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White Noise ()


National Book Award Winners (1985)

I've been perplexed for some time about the Don DeLillo phenomenon : how can such a good writer be such a bad novelist?  One finishes one of his books with deep admiration for his style and certain scenes, but wondering what happened to the story he was telling and what was the point of writing the book.  There's an irritating sameness to the novels, with their paranoid plots of modern life run amok and a world devoid of any meaning.   The latter in particular is the basis for the claim, which seems justified, that Mr. DeLillo is the best American post-modernist.  To the extent that post-modernism stands for anything it stands for the idea that nothing means anything.  (Of course, that begs the question of why write about anything, but we'll ignore that for the nonce.)

White Noise tells the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at a small college.  He's on his fourth wife, Babbette and has four kids and what I think most of us would say is an excessive fear of modern life and of his own death.  Of the book Mr. DeLillo has said :

    [A]ll I can say about White Noise...is that the book is driven by a connection I sensed between advanced technology and contemporary fear.
    By the former I don't mean bombs and missiles alone but more or less everything -- microwaves, electrical insulation etc. One would have to
    write a long dense essay to explain this connection adequately -- that's why I wrote a loose-limbed and shadow-sliding work of fiction.

As it happens, Jack's fear of technology turns out to be justified when a toxic chemical cloud is unleashed in the area and he is terminally poisoned.  But it is in his fear of death that I think Mr. DeLillo loses his way.

Jack fears death precisely because he believes in nothing.  For such a person the self is all that matters, so the prospect of one's own death must be terrifying.  For with your own death the world, for all intents and purposes, comes to an end.  Your own death is the Apocalypse.  Now, Jack has a friend, Murray Jay Siskind, who serves as kind of the Greek chorus of the book.  When Jack is dying, Murray tells him :

    "I believe, Jack, there are two kinds of people in the world. Killers and diers. Most of us are diers. We don't have the disposition, the rage or
    whatever it takes to be a killer. We let death happen. We lie down and die. But think what it's like to be a killer. Think how exciting it is,
    in theory, to kill a person in direct confrontation.  If he dies, you cannot. To kill him is to gain life credit.  The more people you kill, the more
    credit you store up.  It explains any number of  massacres, wars, executions."

This theory also explains much of the 20th century--from genocide to abortion--if we accept that murder has become a way for a people who no longer believe in anything beyond themselves to try to pretend that they have some kind of power over death.  But it is of course a delusion.  All the murders in the world--as Jack's subject, Hitler, demonstrates--won't extend your life by one minute.  And even if they could, what would be the point, since we've already decided that our lives are meaningless?

So what Mr. DeLillo has done here is to set up an elaborate joke.  We can see how foolish these beliefs are and how destructive.  It's clear that such theories, though intended to empower us, have left us empty; our lives dissatisfying; our mortality devastating, even though inevitable; and the morality which once gave our lives a sense of purpose discarded so that we may pursue personal pleasures which fail to fulfill.  surely the point of the novel, after all this, must be that this is all a huge mistake.  Right?  We have to have been building to the moment when Toto rips away the curtain and the post-modern Wizard is exposed as a fraud, haven't we?  The answer, inexplicably, is : no.  And so we feel the air rush out of the balloon just as we thought Mr. DeLillo was ready to let it fly.

Jack does indeed try to claim a life credit by hunting down the quack who's been giving the drug Dylar--sort of an anticipation of Prozac that quiets fears--to Babbette.  But there's nothing empowering about the scene; it's merely embarrassing.  When Jack takes himself and his victim, both wounded, to the hospital, he meets a nun, Sister Hermann Marie.  He questions her about her faith, but she reveals that the religious have none either, their seeming piety is all an act :

    "It is for others.  Not for us."

    "But that's ridiculous.  what others?"

    "All the others.  The others who spend their lives believing that we still believe.  It is our task in the world to believe things no one else takes
    seriously.  To abandon such beliefs completely, the human race would die.  This is why we are here.  A tiny minority.  To embody old things,
    old beliefs.  The devil, the angels, heaven, hell.  If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse."

It is here that Mr. DeLillo goes too far because he shows us that the joke is apparently on him.  He seems to be a Jack Gladney, believing nothing, obsessed with death, one of T.S. Eliot's hollow men.  That suffices to make him ridiculous, but he goes beyond that to claim that those who are not withered up must be pretending to believe in something, and to claim that even the pretend believers are a tiny minority, dwarfed by the more honest unbelievers.  This is simply untrue, at least here in America, where the great majority have utterly traditional and conventional religious beliefs and a certainty that every life has a purpose..

