on 23 May 2014
DDL has written something clever and funny here but it stretches definition to call it a novel, even more so than Finnegans Wake or Beckett's The Unnameable. It sure looks like the real deal - paper covers, pages, and apparently packed with characters in the conventional sense - Jack Gladney, wife Babette, son Heinrich (apt; you'll see why), an assortment of daughters, ex-sports hack Murray Jay Siskind, Dr Chakravarty, various academics at Jack's college, etc. - but in fact the only person here is DDL himself, relentlessly debating the big issues with himself, death the biggest. Does that matter? No, not when the writing is so excellent - "His bright smile hung there like a peach on a tree" - the philosophising so potent, and the jokes so good. Want to meet the disaster simulation team that uses a real emergency as a practice run for their big simulation? Or the college professor who tutors Hitler studies only to be taught German by the Fuhrer himself? It's all here, including a tacked-on bit at the very end which was obviously a leftover from the planning stage and refused to fit anywhere else. Like I said, not a novel, but a splendid, intelligent and hilarious soliloquy on life, matter, energy and death. The whole damned shooting match, as "Jack Gladney" comes to realise. ADDENDUM JANUARY 22 2016 I should have stressed death more in the above review as it's one of the main themes - put simply, how can we as self-aware beings cope with the constant terror of oblivion? Various "characters", inasmuch as we have any here, try various ploys to achieve this state of divine repression, including a community of German nuns who only pretend to believe in the whole Roman Catholic charade of angels and afterlife to encourage the non-believers. The last word in this 40-chapter novel (maybe significant) is "dead", though the writing is alive as it gets.
on 27 March 2015
We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides -- pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
"No one sees the barn," he said finally.
A long silence followed.
"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.
We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
"Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."
Another silence ensued.
"They are taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.
What a strange book, not at all a conventional novel with clear characters and a plot. Much more like ambient music that a song ( notable that the original cover was designed by Brian Eno) , much more impressionistic that realistic, this is a satire of almost everything in modern life. The main theme is fear of death, particularly for those of us without any belief in an after life of any kind, and there are some penetrating and interesting thoughts and phrases around that, usually build into conversations bwetween academics. It is also a satire on consumerism, academic life, marraige, fidelity, sense of identity, and our quest for answers to everything.
It is not an easy read though, and frequently I almost gave up - although that is something i rarely do when reading. There is a strange beauty to the writing which kept me going, despite how disturbing the themes. I didn't find the book funny - dark, sometimes compelling, always strange - but not amusing.
Strange - but somehow worth reading
on 17 April 1999
Reading this book staggered me: the phrasing is so spot on, the themes so unusual yet compelling, the dialogue so full of witty, off-the-wall observation that I was left marvelling at the author's magical ability to put words together in unusual yet telling combinations and searching bookshops for more of his books. But having read three others from different periods of his career (the vastly overrated 'Underworld', the execrable 'Ratner's Star' and the mixed 'Great Jones Street') I am left in little doubt that this is his chef d'oeuvre. By some fortunate inspiration, DeLillo discovered his perfect theme for this book: fear of death. He takes this theme and looks at it from all possible angles; yet this is not at all a morbid book. It is instead the funniest black comedy around: the exchange between Jack and his wife when preparing to have sex made me explode with laughter. I found the latter so hilarious that I even shared it with one of my advanced English as a foreign language classes, whose eyes were standing on stalks by the end! Last but certainly not least, DeLillo's understanding of the impact of popular culture on our minds and lives is remarkable: he forced me to make connections about the insidious influence of technology and the media that I would certainly never otherwise have made, and continue to bear in mind every time I read a newspaper or switch on my computer. If you only ever read one contemporary novel, read this one: this is the book that encapsulates our time, not 'Underworld'.
on 4 June 2015
“The world is full of abandoned meanings.”
White Noise takes place in a realm one small step removed from an easily recognisable reality – or “just outside the range of human apprehension”, as DeLillo puts it. On face value none of its characters or events are quite credible – the characters are too eloquent, the scenes too stage managed. Why, for example, would people choose to go out in the open on foot to escape from a toxic cloud? Why not get in their cars or simply stay barricaded in their homes? So DeLillo can give us an image of a nomad biblical exodus because Delillo wants to strip down humanity to its rudiments in this novel – the fear of death and subsequent gullibility it induces to submit to all kinds of generalised information that will keep us safe. He wants to show us how information is used to cower us into a herd mentality. The Hitler warning always stalking the outer corridors of the novel. “Put on a uniform and feel bigger, stronger, safer''.
