“That night, a Friday, we gathered in front of the set, as was the custom and the rule, with take-out Chinese. There were floods, earthquakes, mud slides, erupting volcanoes. We’d never before been so attentive to our duty, our Friday assembly. Heinrich was not sullen, I was not bored . . . watching houses slide into the ocean, whole villages crackle and ignite in a mass advancing of lava. Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping.”
How had I never heard of Don DeLillo before coming across this book?! DeLillo’s novel was a breath of fresh air. For me, this was the perfect blend of plot and characters with a complex underlying social commentary. I loved every minute of this deeply funny and profoundly philosophical read.
White Noise follows Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies at an elite liberal arts college in the American mid-west, and his family through a modern world of consumerism and technology. When an “airborne toxic event” plagues the town, chaos ensues, allowing DeLillo to carefully criticize the various responses to the disaster and those affected for the first time by a more visible version of the “white noise” hovering above this typical American town.
The writing in this novel is exquisite. The narrative is simple, intentional and effective. There is no fluff here. DeLillo’s ability to write dialogue is showcased in this novel through thrilling and conversations between Jack and the various members of his inner-circle: fellow academic Murray, his fourth wife Babette and his children, especially Heinrich and Denise.
Jack is very much an unreliable narrator – a technique that is very effective in inviting its reader to engage with they story and notice the inconsistencies, contradictions and ironies that make this a deeply witty and satirical novel. To me, Jack was not a likeable character. Thinking about it now, none of the characters were particularly “likeable” in the regular sense. Jack is insecure, terrified of death and ignorant of his sexist ways; Murray is manipulative and exhausting; Heinrich is skeptical to the point of fatigue; the list goes on and on. Despite these traits, I felt deeply connected with each of these characters. It was easy to see little bits of myself in each of these characters doing their best to navigate a complicated, ever-changing world.
This novel criticizes every aspect of modern life, from gender and sexuality, to consumerism, to academia, to technology, to identity, to pharmaceuticals, to gun violence, to family relationships, to media, to race – it’s all here and it is astutely realized. While it might be easy to assume a novel that attempts to comment on each of these aspects in a complex and intelligent way might become tiresome, that was not the case here. Originally published in 1984, the story is a relevant now as it was then. Endlessly appealing with its professor of Hitler studies, its toxic chemical cloud, its adultery, its atheist German nuns and its complex examination of humanity’s fear of death, White Noise should be, in my opinion, required reading.