Thursday, March 29, 2012

Contemporary Series, Part 5: White Noise

Continuing with the Contemporary Series, I want to discuss White Noise (1985) by Don DeLillo.  I feel confident about adding this one to the list because I am convinced it will be recognized as a "Classic" for a long time to come.  In fact, many scholars have already given it this status and devoted extensive analysis to the novel.  When I read it, I was immediately impressed by the unique and intelligent writing style, and I could sense its depth even before I recognized the central message of the text.

In my opinion, the story is meant to be a portrait of Middle Class America.  The family is not particularly special or even all that likable, but they are believable.  The husband and wife have each been through multiple marriages before this one, and their family is mixed with their children from previous relationships.  They live in the Midwest, and Jack, the protagonist, is a professor at a local college.  The only thing that immediately feels odd about the family is that Jack specializes in Hitler studies, a branch of academia which he actually invented.  We learn this in the first chapter, and it raises a red flag about how Jack chooses to focus his thoughts.  Nevertheless, their interactions at the beginning of the novel are fairly mundane, and it's difficult to predict how the plot will turn and demand our attention.

I must take some time to discuss DeLillo's writing style because I was in awe of it from the beginning.  Although there is not a lot of action at first, he mixes in so much stream of consciousness, sensory description, and intriguing juxtaposition that I was thoroughly engaged anyway.  Perhaps the title "White Noise" tipped me off, but I have never been more aware of a writer's descriptions of sound than in DeLillo's novel.  He often records the odd, discordant sounds that are present wherever the characters are.  It truly builds the reader's sense that we are drowned out by the white noise around us, which we breathe in without even noticing.  Even alarms and sirens fail to awaken the characters' energy and spark action.  We get the sense that we push the world away from us and refuse to look beyond ourselves, or even within ourselves for that matter.  

Most of the chapters end with fragments or short sentences that delicately make the thought linger before moving on.  Sometimes, these ending thoughts seem to depart from the action immediately before them, but they are weaving together a grander narrative.  This is perhaps the greatest illustration of DeLillo's brilliance.  The little phrases that hardly seem essential to the text build up a powerful message by the end: we are all obsessed with death.  We are afraid of it and fascinated by it.  The family communes together by watching the disaster news on TV and living through the Airborne Toxic Event.  Somehow, I didn't pick up on this theme right away, but it is clearly the heartbeat of the text from the very beginning.  People die, and the characters emotionally distance themselves from it until they are in direct and personal contact with it.  And unfortunately, it brings out the worst in them.

It's actually a pretty depressing book.  The family members talk at each other, but no one really expresses how they feel, nor do they listen.  They exist in overlapping circles, carrying on with their lives and individual fascinations.  They question "my truth" versus "your truth," and they lie to themselves even more than they do to each other.  The problems build up slowly and subtly; we can hardly predict a crisis moment.  They embrace the distractions and challenges to death, but they reject personal responsibility.  Perhaps the worst part of all this is that it is terribly convincing.

This is a fascinating story.  It can be poetic and mundane at the same time, and the throbbing undercurrent eventually pushes itself to a dramatic climax.  I don't like any of the characters, and I actually felt beaten down by the underlying message.  More importantly, I don't agree with DeLillo's assessment of the human race.  I think there is more goodness and sincerity than he suggests.  Nevertheless, I was captivated and moved.  I can sense the insights that would come from re-reading it, and yet I don't know if I ever will.  I am actually concerned for people who would devote hours to studying and analyzing the story, and yet I have to admit that it is a stimulating read.

Before I finish, I want to add a word of caution to potential readers.  I don't think you should read this book if you're going through a dark period in your own life, especially if you know someone who is facing his or her death.  This is a bit of a SPOILER, but Jack believes that because of toxic exposure, he has brought on his death much sooner than he expected.  With this knowledge, he acts out in selfish, lawless ways and disrespects the people in his life.  I read this while my father was dying, and there were times that I had to set the book aside because it was weighing on me so heavily.  I do not believe that this is how we all feel about life and death deep down.  My father did not approach his death this way at all, and I think there is more goodness in humanity than DeLillo portrays.

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