Late last fall I read that one of my favorite directors, Noah Baumbach, had written and directed a movie based on the novel “White Noise” by Don DeLillo from the 1980s. I read the book when my kids were young — a paperback copy was sitting in our bookcase — but didn’t remember it at all. I thought it might be worth re-reading before I watched the movie.
I was not alone; several new book reviews appeared and the wait time to get a copy through the Pierce County Library is nearly three months.
Winner of the National Book Award nearly 40 years ago, “White Noise” very much speaks to the present. With a blend of farce and poignancy, DeLillo’s depictions of commercialization, the foibles of academia and the pharmaceutical industry, and our fear of death feel as spot-on as they were when the book was published.
Protagonist Jack Gladney teaches Hitler studies (a field of his own invention) in a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. He lives with his wife, Babette, in a blended family with four of their seven precocious children from previous marriages. Babette teaches life skills to senior citizens and reads tabloids to a blind man once a week. Their friend Winnie Richards is a brilliant neurochemist, young and awkward, who slinks around the campus, a master of invisibility. Murray Jay Siskind is a guest professor who teaches a course on the cinema of car crashes and wants to establish a field of study centered on Elvis Presley.
Murray and Jack get into a verbal battle over who is the biggest mama’s boy — Hitler or Elvis. Winnie marvels at the human brain and declares it makes her proud to be an American. Why? “The infant’s brain develops in response to stimuli. We still lead the world in stimuli.”
The book is squarely rooted in the ’80s — television and talk radio dominate. But it is also timeless. Jack describes 11-year-old Denise transcribing names and phone numbers into a new book. “There were no addresses. Her friends had phone numbers only, a race of people with a seven-bit analog consciousness.” He waxes poetic about the beauty of a sleeping child and leans tenderly over his 9-year-old to hear what she is saying in her sleep.
“Toyota Celica,” she mutters.
I couldn’t help but think childhood’s innocence lost to the inevitable inundation by popular culture, be it Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for my son or “Frozen” for my granddaughters.
The Gladney family bonds over television on Friday nights, watching catastrophes unfold. “We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information,” a college academic explains. “This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brushfires, costal erosion, earthquakes, mass killing, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these things because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets.” He goes on to add, “India is largely untapped.”
A disaster does strike close to home. A railroad tank carrying a toxic substance is punctured and news descriptions evolve from feathery plume to black billowing cloud to an airborne toxic event. As the news unfolds Jack and Babette are first reassuring and try to normalize the situation. “I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event. That is for people who live in mobile homes out in scrubby parts of the county, where the fish hatcheries are,” Jack tells his son.
‘White Noise’ depicts Americans as too acquainted with “the mediated language and enactment of disaster,” as DeLillo scholar Jesse Kavadlo told CNN after a Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, where in an incredible coincidence, the 2022 movie ‘White Noise’ was filmed. Like the real residents who played extras in the movie, DeLillo’s characters must also flee an “airborne toxic event.”
Symptoms from exposure evolve, from sweaty palms and vomiting to palpitations and persistent feelings of déjà vu, to comas, convulsions and miscarriages — and the symptoms people report seem to depend on what they heard on the radio. Jack is exposed to the toxin and contends with what that might mean for his future. Men in Mylex suits roam the town and hold practice drills that are more tangible to participants than reality. Parallels with the Covid pandemic abound.
Jack’s son warns that the toxic event is not the real worry, but rather constant low-dose exposure to radiation from our technology. Substitute climate change for that and you are smack dab in the 2020s. Jack and Babette worry about who will die first. Neither wants to be left alone — they argue about who will be the most bereft if the other dies first — but neither wants to die at all.
Babette secretly enrolls in a drug study advertised in a tabloid, hoping to rid herself of the fear of death. As she reveals the particulars Jack struggles to take it in. He asks Winnie to help analyze the drug. He too contemplates taking it, risking the risks on the slim chance that it might work for him.
“Everyone dies,” he says.
“We just don’t want to be afraid,” Winne replies.
She goes on to say “I think it’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need? Doesn’t it give a texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry of a final line, a border or limit.”
Whether the black cloud represents death constantly looming overhead or the most subtle threat of technology and media’s effect on society, or both, the book is laugh-out-loud funny and terrifying at the same time. DeLillo’s rich language ebbs and flows, from the staccato of repartee to long meditations.
“The kitchen and the bedroom are the major chambers around here, the power haunts, the sources,” Jack says. “The rest of the house is storage space for furniture, toys, all the unused objects of earlier marriages and different sets of children.”
As I age and face my own mortality I, too, worry both about the actual fact of dying and of being left behind. But here I had the pleasure of reading something I recognize and appreciate all the more for seeing it on a page, rediscovering a truth.
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