White Noise by Don DeLillo

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White Noise by Don DeLillo

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A wonderful book: full of meaning, brilliantly written, powerful and touching, compelling and engaging. The author's eye and ear for observation are superb; his satirical touch bit heavy but savage. This book provides a brilliant diagnosis of alienation in a consumerist world of abandoned meanings, where fear of death looms heavily but even the death has changed.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 326 Date: January 1999
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330291088

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Jack Gladney is a small town American, an academic, a husband to reassuringly down-to-earth wife number four, Babette and a father of several children. Also, the head of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill. Gladney's life is lived in the landscape of (almost) archetypal Main Street USA, in the framework defined by clean, warm supermarkets, strangely compelling television news, and tabloid shockers that shock nobody.

There is a pervading sense of alienation, artifice and a looming menace. Everyday tasks are performed, holidays celebrated, a big Hitler conference prepared and then conducted, but none of these things seem to have any value or meaning. Jack remains obsessed by his own mortality and very, very scared of dying indeed.

Eventually, a disaster strikes: a toxic spill threatens the local population and forces the evacuation of the town (the description of the whole disaster is a true gem, a masterpiece of absurd, dark comedy if there ever was one). Jack is exposed to the chemical. He doesn't suffer any symptoms, but the unspecific diagnosis is not terribly optimistic: he'll die. It might take him twenty years, it might take forty, but he'll be carrying the chemical timebomb in his body for the foreseeable (and unforeseeable) future. But nothing really changes: he is still afraid (as he already was), he will still die (as he was going to anyway). There is no catharsis, no restoration of the sense of reality, just a thickening of the absurd.

I am struggling to present the plot and at the end of the day, though quite a lot actually happens, the plot isn't really the point. It's the moods, the smirks, the scenes, the dialogue that make White Noise into a remarkable novel which left me affected for a long time afterwards.

The fear of death is the main theme, obviously. I was left wondering, though, if what DeLillo does is really exploring the age-long, primeval, fundamental aspect of the human condition: the fact that we are the only animals on Earth aware of their own mortality. Or is he, really, drawing a time-sensitive picture, a picture of a society in a state of high affluence and a total decay at the same time, a world that is internally crumbling, so devoid of value that people lost the ability to face and contemplate death. There are several pointers that suggest that White Noise is a modern satire rather than a universal analysis, the most important perhaps is the fact that the Gladneys live in a consumerist 'world of abandoned meanings', with no spiritual dimension of any kind, and with nothing else that is bigger than them to replace that either.

It is all lost in the sanitised and safe on the surface but menacingly poisonous in the inside reality. In White Noise we have a scathing vision of the world at the pinnacle of the television power, pre Internet. I would love to know what DeLillo makes of that addition to the clouds of the electronic white noise enveloping people.

On top of all that, there is even something wrong with death itself, even death has changed, the death that Jack fears is an 'artificial death - like stink of burning plastic', not a real one, like a 'proper' fire. It's shallow, unfulfilling. I don't belong to the earth or sky. It's meaningful that the disaster is a toxic spill rather than a flood or a tornado. But then, isn't it just our modern illusion that a deeply felt connection with natures provides shelter from our civilised fears?

The book is wonderfully written, the language both crisp and floaty, imagery sharp and eerie at the same time. It is also, very, very funny, not perhaps in a ha-ha-ha way, but certainly provides many smirks and a few chuckles. DeLillo's eye and ear for observation are superb: the family scenes are simply awesome, the parent-child dialogue completely spot on, the absurdly farcical and the painfully touching intermingling all the time.

The satire is pretty savage: from the most photographed barn in America to the lecture comparing the iconic power of Hitler and Elvis, to the SIMUVAC bent on creating a perfect simulation of a disaster for which the real thing is a convenient rehearsal and ending with UFOs, those UFOs...

Another book dealing with pop culture and death is Hey! Nostradamus by Douglas Coupland, or you might also enjoy Adrienne Miller's debut novel The Coast of Akron.

Booklists.jpg White Noise by Don DeLillo is in the Top Ten Books About America.

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Buy White Noise by Don DeLillo at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy White Noise by Don DeLillo at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy White Noise by Don DeLillo at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy White Noise by Don DeLillo at Amazon.com.


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