White Noise, on the surface, is DeLillo’s most orthodox novel. First person narrative. Straightforward chronology. Mainly domestic setting. Lots of humour. The novel’s white noise is the endless stream of (mis)information we are subjected to in our lives. Data has a viral role in this novel. Data that rarely translates into wisdom. The narrator Jack Gladney’s oldest son articulates this theme brilliantly: “What can we do to make life easier for the Stone Agers? 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. Could you make a simple wooden match that you could strike on a rock to make a flame? We think we’re so great and modern. Moon landings, artificial hearts. But what if you were hurled into a time warp. If a Stone Ager asked you what a nucleotide is, could you tell him? How do we make carbon paper? What is glass? If you came awake tomorrow in the Middle Ages and there was an epidemic raging, what could you do to stop it, knowing what you know about the progress of medicines and diseases? Here it is practically the twenty-first century and you’ve read hundreds of books and magazines and seen a hundred TV shows about science and medicine. Could you tell those people one little crucial thing that might save a million and a half lives?”
Children, still unencumbered by fear of death, are better (and more mysterious) filters of information in the novel than the fear-stricken adults. The adults are both blinded and deafened by the wall of white noise of ubiquitous multimedia information because “the deeper we delve into the nature of things, the looser our structure may seem to become.” The children therefore often have to resist what passes as wisdom in the parents. “The family is the cradle of the world's misinformation.”
As he becomes much more intimate with the advent of his own death Gladney begins finally to glean wisdom from information. “The air was rich with extrasensory material. Nearer to death, nearer to second sight. I continued to advance in consciousness. Things glowed, a secret life rising out of them.”
White Noise, not quite the masterpiece that is Underworld, is a brilliant achievement, his second best novel.
I read "White Noise" by Don DeLillo for my book group. I tried to read "Underworld", around the time it came out, and chose to abandon it. I know five other readers who had the same experience with "Underworld". I was therefore relieved to discover that "White Noise" is a more accessible, amusing and readable book. That said, there isn't much of a plot and most of the book details numerous inconsequential, every day occurrences and conversations.
There's much to enjoy, however my initial relief gave way to slight boredom with the meandering nature of the book. The book's characters are an interesting bunch that all centre around an extended small town family. As the "story" unfolds several themes emerge - death and mortality, consumerism, technology, and authenticity - which are playfully explored. It is only in final third of the book there is any semblance of a conventional plot and the death theme, that runs throughout the book, becomes more explicit.
Recommended if you enjoy clever and digressive satirical novels with various levels of meaning to ponder.
on 28 August 2014
Don DeLillo is a fine writer and no reader will be disappointed by his wonderfully fluent and introspective prose which is evident once again in this book. An ambitious literary work, this novel succeeds in many areas, creating several engaging characters beyond the lead and it's peppered with quality social satire. The storyline (a chemical spill causes a local toxic event) forces the main character, Jack, to explore and confront his longstanding fear of mortality, but as the book reaches its final third the energy of the narrative fades somewhat, and the final act just isn't strong enough for my liking. White Noise has very little of the drive and tension of Libra, his finest book for me, and although this was never intended to be a plot-driven work, a bit more vigour in the story wouldn't have gone amiss.
Jack Gladney teaches at the College-on-the-Hill. He and his wife Babette live, with four of their children from previous marriage (Heinrich, Steffie, Denise, and Wilder) in the quiet college town of Blacksmith. Jack and Babette are both afraid of death and it is this fear that is central to the novel. Whose fear is the greater? "Sounds like a boring life." "I hope it lasts forever," she said.
Jack and Babette's fear of death, the world in which they live and participate is conveyed satirically through a series of events (some of more direct consequence than others) which are peppered with laugh out loud moments. There's a subtlety in the observation and the writing that makes this novel work.
`The family is the cradle of the world's misinformation.'
Jack serves as the department chair of Hitler studies, a discipline that he invented in 1968, despite the fact that he does not understand German. Hitler's importance as an historical figure gives Jack a degree of importance by association: `Some people are larger than life. Hitler is larger than death. You thought he would protect you.' His colleague, Murray Jay Siskind, has come to Blacksmith to immerse himself in what he calls `American magic and dread.' Murray is a lecturer in living icons who is trying to establish a discipline in Elvis studies. Murray finds deep significance in things that are ordinary - especially the supermarket: `This place recharges us spiritually, it prepares us, it's a gateway or pathway. Look how bright. It's full of psychic data.'
