DeLillo Don

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.

Don DeLillo: Falling Man

Another September 11 novel.  Soon they will have an area to themselves in bookstores, perhaps alongside the Misery Memoirs section.  (My local Waterstone’s does have one of those, in fact called Painful Pasts.  I suppose it’s an act of humanity, aimed at decontaminating the rest of the Biography shelves.)  Several prominent authors have written around or been inspired by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, some – John Updike, Jay McInerney – less successfully than others – Patrick McGrath, Jonathan Safran Foer.  But with Falling Man, Don DeLillo has looked it in the eye more steadily than any of them.  He has faced the day down and made it into a curious and satisfying work of art.

We don’t look to Don DeLillo for linearity, plain glass prose, or loveable characters.  As with his other novels, whole pages of dialogue in Falling Man can pass without the eye ever catching on anything naturalistic or plausible.  But the impressionistic blur of his writing seems particularly suited to the subject matter here.  Like the fresh memories of 9/11, it is jagged, disorienting, obscure.

He takes a shattered family as the centre of the story.  Keith Neudecker, estranged from his wife Lianne and son Justin, finds himself drawn back to the family home after getting out of one of the towers before it collapsed.  Lest we should think this is a togetherness-in-adversity story, he is also drawn to a woman, Florence, whose briefcase he finds himself carrying after he escapes.  He is displaced, having lost his poker buddies in the attacks, and looking for a new centre to hold to.  (“He would tell her about Florence.  She would get a steak knife and kill him.  He would tell her about Florence.  She would enter a period of long and tortured withdrawal.”)

Keith’s wife Lianne runs a writing group for people with Alzheimer’s (“the handwriting that might melt into runoff”).  In the aftermath, like everyone else, they want to talk about the planes.  Keith and Florence also want to talk about the planes (“It still looks like an accident, the first one. … The second plane, by the time the second plane appears, we’re all a little older and wiser”).  Here DeLillo gives us sentences on the subject that already sound like a definitive account:

The second plane coming out of that ice blue sky, this was the footage that entered the body, that seemed to run beneath her skin… A clear sky that carried human terror in those streaking aircraft, first one, then the other, the force of men’s intent.  Every helpless desperation set against the sky, human voices crying to God and how awful to imagine this, God’s name on the tongues of killers and victims both…

As always DeLillo’s interest is not just in the event, but how we see it, how technology filters it, and how news of it spreads.  A performance artist styled Falling Man imitates the famous image from the man jumping from the north tower (“She thought it could be the name of a trump card in a tarot deck, Falling Man, name in gothic type, figure twisting down in a stormy night sky”).  And he’s equally strong on the immediate aftermath in the streets below:

It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.  He was walking through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads.  They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths.  They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him.  They ran and fell, some of them, confused and ungainly, with debris coming down around them, and there were people taking shelter under cars.

The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall.  This was the world now.  Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners, bursting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall.

And what all this brings home – the towers, the planes, the Alzheimer’s sufferers, the fragility of the family – is mortality, the falling of man through life to death.  Characters’ fears bubble up everywhere, whether in seeing themselves in the mirror (“What you see is not what we see.  What you see is distanced by memory, by being who you are, all this time, for all these years”) or in renewing their passports (“Ten years come and gone, like a sip of tea”).  DeLillo, at 71, is well placed to tackle such preoccupations.

What’s surprising about Falling Man are the flashes of humour, whether in Keith’s observation that “it might be hard to find a taxi at a time when every cabdriver in New York was named Muhammad,” or the funny and true observation of how children’s attachment to mishearings could lead them to watch the skies for a man named Bill Lawton.  DeLillo also surprises us by at the end of each section, switching from the post-trauma survivors to the pre-attack lives of the hijackers.  (“He watched TV in a bar near the flight school and liked to imagine himself appearing on the screen, a videotaped figure walking through the gatelike detector on his way to the plane.”)  He takes us all the way into September 11 from both sides and doesn’t flinch.  And what is not surprising is that the book’s scattered approach and portentous tone can be frustrating, and that it glitters with pixel-perfect phrases and descriptions, and breathtaking set pieces.

Whenever a book comes along which addresses a major event, it’s easy to overstate its importance or worth simply because of the subject.  But Falling Man seems to me to stand up on literary grounds too, to display a cumulative brilliance that offsets any initial doubts, and looks certain to be pressed on people as essential reading for some time to come.