Murray was new to the Hill, a stoop-shouldered man with little round glasses and an Amish beard. He was a visiting lecturer on living icons and seemed embarrassed by what he’d gleaned so far from his colleagues in popular culture.
“I understand the music, I understand the movies, I even see how comic books can tell us things. But there are full professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes.”
“It’s the only avant-garde we’ve got.”
When I was still in college I dared to express a negative opinion about Don DeLillo’s Underworld. I found it difficult to read, occasionally over wordy and slightly pretentious. Threatened with expulsion from several friendships unless I revised my opinion, I ploughed on and eventually during the second half of the book, something clicked. I finished Underworld suitably impressed with its themes of how discarded objects and hidden histories have just as much importance as official accounts of where we came from. DeLillo is one of the great figures of American letters. By amending my opinion of the book I found myself once again tolerated by my peers.
This is the second book by DeLillo that I have read and I am sorry to say…I didn’t really like it.
Jack Gladney has cornered the academic market in a peculiar field. A lecturer at College-on-the-Hill, he has founded and is the head of the Department of Hitler studies. He pours over biographies of the Nazi dictator, shows his students hours of propaganda film footage, keeps a copy of Mein Kampf close at hand and muses on the cultural significance of The Holocaust. Embarrassingly he cannot speak German. He befriends a new lecturer who has come from New York named Murray Jay Siskind, who is looking to follow Gladney’s example and set up a Department of Elvis studies. The two banter throughout the novel on how television inoculates us to recorded atrocities and how death underpins all media entertainment.
Gladney and his new wife Babette live with a sampling of their respective offspring from several marriages. Their children are precocious for their age, addressing their parents often as peers, a product perhaps of their multifarious parentage. On Fridays the family gather together as a unit to watch television, a ritual designed to deprive the box of its allure for minors.
Throughout the novel television and the mediated image is shown to desensitize the Gladney family and Jack’s academic colleagues from any sense of what is real. The only remaining reality is that of death itself, something that is impossible for people to understand. Midway through the novel the town is forced to evacuate due to a chemical disaster. Jack argues with his family as to the serious of the event. The children insist on the family seeking shelter after they hear the broadcasts warning of an approaching flume of poisonous gas. Jack questions them as to the intonation of the warning, just how serious was it? His authority as a parent is negligible, his relationship with his wife based on constant prevarication in the hope of seeming always rational. What else if left to define him beyond a fear of dying?
While reading White Noise I found myself continually comparing it to other novels. When Jack and Murray discuss violence as entertainment, the latter finally successfully setting up his own course on car crashes, I was reminded of J. G. Ballard’s Crash. Ballard also focuses on the fear of death, celebrity and the human sex drive, but in a far less disjointed manner. When Jack is lost to a neurotic fugue, unable to relate to his wife, caught in nonsensical arguments with his colleagues, I thought of Saul Bellow’s Herzog. That book featured a much-divorced academic trying to bring his professional intellect to bear on his neurosis. However, it was a far more balanced and solid book, at its core ultimately hopeful.
As a satire I found White Noise to be lacking in focus, at times too broad. We spend our lives waiting for death, so during the disaster Jack encounters a group that practices emergency responses to just such an event in live simulations. Unfortunately they’re not prepared for the real thing. Where other readers might see examples of DeLillo’s humour, I see only failed attempts.
I guess he’s just not for me.