The major events in the novel concern an airborne toxic event and its consequences, and Jack Gladney's search for a mysterious psychopharmaceutical drug called Dylar once he discovers that Babette is participating in an experimental study (of sorts). All this fear of death becomes an inability to really live, especially in a world full of white noise, rampant consumerism and simulations, or does it?
`In a crisis the true facts are what other people say they are.'
This novel was published in the mid-1980s, and while I read it then, I enjoyed it a whole lot more this time around. Disturbingly, it made more sense.
on 26 December 2014
For some people the dire lack of a story may be problematic, but not for me or this review as there`s no real story to ruin, so fear not.
The blurb promises to cover a few topics which should be of interest to us all and each one is skimmed across and cheerily ticked off the writers list. One shouldn’t expect any challenging thoughts, only a quick nod in its direction. We are told that our main character is forced to confront his greatest fear, his own mortality. And he does, very quickly before continuing with his life. In this apparently absurd, yet incredibly dull world the writer has brought us, it`s actually his wife that harbours a great problem with this fact of life and goes out of her way to do something about it. Our heroic main character promises to work through this with her and the whole idea is put to rest. Which thankfully leaves them time to go food shopping and marvel at the various varieties of ham on offer, thereby ticking off another grand topic, rampant consumerism.
Humour is just another forgotten promise in this book. One can`t expect any laughs from the most shallow characters who are the weakest I’ve come across in perhaps any book. Mercifully I won`t have to go into detail to explain as there is very little to explain. The character creation would have taken less than two minutes.
The most infuriating thing about white noise is that it ignores the possibilities it sets up and always decides upon the most mundane route to another none event. I`m not after mass death and destruction in the wake of the books only event, the toxic airborne event, but this simply comes, goes and is forgotten just as quickly.
White noise is the only book that immediately upon finishing, has been angrily tossed away into the corner. There are the quickest of touches upon the other topics mentioned, but no more, so I wouldn’t waste your time on this book.
`White Noise' is a rather apt title for this book, which could cruelly be described as 300 pages of static. Various things are described, but it doesn't actually get anywhere different from where it started. The actual writing style isn't bad, and there are often passages that are particularly perceptive or enjoyable for their humour. There are numerous set pieces that work well. But it doesn't really come together to form a cohesive whole.
I can tell this book is deep and meaningful and full of pointed comment on the human condition, and the American condition in particular. Which is great if you like that sort of thing. For me, I felt it sacrificed entertainment for intellectualism a bit too much. It is narrated in the first person by an academic living in small town America with his wife and an assortment of children. The bulk of the book describes small incidents in their lives, with a vague theme about fear of death which got tedious very fast. The middle of the book is devoted to an episode where the family is forced to evacuate due to a nearby chemical spill. The third part resumes much as the first left off, only with more angsting about life and death.
If you wanted to sit and analyse the book and its meanings, you would find plenty to discuss. It would be a reasonable book club choice. And it's not tortuous to read. But if you want to really enjoy a story, get wrapped up in it and find it hard to put down, `White Noise' will disappoint. It's not that sort of book. As I say, it's not a bad read as such, I didn't hate it, but I could quite happily put it down and forget all about it until my desire to read something else made me pick it up again in order to finish.
Part of the problem is that I felt very little empathy for any of the characters, including the narrator, who if anything I found rather annoying. I couldn't relate to him and his life at all. This may be partly because he is a different age, gender and nationality to me - although that hasn't stopped me empathising with other characters in the past. Because of this, I didn't really care much what happened. I felt no real fear or tension when the characters were fleeing the toxic cloud, and even more bizarrely, neither did they. The writing conveyed no tension, and in fact made the whole thing seem rather ridiculous. I also found the way some events were portrayed to be unbelievable - this is probably done deliberately for comic effect, but I never found it funny and it didn't seem to sit well with the style of the rest of the book.
For readers who like intelligent, philosophical and slightly satirical books with many layers of meaning, this would be a good reading choice. For those who like a plot driven novel or one where the characters are very likeable and the reader can feel involved, it is less worth a read. I fall into the latter category, and whilst I was happy enough reading it, I wouldn't rush out to buy another. If you are a reader of the first type though, chances are you'll enjoy this.