Wednesday, September 30, 2009

259. White Noise - Don DeLillo

History: Published in 1985, it is considered Don DeLillo's most famous work.
Plot: Set at a midwestern college known only as The-College-on-the-Hill, White Noise follows a year in the life of Jack Gladney, a professor who has made his name by pioneering the field of Hitler Studies (though he doesn't speak German). He has been married five times to four women and has a brood of children and stepchildren (Heinrich, Bee, Denise, Steffie, Wilder). Babette, a low-key and adaptable faculty wife who reads tabloids to the blind and teaches senior citizens' classes in posture, is distinguished by her forgetfulness and her preoccupation with death. She is strong and motherly, the two confront issues honestly and with a sense of humor. Their son Heinrich is 14, moody and introspective. His hairline is already receding. Their daughter Denise is 11, a ''hard-nosed kid'' who leads ''a more or less daily protest against parental habits that she considers wasteful or dangerous.'' She points out the warning on her mother's packages of sugarless gum and is the first to notice Babette's surreptitious consumption of a drug called Dylar, which Denise finds is unlisted in her much perused copy of the Physician's Desk Reference. Steffie is slightly younger than Denise, a sensitive child who, while watching television with her family, ''becomes upset when something shameful or humiliating seems about to happen to someone on the screen'' and stands outside the room while Denise gives a running commentary on the action. And there is
Wilder, the 3-year-old son who seldom speaks but, asleep or awake, is a constant reassurance to his parents, simply because he is there.
The first part of White Noise, called "Waves and Radiation," is a chronicle of absurdist family life combined with academic satire. There is little plot in this section, and it mainly sets the scene for the rest of the book. Another important character introduced here is Murray, who frequently discusses his theories, which relate to the rest of the book.
In the book's second part, "The Airborne Toxic Event," a chemical spill from a rail car releases an "airborne toxic event" over Jack's home region, prompting an evacuation. During the evacuation when he stops for gas, he is exposed to the toxin. Frightened, Gladney is forced to confront his mortality. An organization called SIMUVAC (short for "simulated evacuation") is also introduced in Part Two, an indication of simulations replacing reality.
In part three of the book, "Dylarama," Gladney realizes that Babette has been cheating on him in order to gain access to a fictional drug called Dylar, an experimental treatment for the fear of death. However, Dylar does not work for Babette, and it has many possible side effects, including losing the ability to "distinguish words from things. Soon the novel becomes a meditation on modern society's fear of death and its obsession with chemical cures as Gladney seeks to obtain his own black market supply of Dylar.
Gladney's mind bends a little at this point. His father in law, Vern, comes to visit, and Jack mistakes him for Death (he is sitting in a chair outside in the middle of the night). Vern gives him a small hand gun, and Gladney begins to carry it around with him. He becomes obsessed with "Mr. Gray", the corporate leader of that Babette slept with. After a long conversation with Murray, who prophetized that people kill (Hitler), in order to escape death - he makes the insane decision to kill "Mr Gray". He goes to the corporate office, the Foundry, and confronts Willie Mink (Mr Gray), who is in the midst of a Dylar "stupor".
Instead of confronting him and stealing the Dylar as planned, he realizes it is useless and shoots him anyway. The wounds aren't fatal, and he begins to feel compassion for the man. He takes him to the emergency room, seemingly staged to appear as if someone else did the shooting. All is well, the nurses repair the bullet wounds without question. Wilder rides his tricycle across the interstate but isn't killed. Life goes on.
Review: I love this book. Don DeLillo has a knack for capturing the essence of American popular culture through intelligence and ironic humor. White Noise essentially is about American's fear of death, but it touches upon so many silly things in our society that it certainly goes far beyond this subject. On the other hand, you can say that it is simply about everyday life and everyday relationships. I find it interesting that this book was first published in 1984, since it seems to point out things that seem even more true today, (like a drug similar to Prozac) Mr. DeLillo has dealt not so much with character as with culture, survival and the subtle, ever-increasing interdependence between the self and the national and world community. The he-man against the elements, the outlaw, the superhero exist only as myths in the modern world; we are nature's elements, a technologically oriented people nonetheless caught in the sieve of history.
Opening Line: "The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed
through the west campus."
Closing Line: "The cults of the famous and the dead."
Quotes: "Why do these possessions carry such a sorrowful weight?" There is a darkness attached to them, a foreboding. They make me wary not of personal failure and defeat but of something more general, something large in scope and content."
"But when I say I believe in complete disclosure I don't mean it cheaply, as anecdotal sport or shallow revelation. It is a form of self-renewal and gesture of custodial trust."
"Love helps us develop an identity secure enough to allow itself to be placed in another's care and protection."
"There are no amateurs in the world of children."
"I believe, Jack, there are two kinds of people in this world, Killers and diers. Most of us are diers."
Rating: Superb.

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