possibility. These additions to the cannon have brought a new style and perspective to fiction, creating something not only new but both Great and British.

  27. Certainly, but there is a burden evident in such writing coming from the UK, a comparitive leadenness in the work, a certain ballast to everything, a narrowness that simply isn’t prevalent in work from the US. There is a general reluctance to try anything too disparate or diffuse, it seems to me, David Mitchell aside. Even our best writers, such as Ballard and McEwan, cannot escape their immediate surroundings, nor a definite, closed prose style.

    I think the ‘size’ element is definitely an interesting issue, as though ‘copius’ may be felt to nudge one closer to ‘great’, but I’m not one to avoid the ‘sprawling epic’, Dos Passos, Delillo, Foster Wallace et al, particularly if the voice is daring, playful, fresh and happy to venture in any direction. Scope, rather than size, is the real issue for me. That and the guts to throw everything out and start again, take anything on without fear or stricture. Gatsby and Fitzgerald is a perfect example. We all know that he was obsessed with time, death, legacy and so on, but even in the midst of the grimmest of his passages, there is still that soaring sense of euphoria in the conjunction of words that eclipses all, still the wonder of the craft that seems more evident at the hands of US writers than elsewhere. Maybe it’s just me!

  28. I found that the only way I could read DeLillo was very fast, never stopping to look up a word, reread a previous section, or consider a passage. I would race through a book and then let it sink in—presumably with the cream rising to the top. I managed to get through a lot of his early novels that way, until I felt exhausted at the thought of starting another one. I think White Noise may have been the last of his books that I read; I couldn’t even bring myself to open Underworld, knowing that I’d have to gulp it down in a huge, unchewed mass. That said, I thought Running Dog, about the search for a supposed Hitler sex tape, was quite good—full of seventies shadowy CIA-style paranoia.

    DeLillo and Hunter S. Thompson are the only writers I can think of whose work has to be read quickly, without a pause for processing or consideration, in order for meaning to emerge—and for anyone who likes to savor the written word, that gets old pretty fast.

  29. I’ll put a vote in for White Noise, a book I first read in my early 20s and loved and — at the time — thought was hilarious. I’ve dipped back in for a reread a few times over the last decade and find the book holds up even better. I think it’s just a matter of embracing the book’s arch and loony logic and going with it all. Post-Underwold stuff is turgid, though. I struggled mightily to get through Cosmopolis and Falling Man, often fooling myself into appreciating them.

    My DeLillo pick is End Zone. Love that Harkness fellow.

  30. Thanks for the comments everyone, and the praise for White Noise. I’ve been away for a couple of days so haven’t had a chance to respond properly. And now I’m back home, baby duties have taken over again … but I’m grateful that people have taken the time to express their thoughts.

  31. White Noise is a sublime novel. The denser people are, the less they will get from it. That’s a consistent theme across DeLillo’s oeuvre.

  32. the one, and thus, the ONLY deLillo I have read. reminded me of a writers week project. crappy and ameteurish, IMO

  33. I read White Noise about a year ago (late twenties) and enjoyed it. Thought, despite the product placement “jokes”, it did feel fresh. I enjoyed reading something that clearly took place in the eighties but also had many similarities to the present. Though I do think he’s quite aware of his skills, I find his style agreeable and fun. I didn’t care much for americana, however. Will be reading Libra next, and from what I’ve heard, I expect this to be my favorite Delillo. But who knows?

  34. I don’t currently have the time to read all the comments here, but John, this:

    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!

    …is exactly right. The humor of White Noise is of the self-congratulatory kind, and I frankly despise it. I could go on, and end up sounding very bitter and angry about things I perceive to be bad in the wider world, but that are only loosly connected to the novel, but I feel like it’s best that I stop now.

    I should mention that I didn’t actually despise the entirety of White Noise, but I was very disappointed in it.


    Once I almost asked her to put on legwarmers before we made love.

    I really don’t know what’s so strange about that.

  35. I just finished reading it. It pales in comparison with other novels of his that I’ve read in the past, like “Players” and “Mao II” for example, which were good enough to make me start referring to DeLillo as one of my favorite authors. Actually it is the ingenious stylistic quality of these other DeLillo novels that makes it so hard for me to believe that “White Noise” is indeed his work. The very staleness of the dialogue is appalling, it is really not so much of a dialogue, as much as an endless string of tiresome monologues. And while the urban postmodern DeLillo of “Players” works for me, this suburban lifestyle thing reminds me much more of Philip Roth. I agree that the humor doesn’t really work quite like in a Bret Easton Ellis book. The characteristic BEE obsession with brands and pop culture however is not that strongly present in “White noise” and doesn’t really feel out of place. And although I’m from an ex Easter Block country I was familiar with almost all of the brands that are mentioned, so the novel can’t be that dated.
    I would really recommend people to try some of his other novels in order to really feel what DeLillo is about, since this one is just DeLillo trying to be Roth ( and this Rothness of his is probably the reason why this novel is so highly acclaimed in the USA since the just love PR over there).

  36. Thanks for your comments, BS. I must admit a comparison with Roth would never have occurred to me, though your mentioning it is a very good excuse for me to return to Roth, whom I haven’t read in, oh, months.

  37. The endless strings of mindless dialogue put me to sleep. unwitty suburban banter about nothing in particular. I couldn’t possibly read this again. not without some form of amphetamine to keep me from slipping into a coma.

  38. Pingback: Mesmerizing Enough
  39. I read White Noise two years ago and thought it was funny, well-balanced, with supreme content. At the time it was one of the best novels I had ever read. No problem at all with it supposedly being out-dated, even though I’m from Europe (and thus not familiar with US 80’s culture). This is about personal preferences: I like postmodern literature for both its intellectual stimulating themes and rather unique form. In my opinion White Noise is not just ‘DeLillo being witty’, it is a story about all of us having to cope with the knowledge of living a meaningless – easy to end – life.

  40. I would recommed early DeLillo – novels like ‘Running Dog’, ‘End Zone’ and ‘Players’ are favourites of mine. ‘Running Dog’s’ opening chapter is wonderful.

  41. DeLillo is 74. I am 74. I would not have appreciated his book 20 years ago. I wondered what younger people might say of the work. I see that here. John Self, you are not 74 which is why you have such an oblique angle on the work. Read it again when you are. Think Simulacrum.

  42. I only read Valparaiso, and from everyone’s description and comments of DeLillo’s writing style, I’m glad that book was the lightest to read since it was a short play. I thought he was genius when I read it (perhaps because of my instructor’s propaganda), and it was the only work i read of his. I thought that I should take writing tips from him!

    Now, after reading this post and comments, it seems that he keeps writing about the same damn thing in almost the same damn way. I was convinced the dry dialogue and the confusing jokes in the short play were genius; a metaphor about the nature of media and the distance of it all (like the movie The Truman Show which was in fact genius. I still recall Valparaiso from time to time when I think of the reality of tv and fame, even though at the time of reading it I had a difficult time. I had to skim over some pages to get myself to finish it.

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