Tuesday

Reflections: White Noise

Don Delillo's White Noise (1985) is, for all of its post-modern pretensions, a domestic novel. It begins with a father, satisfied in his career, watching benignly as other families--more kempt and wealthy than his own, yet familiar and appealing to him--descend onto his territory, the campus on the Hill. The story, such as it is, expresses the turmoils of its adult main characters, Jack and Babette, through their attachment to their peculiar and yet shockingly real children. Even when the end takes a turn for the violent, and Jack finds himself standing in front of a man he has just shot, the overall genre doesn't change. Jack's humanity neutralizes his jealousy, and turns the moment from hard boiled to Hallmark. Then, Jack's stubborn and dangerous plan is replicated in miniature when his youngest child sets out, stubbornly, on a dangerous mission of his own. The child, like Jack, escapes relatively unharmed, and is in fine form for their next joint trip to the purveyor of American domestic life: the supermarket. Its reorganization induces more trauma than Jack's brief stint as a would-be murderer. From start to finish, White Noise celebrates the modern nuclear family unit, in all of its messiness.

 Amidst the hubbub of family, White Noise satirizes the American schizophrenia towards chemicals: in a hanging cloud, they are the cause of death. In small white, well-engineered pills, they are the solution to, if not death, at least man's fear of it. None of the characters except Jack's colleague, Murray, can really grasp that death is a natural phenomenon, as is man's fear of it. Unfortunately, the satire exists more in tone than content, thus putting Delillo at risk of the same criticisms as Jack, who invented Hitler Studies by, it seems, gaining weight and wearing sunglasses. Delillo's insights seem as Jack's: questionable in authority as he doesn't really speak the language.

While an interesting and entertaining read, rendered almost necessary by the long-standing cultural importance of Don Delillo, the novel wears on one. Simply put: it tries too hard. Like its characters, it mistakes surface for substance.

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