The extreme skeptics though have always been a part of Western Civilization and they always will be.  For the perverse truth is that we can not even prove that we exist, that we are not merely a dream.   Actually, no one has yet bettered Samuel Johnson's amusing but unsatisfactory response when asked how he would refute Hume or Berkeley's theory that we can not know with certainty that anything exists.  Dr. Johnson turned and kicked a boulder, saying : "I refute it thus!"  But not even the skeptics (and Johnson was one) can accept the implications of their own ideas, else they'd give up.  They'd certainly not try to communicate ideas if those ideas mean nothing.  If the post-modernists had the courage of their convictions they not write, and even the best of them, an Albert Camus or a Don DeLillo, would not be much missed.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

Don DeLillo Links:

    -INFO: Game 6 (IMDB)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Game 6
    -FILMOGRAPHY: DonDeLillo (IMDB)
    -SCRIPT: Game 6 by Don DeLillo (The Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDb)
    -SHORT STORY: Still-Life (Don DeLillo, April 9, 2007, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Total Loss Weekend: Action is his passion. It is Saturday noon and his bets are down on contests coast to coast. With the blinds drawn, two televisions tuned and a radio fitfully broadcasting game scores, the tense vigil begins (Don DeLillo, November 27, 1972, Sports Illustrated)
    -INTERVIEW: For the Love of Game 6: An Interview with the Cast and Director (David Dylan Thomas, Mar 10, 2006, BlogCritics)
    -INTERVIEW: Don DeLillo: The quiet American: Don DeLillo is one of the biggest noises in US literature, but the man behind the masterpieces shuns the limelight. (John Freeman, 21 April 2006, Independent)
    -INTERVIEW: WISE GUY: DON DELILLO: The novelist on baseball, technology, and how French philosophy has infected the White House. (Kevin Gray, April 2006, Men Style)
    -INTERVIEW: Q&A: Don DeLillo: It's not as easy as it looks: DeLillo talks about writing plays, watching sports and movies, and defining love and death (John Freeman, March 5, 2006, SF Chronicle)
    -PROFILE: And quiet goes the Don: Don DeLillo started out as a parking attendant; now he is being hailed as the author of the Great American Novel and labours days over one sentence. What does he think of his fame? (Helena de Bertodano, 13 May 2003, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: For Game 6 (metacritic)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Carina Chocano, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Neil Genzlinger, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Andrew O'Hehir, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Leba Hertz, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Ed Park, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Jeffrey M. Anderson Combustible Celluloid)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Allen Barra, NY Sun)
Borrowing an idea from his 2003 novel, "Cosmopolis," Mr. DeLillo has his central character spend most of the story in a taxi stuck in traffic. The device worked on the printed page, but it makes a film as excruciating as watching your team's middle reliever walk the bases loaded after inheriting a four-run lead. (At one point, someone behind me in the theater hissed, "Why the hell doesn't he just get out and walk?")

    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Nick Schager, Slant)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Ty Burr, Boston Globe)
In terms of demographic appeal, "Game 6" has an uncommonly narrow strike zone: literary-minded Red Sox fanatics who recall with awful clarity exactly where they were on the night of Oct. 25, 1986. Within those limits, though, it's an inside-the-park home run -- a small, lovingly overwritten comic drama about fate, failure, and primal longing. To put it in words a Sox fan would understand, the movie hurts good.

