White Noise by Don DeLillo
I read Don DeLillo’s White Noise sometime early last year. Maybe it was mid last year – not that it matters much.
It wasn’t my first rodeo with Mr DeLillo. When I was in year 12, my mother got me a copy of Cosmopolis, an eerie novel about late stage capitalism that takes place mostly inside of a limousine, and despite taking five years to get around to reading it, I enjoyed it.
Let that be a lesson to anyone who buys or recommends me a book, by the way. I may take my sweet time, but if you are a person I care about and you’ve given me a book, I will read it.
Anyway, White Noise. It was hard at first to know what to make of this book. The concept is basically this – a professor at a middle American university has pioneered Hitler studies in his department, Jack Gladney. He is afraid to die. He says of his job,
It’s not a question of good and evil. I don’t know what it is. Look at it this way. Some people wear a favorite color. Some people carry a gun. Some people put on a uniform and feel bigger, stronger, safer. It’s in this area that my obsessions dwell.
He has a wife, who he loves, and is afraid will die before him. He has children, who are a mix of a bit pointless and the best characters in the novel. I am thinking primarily of young Heinrich, whose egoistic interest in being ‘intelligent’ and mix of plainly contrarian and genuinely thought-provoking pestering is so characteristic of a certain kind of 13-year old boy that I’m surprised there was no ‘all resemblances in this novel to my annoying nephew are simply coincidence’ disclaimer.
He has a colleague who studies advertising and culture and is obsessed with the labels on soup cans and the phallic marketing of various brands of tyres. Perhaps I’ve got those commodities wrong, from memory – or is that the point?
Jack has an enemy too, but I hate reviews that spoil books, so I’ll leave that one for you to discover.
When stuck, I am a fan of comparing a book to its marketing quote, or to other reviews. The cover of my Picador copy read ‘One of the most ironic, intelligent, grimly funny voices in present-day America.’ The New York Times review from the time of publication basically recounted the writer’s favourite bits, something I try to avoid myself, but will be the first to forgive when I see it in others. I know the temptation and have fallen to the same before.
Of course, I am still disapproving, and White Noise is a novel where this is a uniquely egregious sin. A recount review tells, it doesn’t show. White Noise is at its best when it shows.
Its allegories and metaphors – the most photographed barn in America, the airborne toxic event and the déjà vu phenomenon to follow, the entire character of the infant Wilder and the parents’ discussions of his infancy, and the central ‘Dylar’, a pill that cures your fear of death – these are the meat and potatoes of this novel, and to appreciate their genius you just must read the book, not quote the book.
You might respond to this by saying anything on the spectrum of ‘based anti-semiotics’ and ‘telling people to read the book is not analysis Patrick’, and perhaps you’d be right on both counts. But what I feel I’m striking on here is the balance at the heart of this novel, and to get ambitious with this take, most great post-modern story-telling. But we’ll get back to that.
First I must acknowledge that DeLillo’s prose is gorgeous. To commit the sin I just decried, here’s an example from early in the novel.
“I stood there, listening. The wind blew snow from the branches. Snow blew out of the woods in eddies and sweeping gusts. I raised my collar, put my gloves back on. When the air was still again, I walked among the stones, trying to read the names and dates, adjusting the flags to make them swing free. Then I stood and listened.
The power of the dead is that we think they see us all the time. The dead have a presence. Is there a level of energy composed solely of the dead? They are also in the ground of course, asleep and crumbling. Perhaps we are what they dream.
May the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to a plan.”
I can’t be the only one who stopped reading this to say aloud, ‘Fucking hell that’s good’.
Re-reading it, it’s even better than I thought then. That is 18-year old single malt whiskey turned into words. That is a gothic cathedral of a final sentence built on the pristine cliffside of a preceding paragraph with zero discernible flaws. If this prose was water, it would be the kind they reserve for the underneath of a 15,000 dollar a night glass-floored resort hut in the Maldives.
