Sunday, September 30, 2007

White Noise, by Don DeLillo

I have been recommending White Noise to many of you since reading it for my Contemporary American Fiction class. I suppose that some more justification for its "amazingness" is in order.

I must begin by expressing my wholehearted devotion to American modernism. Despite the fact that I enjoy literature from many different time periods and cultural affiliations, I find myself particularly drawn to the writings of the "Lost Generation" and the historical contexts that make those works so interesting and relevant. I originally intended to take a Modernism class this semester, but it was cancelled, and on the day before class I found myself buying 10 Postmodern novels in the bookstore and wondering if I would be able to comprehend beyond the first page of each. I had a Postmodern class with Nancy Wurzel, and I really enjoyed it, but come on, that was Nancy... this is graduate school. I feared that everyone in my class would provide wonderful insights while I was still trying to decipher the plot. Some of my classmates are rather intimidating (mainly the PhD students), but I have found this course to be fairly enjoyable thus far. My favorite book (out of the 4 we have read to this point) is White Noise.

The novel is at once a satirical commentary on 1980s American culture and an investigation into the fears and anxieties we hold deepest (and sometimes most secret).

Jack Gladney is a powerless protagonist. While he ironically holds distinction as Chair of the Hitler Studies Department at a cozy little college, his actions and demeanor label him as a man who does not possess the instrinsic strength to determine his own fate. This idea -- of determining one's fate -- pervades the novel and posits the question to readers, "How much control do we really have over our lives?"

Death stands paramount in this book. Despite the fact that a classmate argued me on this point (claiming a more optimistic reading than my own), I retain my stance. This book's nexus is death and its related issues -- especially how we find meaning in a life that is terminal, among people we love whose lives are also fated to end. Even further, it discusses how we distract ourselves and convince ourselves to ignore what frightens us most, even while deep down knowing that the 'noise' that diverts our attention momentarily means nothing compared to the issues that gnaw at our minds and hearts, occasionally speaking above a whisper and forcing us to confront them.

In an intense conversation between Jack and his wife, and one of my favorite passages of the book, Jack expresses:
"How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink. We manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn't they paralyze us? How is it we can survive them, at least for a while? We drive a car, we teach a class. How is it no one sees how deeply afraid we were, last night, this morning? Is it something we all hide from each other, by mutual consent? Or do we share the same secret without knowing it? Wear the same disguise."


Despite the seriousness of the book's major theme, DeLillo's witty remarks on American society provide for an entertaining read. His non-nuclear family, alone, is a cast of characters with personality quirks and sitcom-like dialogue that contrasts enjoyably with the Leave it to Beaver prototypes of the past.

Some students and scholars have argued that the book has "no point." They say that "a lot of stuff happens" that leads to no change, and no consequences. Yet why must there be an easily definable "point"? Can't a piece of writing, through its language, characters, events, implications, and atmosphere make a statement without a blaringly obvious plot sequence? Do we need a denouement? Do we ever obtain resolution in life, beyond short-lived moments of acceptance? If not, then why should a novel need such clear-cut lines of demarcation? Can't we enjoy the book for what it is, and interpret the process as somehow significant rather than the outcome? Isn't that the "point" DeLillo is trying to make, anyway?

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