    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Robert Wilonsky, Dallas Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Peter Rainer, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Mark Asch, The L Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Harry Forbes, Catholic News Service)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Ron Wilkinson, Monsters & Critics)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Robert Denerstein, Rocky Mountain News)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Elisabeth Donnelly, Tribeca Film)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (Lance Mannion, New Critics)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 (D. L. Groover, Houston Press)
    -REVIEW: of Game 6 ()
    -GOOGLE BOOK: Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo
    -EXCERPT: from Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo
    -REVIEW: of Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo (John Updike, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of Cosmopolis (James Wood, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of Cosmopolis (Graham Caveney, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Cosmopolis (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Cosmopolis (Walter Kirn, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Cosmopolis (Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Cosmopolis (Robert L. McLaughlin, Review of Contemporary Fiction)
    -REVIEW: of Cosmopolis (Rob Walker, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Cosmopolis (Richard C. Walls, Detroit Metro Times)
    -REVIEW: of Cosmopolis (Kyle Minor, Antioch Review)
    -REVIEW: of Cosmopolis (ROBERT WEIBEZAHL, BookPage)
    -REVIEW: of Cosmopolis (Kate Morrison, Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Cosmopolis (Sam Leith, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Cosmopolis (George Walden, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Cosmopolis (Laurence Daw, The Modern Word)
    -REVIEW: of Cosmopolis (Rob Cline, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: for Cosmopolis (Reviews of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Falling Man by Don DeLillo (Frank Rich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Falling Man (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Falling Man (Adam Mars-Jones, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Falling Man (John Crace, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Don DeLillo ‘Comes Home’ “Game 6” and “Underworld” (Tom Verso, April 7, 2008, I-Italy)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Featured Author: Don DeLillo : With News and Reviews From the Archives of The New York Times
    -ESSAY : The Power of History (Don DeLillo, 1997, The NY Times Magazine)
    -SPEECH : The Artist Naked in a Cage : An address delivered on May 13 at the New York Public Library's event "Stand In for Wei Jingsheng" (Don DeLillo)
    -INTERVIEW : A TALK WITH DON DELILLO (Robert R. Harris, October 10, 1982, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW : Dangerous Don DeLillo (Vince Passaro, May 19, 1991, NY Times)
    -Don DeLillo: Underworld -- Read an interview, bio and backlist (Publishers Weekly)
    -INTERVIEW: The American Strangeness: An Interview with Don DeLillo by Gerald Howard
    -PROFILE : Endpaper (Michael Berube, Center for Book Culture)
    -PROFILE : About Don DeLillo (Vincent Montague, Central Booking)
    -Salon.com People | Don DeLillo
    -PROFILE : Don DeLillo :  America's premier novelist of ideas has long anticipated a world in which spectacle and terror would achieve totemic significance in our everyday lives. (Jeffrey MacIntyre, Salon)
    -The Don DeLillo Society
    -Don DeLillo's America - A Don DeLillo Page
    -White Noise on White Noise : a collection of 36 randomly selected fragments of text from Don DeLillo's novel White Noise
    -QUIZ : THINKING ABOUT DeLILLO'S WHITE NOISE (Philipp Schweighauser)
    -October Book of the Month Discussion : Don DeLillo's White Noise
    -U N D E R C U R R E N T #7 : About The Underworld of Don DeLillo
    -ESSAY : American Simulacra:  Don DeLillo's Fiction in Light of Postmodernism  (Scott Rettberg)
    -ESSAY : Baudrillard's Primitivism & White Noise : "The only avant-garde we've got" (Bradley Butterfield, Undercurrent)
    -ESSAY : Beyond Baudrillard's Simulacral Postmodern World: White Noise (Haidar Eid, Undercurrent)
    -ESSAY :  A Reader's Manifesto : An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose (B. R. Myers,  July/August 2001, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : Reanimating Oswald, Ruby et al. in a Novel On the Assassination (HERBERT MITGANG, July 19, 1988, NY Times)
    -LINKS : UNDERWORLD Media Watch
    -ESSAY : The Last Don  :  Don DeLillo weighs in on September 11 and comes up short. (David Skinner, 11/26/200, Weekly Standard)
    -ESSAY: Culture, History and Consciousness in DeLillo*s White Noise : The Aesthetics of Cyberspace  (William S. Haney II, Journal of American Studies of Turkey)
    -DIALOGUE : Dissecting The Body Artist : Keith Gessen and Sam Lipsyte discuss the new DeLillo (FEED)
    -REVIEW : of White Noise (Jayne Anne Phillips, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Libra (ANNE TYLER, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Libra (Rob Couteau, Arete: Forum For Thought)
    -REVIEW : of Underworld (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Underworld (MARTIN AMIS, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Underworld (LAURA MILLER, Salon)
    -REVIEW:  Visions of the American Beserk  (Paul Gediman, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW: Waste Management (Daniel J. Silver, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of Underworld  Bubbling Under (Gary Marshall , Spike)
    -REVIEW: An Underhistory of Mid-Century America Underworld, by Don DeLillo (Tom LeClair, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of Underworld  How the waste was won: Don DeLillo's brilliant epic novel Underworld compacts the 20th century (Peter Keough, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW : of American Pastoral by Philip Roth & Underworld by Don DeLillo (Paul Gediman, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW : of Underworld (Peter Craven, The Age)
    -ESSAY : Don DeLillo's Bum Luck : The novelist's low status in an age of cultural proliferation. (Nick Gillespie, Reason)
    -REVIEW : of The Body Artist by Don DeLillo (Tim Adams , ZA Play)
    -REVIEW : of The Body Artist (Ben Ehrenreich, LA Weekly)

Comments:

"where the postmodern wizard is revealed as a fraud"

Most of the book does that anyway. Particularly in the form of Jack's kids, who can rehash TV sound bites with ease (and there are plenty of kids like this as you probably know) but who are really worthless people.

- Ulli Kunkel

- Jan-13-2007, 13:26

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It's called sarcasm. Apparently you don't understand the concept of sarcasm. Just because an author writes something doesn't mean that the author believes it or is intending his audience to start thinking that. For example if an author wrote about the holocaust from the nazi perspective it doesn't mean that the author believed in what the characters were saying or conveying. One last thing. The book is fictional. That means that the nun is a made up and not real person. They can have made up ideas also. Thats part of fiction.

- Angry at your right wing conservative bias:

- Sep-08-2004, 20:29

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The only difference between insane and genius is success...and only the impossible can do the impossible

- Genesis

- Jan-15-2004, 10:16

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