It’s aesthetic, it’s touching, it’s existential, it’s good out of context and borderline genius in context. But I am going to posit that it is also a distraction at times. It is not what White Noise is about, it is not DeLillo’s greatest strength. It is what White Noise is dressed in, what it wears to the ball, but it is not itself the debutante.
Quote-heavy reviewers gone by, seduced by DeLillo’s freakish wit and ability to write, have glossed over the most beautiful part of his work – his ability to think.
Consider that the novel’s 2022 Netflix adaptation used DeLillo’s dialogue word for word. In modern television a step like this is so deferent it’s almost a little … religious? No actually. It’s idolatry.
Ultimately, that idolatry is the same mistake that quote heavy reviewers have made.
I’ll explain their mistake further by musical analogy – jump the shark with me here and you won’t regret it.
So, I’ve been learning jazz – and as I have a human brain that is wired to connect the disparate things it has been doing to identify patterns, I feel like I’ve identified one here.
There is a rhythm in this novel. Not a rhythm to its prose, that’s an analogy you’ve probably heard a lot, but to the entire piece of work.
Beneath every piece of music lies a beat. Not the beat played by the instruments, I mean beneath even that. Beneath the beat is the original beat. The beat of the universe – the passing of time.
In a musical arrangement, you sequence the use of an instrument repeatedly in a patterned way, layering your own time on top of real time. Think of a classic rock drum beat. TSS BOP TSS BAP | TSS BOP TSS BAP | TSS BOP TSS BAP. A drummer will mix it up and lead into a new bar, and throw in fills, but this is the basic structure.
Imagine, over this, a lead instrument, like a trumpet or a saxophone or a piano.
In this analogy that melody is the prose. It is the melody of the text. It’s the rhythm of the lead piano, the snare. Imagine the harmonica solo in Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely – which I recently described to a friend as the tune the angels will play on judgment day when we find out everyone is saved.
Part of our soul runs right toward melody, following seamlessly, grooving to the melody if it’s a good one. This part of the human mind rudely takes over when we sit down at an instrument to try something new and commands us to play our comfort riffs for three hours.
It’s also the part of the mind that recognises aesthetic beauty with killer instinct. It hunts musical pleasure, and, I contest, literary pleasure, with froth foaming from its gluttonous mouth. It fills its copy of Infinite Jest with 300 different sticky tabs and sits down for entire sessions to only drink coffee and re-read its favourite bits of prose. It re-reads and re-reads and re-reads. It has stacks of unopened classics it can’t seem to pick up and stacks it can’t seem to put down.
But there is another part of the mind too. The backbeat.
Imagine it as one instrument or a whole rhythm section. A bass or a drum is the simplest way. This is a human soul dedicated to the meticulous keeping of time – whether an instrument is played on each beat or not, no matter where the rests are, or how many or for how long or whether the instrument even really belongs in a rhythm section, something – even only in our head – is always keeping this beat. It is hypnotic, it’s the sound of whatever is to come walking relentlessly toward the present.
The melody is built on the beat. It loses its richness without the beat.
I want to encourage you to read White Noise and try and listen for its beat. Others have been so caught in the melody that they have missed the genius turns DeLillo’s rhythm takes. They can only hear the melody, which is the prose, and the bass drum, which is death.
Look past that brilliant harmonica solo, the gorgeous prose, and listen to the whole rhythm section, the array of themes beneath the surface, playing not alone, but with each other.
If you can find it, you’ll start to see that the soft, consistent beat of DeLillo’s novel is not just ‘death’. There is more than one instrument in this rhythm section.
Death is its heart of course. It is the bass drum, the very core idea. It is the marching of time as a metaphor for the marching of time. But other themes come in to play their solos too. Imagine a solo where death, the bass drum, is always playing. But the bars are varied. Beliefs about belief goes over the top for four bars, then the performative nature of life under capitalism does four, then the ways fear is experienced has its go, then infancy and human growth plays four. This is the feeling the masterful composition DeLillo has put together gave me. Death is its cornerstone, but not its point, the point is the overall music.
