White Noise – Don Delillo

Delillo’s 1989 novel White Noise is a grim, ironic, comedy about family life in the modern world that won the National Book Award. Twenty-five years later some things have changed, but it is remarkable how many of the issues have just gotten worse. The collected tweets of quotes may be found here.

Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies at a small Midwestern college, lives a life under siege, from which he seeks refuge in his wife’s bosom. He and Babette live in a house too small for them and the four children from their respective former marriages who live with them. The kids are precocious, but the family is formed by a network that serves to spread misinformation, and they are all bombarded by advertisements, television waves, friends who hardly have a physical presence, and choices offered at the supermarket. Babette works hard to stay in shape and the adults worry about death. In the second part, there is an airborne toxic event that accelerates the last issue, while forcing new changes while they were already working so hard to keep their heads above water.

The overriding style of White Noise is the profundity of hyper-observation. Most of the observations are of the mundane—generic groceries, for instance—instead of grandiosity of human nature or the purity of nature. This style was later used to great effect by David Foster Wallace (whose early interviews often talked about Delillo as an influence), and it is possible to see some of the observations as banal now, except that Delillo came earlier. White Noise is not prophetic, but the concerns about misinformation, being overwhelmed by information, and airborne toxic events have certainly not gotten any better.

White Noise is a book near the top of my to-read list for some time, but I only got a copy of it around Thanksgiving. I really enjoyed it, but outside of a few short bursts it contains universal human laments (death, world moving too quickly) more than universal human truths. It is still an excellent reflection of the modern world, just specific to a world inundated with capital and technology.

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