In this post, I'll discuss a major American literary novel from 1985, Don DeLillo's White Noise.
I have a beef with White Noise. It is not, as you might think, a problem with the novel as a work of art. DeLillo's prose style is excellent, his conversations punchy and clever, his descriptions flesh out the world well, his pacing is strong. Don DeLillo is a good writer, and White Noise is a good novel.
It is also a novel of ideas. And it is these ideas-- the themes that run through the novel as a whole, that I find objectionable.
White Noise is a novel about the increased levels of information people are subject to in modern life and the fear that emerges from a person's inability to deal with that information. Its narrator, Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies, struggles with both confusion and with stark truths. His lifestyle at the beginning of the novel is a refuge from the complexity of his past. His three previous wives were all dealers in secrets, with links to the global intelligence community. He prizes his current wife, Babette, for her simplicity and solidity and honesty. He lives in the quaint town of Blacksmith, far removed from cities and their complications, as his friend Murray Suskind, a visiting lecturer from New York, repeatedly mentions.
Gladney is not able to maintain this more innocent, simpler lifestyle. The children that he and Babette care for are all products of the more complicated late 20th-century world. His daughter Stephanie empathizes with people on television to the point where she can't bear to watch scenes where somebody is humiliated. His son Heinrich is a data-driven fatalist. Her daughter Denise obsessively works to protect the family from health risks. The family as a whole mangles understanding as they argue about facts and worry about pollution in the sunset. Only Wilder, whose speech is developing behind schedule, lives in a simpler world.
This intrusion of the overpowering and confusing "white noise" of information when the Airborne Toxic Event erupts near the town of Blacksmith. The family members develop side effects, including deja vu, in response to suggestions about the Event's side effects. And Jack suffers from exposure, with unclear side effects (the chemical induces "nebulous masses" in rats).
In the end, knowledge of his exposure to the deadly toxin amps up Jack's fear of death. The extremes that he and his wife go through to deal with the fear of death break down their mutual trust and drive them both to pursue a mysterious drug delivery system that amplifies the suggestibility that everyone is already implied to have. In the end, Jack manages to deal with his fear through an application of primally masculine violence (his father in law, Vern, an avatar of a simpler, clearer time, suffering none of Jack's insecurity, symbolically gives him the weapon he uses for the act) followed by an act of humane compassion, and an encounter with some atheist nuns. In the end, he and Babette deal with their fear by spending more time with Wilder, who brings relief because, as an infant, he has no understanding and none of the fear that it brings. They simply stare at the sunset without worrying about it.
In this ending, DeLillo celebrates escape from the fear that the complexity of the world by finding refuge in simple viewpoints and animalistic emotion. He embraces a reactionary retreat into the simplicity and ignorance of the past. This is problematic. The problems of the world will continue to exist whether we wish to understand them or not. We need to confront our future with our eyes open. Burying our fear in emotion and oversimplification is exactly what the man who Jack Gladney studies asked his followers to do-- and I'm left wondering how a novelist with DeLillo's insight and intelligence could have not noticed this irony.