As I read, I came to see that like in music, where each beat takes us inevitably toward the next, the passing of time in Gladney’s life was being propelled forward with each written word. I realised I was participating in his death. I was inching a character terrified of and obsessed with death closer and closer to the thing he hated most.
I saw this novel described by listeners of melody as witty, clever, funny. Maybe these are just the kinds of things people like to say about hugely successful post-modernists. I don’t think it’s really any of those things.
White Noise is not a comedy with a dark side. It is a psychological horror with jokes. You are the torturer, forced to propel a man living in the prison not just of capitalist America but the whole of modernised society who is trying his sincere best not to cave to unbridled anguish, toward his end.
When I finished the novel, I felt the bass drum’s sudden absence. I felt Jack Gladney’s heart stop in my hands. This temporality dressed as it was with the skill of a great artist, freaked me right out. It is genius, touching, and sad. It made me smile at times, but that didn’t make it ‘funny’ and to call it ‘witty’ instead would be patronising. It shook me to the point of writing about it near on a year later.
Its melody is beautiful too of course. The allegories I mentioned are nothing short of genius and the prose almost couldn’t be better. But it is the deceptively complex beat of this novel that makes it truly postmodern.
There’s that annoying word. Postmodern. What really is postmodern, and how should we read it? I’ve learned this is an area of some dispute – anyone who claims it is not is a culture warrior of sorts.
I don’t have an ‘answer’, but I have a few ‘ways to think about it’ and have heard things I know for sure are not the answer.
It is for sure not the answer to simply say, as some fellow students have inflicted upon me, that Infinite Jest is about ‘addiction’, that Gravity’s Rainbow is about ‘paranoia’, that A Visit from the Goon Squad is about ‘time’, that White Noise is about ‘death’, and that once I have this ‘key’ I can just ‘look for the motifs’.
I even think this is an abuse of sorts.
Here’s one of my ‘ways to think about it’ – if you pulled just one chapter out of a novel, would it retain its character? In post-modern novels, the answer is more often yes than no. In others it is more often no than yes. My classmates were onto something with the motifs – often repetitive patterns are everywhere in postmodern work and maybe that’s why my chapter test works.
Another is the postmodern is an ‘explorative way of imbuing themes that may or may not contain a narrative’, rather than a ‘narrative way to imbue themes that may or may not contain exploration’. I feel presumptuous offering a definition, but I know I’m only as presumptuous as everyone else doing the same. A digression – would that make ostensibly ‘plotless’ (or at least ‘plot-second’, I have written about this slight misnomer before) comedies like Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia postmodern?
Either way, putting narrative second is necessarily freer but also more complicated on account of writing being an act of meeting a reader somewhere between yourself and them, and readers expecting narratives. The freedom it does gain though earns the author the ability to literally explore more themes per word. Because of this in postmodern works I have found the process of digging up core themes will dig up related themes, like trees connected at the roots. At least if done right.
I think that’s why I find the theme -> motif approach so offensive. To me it is literally backward. With so many motifs, how could you walk past the fun of doing motif -> theme instead? You never know what you’ll find – especially if you’re clever.
Instead, those classmates, when asked about White Noise, with its explorations of capitalism, the death of information, collective mentalities, the sources and fragilities of solidarity, crushing temporality, and the corruption of innocence, answered simply, at least at first.
“It’s about America.”
I’m being unfair of course. I consider Mitchell and Webb’s beautiful tragicomedy Peep Show, laden with its motifs about co-dependency, self-hate, weakness of will, and broken ambitions postmodern.
And when I’m asked what its about?
“It’s about England.”
“Fear is unnatural. Lightning and thunder are unnatural. Pain, death, reality, these are all unnatural. We can’t bear these things as they are. We know too much. So we resort to repression, compromise and disguise. This is how we survive in the universe. This is the natural language of the species”.
I looked at him carefully.
“I exercise. I take care of my body.”
“No you don’t,” he said.