Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Why am I so afraid? -a book review

Delillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin Books, 1985

326 pages
ISBN 0 14 00.7702 2

Jack Gladney teaches Hitler Studies at a small college in Blacksmith, USA. His best friend, Murray, plays Bildad the Shuhite to Gladney’s Job. Murray is a nominal Jew and is hoping to be the guru in an Elvis Presley Studies program. Gladney’s first son is “Heinrich,” so named because being a specialist in Hitler, Gladney is working with little success at being competent in German. Heinrich has a headful of technical information about everything from the chemical effluents that pervade the modern world to pop culture, which he shares like Elihu with his father and with anyone who will listen. He shouldn’t be confused with Hitler’s Himmler, overseer of the Holocaust.

White light is light that contains all the colours of the spectrum and could be called “all light.” So it is with “white noise.”

White noise is a type of noise that is produced by combining sounds of all different frequencies together. If you took all of the imaginable tones that a human can hear and combined them together, you would have white noise. (http://www.howstuffworks.com/question47.htm)

The white noise pervading Jack Gladney’s world is the sum of the pervasive cultural “hums” characterizing America in the 1980’s. Their sources are cued to the reader in the titles of the three parts of the novel: “Waves and Radiation,” “The Airborne, Toxic Event” and “Dylarama.” In part, these themes reflect the Cold War with its threat of death dealt from above and the multiplication of radio signals that pass through us, surround us and can’t be defended against. The upshot of Jack Gladney’s immersion in the white noise of his time is a pervasive, growing fear of death. It creeps up on him (like the Holocaust crept up on the Jews of Europe?) and becomes central to his life, as phobias tend to do.

Ergo, Part Three: “Dylarama.” Jack’s wife has found a possible remedy for the disease that afflicts her, the disease that results from prolonged exposure to the white noise. And it is—you guessed it—a pill. She “sells her soul to the devil” to get it, but discovers that it’s ineffective in quelling her fears. The principle of a prescription remedy, however, begins to preoccupy Jack; it becomes his obsession. There must be a medication to mitigate the fear that grips him. It is this obsession to which the action of the novel has been leading—a sad reflection on American culture asserts that we have become so preoccupied with developing a chemical solution to all our ills that we are blind to causes, to prevention. Our wants have become our needs.

DeLillo’s technique for rendering the pervasion of white noise is to randomize the “noises” that bombard us. Radios and TVs are on constantly, and the narrator (Jack; first person) attends briefly to random bits and pieces that zing through his consciousness. Short, intrusive bits of soap commercials, news items, song lyrics. Coffee conversations wander into realms of the absurd and the obscure. The effect is to render him deficient in controlling the “input” to which he is subject. He becomes a complete victim of the “white noise.”

Jack’s wife, Babette (do consider the symbolism in all of DeLillo’s names and events) is a runner, not surprisingly. Her daughter is obsessed with her mother’s lack of attention to sunscreen, but Babette has a theory about this:

“The worst rays are direct,” Babette said. “This means the faster a person is moving, the more likely she is to receive only partial hits, glancing rays, deflections . . . It’s all a corporate tie-in,” Babette said in summary. “The sunscreen, the marketing, the fear, the disease. You can’t have one without the other.”

So, was skin cancer invented as a marketing ploy by the manufacturers of sunscreen? This may represent the pertinent cultural question of the age in America. The aftermath of 911 makes DeLillo sound prophetic; fear is—in America—a marketing device. Commerce defines culture. Anything goes, as long as it sells.

White Noise may not have become the watershed novel that the cover tributes promised, but it remains one of the best renderings of the mood and effects of America’s decline into corporate consumerism. I daresay, readers today will find it more “to the point” than the readers of 1984 when it first appeared.

Read it.

And, by the way, it’s hilarious.

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