Don Delillo’s White Noise is an inward adventure through the post-modern post-consumerist 1980s brand-heavy, corporate-driven, death-fearing, paranoid America. Jack Gladney is on his fourth wife, and has four children; he is a professor with a specialty – a smart move in this America – and possesses a deep and dark driving force of fear, set to the soundtrack of constant empty broadcast background noise.
There is from the outset a kind of constancy of feeling to this book which is abruptly interrupted by an airborne health disaster from a local industrial accident. Everything is put into stark focus. Paranoia is heightened, you can taste the fear, the driving urgency is so very primal. Our normal preoccupations of sex and death become so acute; irrational.
This makes it sound like a book on the raw qualities of the human condition but everything here is pastel, muted, just matters less. It’s the setting of 1980s capitalist America – the emotional investment in brands, the trust in coporation, the belief that if it is broadcast it has authority. The lived individual experience is therefore devalued and is not even really heard because of the constant background noise – white noise if you like – from radios and TV.
Delillo uses speculation by Jack’s colleague on the new meaning this meaningless age provides. It reads as tenuous, ill-informed, a desperate grab:
“‘You have to learn how to look. You have to open yourself to the data. TV offers incredible amounts of psychic data. It opens ancient memories of world birth, it welcomes us into the grid, the network of little buzzing dots that make up the picture pattern. There is light, there is sound…Look at the wealth of data concealed in the grid, in the bright packaging, the jingles, the slice-of-life commercials, the products hurtling out of darkness, the coded messages and endless repetitions, like chants, like mantras…the medium practically overflows with sacred formulas.'”
Jack himself never really undertakes this kind of examination. He is too preoccupied with the usual human preoccupations: sex and death.
So where is the meaning here in this book? I suppose, by extension, where is the meaning in this type of society? One so devoid of meaning, so preoccupied with the noise of broadcast and so overvaluing the power of the corporate, that any real meaning in an individual is subsumed, not heard, not even established in the first place. How can we relate to our narrator when his introspection is purely superficial; just adding noise to the soundtrack of his capitalist life? He understands nothing of himself, not really, so how can we understand him as a reader?
There are some internal monologues of Jack’s containing speculations on life, reflections on the senses, dives into worth. But these feel like recitations, not anything of substance nor that it has come from a place of depth. On the surface these are enjoyable passages to read, recalling the details of how our senses show us a life, how our brain adds irony, sympathy, fond amusement; but they also ring hollow as academic, rather than felt. Suitable, perhaps, for our paranoid professor.
Is this a great book of the 20th Century? Perhaps. What makes it a poor read is that it turns the meaningless life of the lead character into the experience of the book itself. There is a talent in this that Delillo should be recognised for but to what end? Why do we write; and why do we read? The point in White Noise is definitely not pleasure, and perhaps the society that Delillo was commenting on has now moved past. Even so, as an experience of and meditation on the hyperconsumption of the late 20th Century, it is worth a read.