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White Noise Paperback – Deckle Edge, December 29, 2009
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Better than any book I can think of, White Noise captures the particular strangeness of life in a time where humankind has finally learned enough to kill itself. Naturally, it's a terribly funny book, and the prose is as beautiful as a sunset through a particulate-filled sky. Nice-guy narrator Jack Gladney teaches Hitler Studies at a small college. His wife may be taking a drug that removes fear, and one day a nearby chemical plant accidentally releases a cloud of gas that may be poisonous. Writing before Bhopal and Prozac entered the popular lexicon, DeLillo produced a work so closely tuned into its time that it tells the future. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Chairman of the department of Hitler studies at a Midwestern college, Jack Gladney is accidently exposed to a cloud of noxious chemicals, part of a world of the future that is doomed because of misused technology, artifical products and foods, and overpopulation. PW appreciated DeLillo's "bleak, ironic" vision, calling it "not so much a tragic view of history as a macabre one." January
Copyright 1985 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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The side story behind Dylar is boring, and forcefully tied into the major themes of the novel. The book struggles to create believable situations overall, but the Dylar plot seems more made-up and logically flimsy than anything else.
Jack as a main character is functional, though he suffers from being emotionally numb - though I'm used to characters in these novels being that way. He's mostly unrelateable, but it doesn't affect the story much. I couldn't imagine any human being able to deal with his idiot family without becoming frustrated. Perhaps it's because all the family members speak with exactly the same voice. It's all copies of Don DeLillo running around in kid and wife disguises.
I thought this book was going over my head - maybe I wasn't looking deep enough at the absurdity of DeLillo's universe. What's he saying when he creates a department of pop culture professors, when he makes shopping a religious experience, when he hangs the spectre of death over his characters, when he drops brand names between paragraphs? He's definitely saying something here, but it's nothing we haven't heard before. We know we suffer from information overload. We know we're consumerist. We know we're devoid of actual spirituality. In the end, who cares? Society has had much bigger problems throughout history, and to act like we've lost our humanity because of this modern economy and culture is overly dramatic. DeLillo would be a good read for a sophomore philosophy student who needs to get over himself, and his ideas about a crumbling modern society.
All this being said, I did appreciate DeLillo's unique angle on death. In a modern society with modern medicine, our relationship with death has changed. The unclear nature of cancer, toxic chemicals and sheer bad (or good) luck has made death something that is simultaneously unavoidable, unpredictable, and avoidable, and predictable. The toxic event was the highlight of the book, and made it easier to suffer through the characters' idiocy and the absurdity of the tangential commentary.
I would note before reading it that this is really an extended tract on the fear of death. It's a lot more than that too, but if you're uncomfortable considering mortality, I would opt for another book. Realizing the efforts taken to obstruct this human condition inform most action, so it's not like one chapter or one section solely deals with the idea.
Anyway, great writing, fantastic critique of the time period and culture, and an oddly warm and inviting sense that we'll all die someday.
Jack Gladney is a brooding hypochondriac, professor, and chairman of the Department of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill in idyllic Blacksmith Village. He and his wife, Babette, live with their children at the end of a quiet street, where at night "the sparse traffic washes past, a remote and steady murmur around our sleep, as of dead souls babbling at the edge of a stream." Their relationship is defined by endless discussion over who will suffer more when the other dies.
Jack's confidant at the college is Murray Siskind, ex-sports writer and visiting lecturer on Elvis Presley. In their many Socratic dialogues Murray is a comic doubter, who pursues a negative view of life. Murray at last plays a modern version of Hamlet's ghost (or perhaps Iago), urging Jack to vengeance and cold-blooded murder.
Jack's quest begins when one of the children discovers that Babette has been taking Dylar, an experimental drug, designed to overcome the fear of death. Jack's own fear of death propels him forward, investigating the drug, learning that his wife traded sexual favors for it, and climaxes in a show-down with the dealer.
Death threats are everywhere. Men in Mylex suits and respirators appear the local grade-school after a deadly toxic release. When Jack and Babette retrieve his daughter at the airport they learn that the plane had lost power in three engines, plummeting four miles, "a silver gleaming death machine," before miraculously regaining power.
An insecticide tank car ruptures and emits an airborne toxic cloud filled with the deadly byproduct Nyodene D. The cloud is an enormous dark mass that moves like a death-ship of Norse legend, forcing a general evacuation under the escort of men in Mylex suits and respirators. The cloud produces feelings of déjà vu --- the senseless reliving of senseless events. Jack is exposed, learns he is at risk of developing a nebulous mass, realizes that he will at some undetermined time die, and his desperation for Dylar grows.
The local insane asylum is a metaphor for Blacksmith Village, or perhaps College-on-the-Hill. When it burns down Jack sees a woman in a fiery nightgown walk across the lawn, "so lost to dreams and furies that the fire around head seemed almost incidental." The intensity of the apparition turns madness into reality.
Babette's vagabond father, Vernon Dickey visits. In a premonitory vision Jack sees the old man as "Death's errand runner, a hollow-eyed technician from the plague era, from the era of inquisitions, endless wars, bedlams, and leprosariums." Vernon is a harmless eccentric, but gives Jack a Zumwalt .22 caliber pistol (one of many Freudian symbols -- Vernon has a much larger pistol of his own). This gun, as must any gun in a novel, plays an key role in the unwinding of the plot.
Sister Hermann Marie, a nun at Iron City Lying In, Mother of Mercy Hospital, assures Jack that the nuns' task is to believe things that no one else takes seriously. "The devil, the angels, heaven, hell. If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse."
Delillo's mockery spares little, preaches nihilism, and suggests that life is no more than a form of death, radio static, the hiss of a blank TV screen -- white noise. In the end the brilliant writing turns on itself. The elegant phrases, stunning images, and ingenious trains of thought, leave the reader in awe. And yet, the writing mocks itself and questions its own validity. Jack learns nothing at the end of his quest. Dylar is not at all what it appears to be. The end is like the beginning. Déjà vu.