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White Noise

By Don DeLillo

Original Publisher: The Viking Press
Current Publisher: Penguin Group

Courtney Eldridge writes:

Full disclosure: I haven’t read White Noise in a good ten years. What’s more, until four months ago, I’d completely forgotten that it won the National Book Award. In fact, I don’t even have a copy of the book in my possession at the moment, and yet, I’m about to share my thoughts on the subject, that’s right.

Now, in my own defense, let me just say that I’ve read White Noise a few times over the years, even if the last time was 1998, while I was living in San Francisco. Still, the reason I chose to write about this particular book is exactly because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I have lost count of how many times it has come to mind over the years.

And you know what it is? It’s not the famous mushroom cloud or any of DeLillo’s apocalyptic prophecies that have come to pass in the years since White Noise was published. No, for me, the most haunting scene of the book is the scene in which Jack Gladney and his wife lie awake in bed, discussing their fears of death in the dark of night; a discussion that quickly turns into a debate, with each spouse arguing why they should die first. Well, that’s how I remember it, at least.

But you can just see it, right? Terrified, a husband and wife try consoling each other’s fear of death, only to end up arguing who should get to die first: god, I love it. I do. I just love that scene. Really, it’s so twisted, so authentic, and so damned American in its particular kink of this mortal coil; I laugh every time.

See, for me, the measure of a great book isn’t whether or not you can quote it for years to come or whether or not it received any awards at all. No, I measure a great book in its ability to sneak up on me at any given moment for any given reason. It’s a scene about two people that comes to mind fifteen years after I first read the book, catching some random headline at a corner newsstand, standing on a crowded, polluted intersection, half a world away; it’s my shoulders shaking with laughter, realizing I've just spoken out loud, and then it all comes back to me in a single word: Babette . . ..

Courtney Eldridge is the author of a collection of short stories, Unkempt, and a novel, The Generosity of Women (Harcourt, 2009). She lives in Buenos Aires.

Matthew Pitt writes:

White Noise evoked and named sensations I felt in youth, but couldn’t reconcile. For each nuanced memory of first friends, improvised games, or the musty scent of my 4th grade classroom, there was vague dread too, during that decade of childhood—the 1980s. Concern that the country I was born into failed, too often, to match its assertions and teachings. I didn’t know what to do with that disconnect. How to describe it.

DeLillo did. White Noise gave form—and amazingly, humor—to unease. We were told, often in that time, of our destiny as a shining city on a hill. But the nation DeLillo framed was one where both consumerism and poverty ran rampant. Where the privileged had “grown comfortable with their money,” and “genuinely believe they’re entitled to it. This conviction gives them a kind of rude health. They glow a little.”

Was this the shining I was supposed to take solace in?

The novel’s plot presaged the Union Carbide disaster, fears of chemical warfare. It also served as a living illustration of corporate overreach: DeLillo wanted to title his book Panasonic, until the parent company balked.

Its opening image—the assembly of family station wagons, suburban C-130s delivering payloads of students for another academic year at College-on-the-Hill—is rightly admired. But its descriptions of shopping were what first took me aback.

This one, for instance, staged in a supermarket produce aisle, where shoppers “tore filmy bags off racks and tried to figure out which end opened.” There, in a nutshell, was the fiction of the modern convenience. These bags, meant to separate produce, and prevent our Bing cherries from rubbing a cart grill others touched, trying our patience. An anodyne for a hazy annoyance that winds up triggering more trouble.

Later, when I had a bank account to maintain, I shivered at the scene when Jack Gladney reads his balance on an ATM. Grateful it matches his own calculations, proves he is in the black: “The system had blessed my life.”

And finally this line: “I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies.” Like so many knockout moments in the book, the line seems to wonder aloud whether a mad pursuit for more at all costs disregards the risk that the costs, when they come, won’t be ones we can cover. I couldn’t help but think of the ratcheting up between superpowers of surface-to-air missiles, warheads, and worthless “Star Wars” shields. In what way was any of this security—financial, homeland, or otherwise?

Recent stories by Matthew Pitt were cited in both the Best American and Pushcart Prize series. Autumn House Press will publish his first collection, Attention, Please. Now, in spring 2010.

Jess Walter writes:

“Let’s enjoy these aimless days while we can,” Jack Gladney thinks early on in White Noise, Don DeLillo’s cool, timeless masterpiece of anxiety and death and cultural miasma, and did I already say anxiety? The book is so funny, so mysterious, so right, so disturbing … and yet so enjoyable it has somehow survived being cut open for twenty-five years by critics and post-grads. All of that theoretical poking and prodding, all of that po-mo-simulacra-ambiguity vivisection can’t touch the thrill of reading it, of meeting Jack at The College-on-the-Hill, where he teaches Hitler Studies (despite not speaking German), and considers wearing a cape to distinguish himself, where he raises his balding 14-year-old son Heinrich and little Wilder and those other weird kids and worries about his equally death-obsessed wife, Babette, as they deal with an Airborne Toxic Event and a lurching, nonsensical modernity. The book is so unfailingly current, as if it were written itself “in the language of waves and radiation” so that its moment keeps skipping ahead, so the book feels truer and more subversive and more on-point each time I crack it—Oh, wait I see, DeLillo was writing it for now … no, wait, he meant Now … ooh, no, it’s NOW—so that as long as people scurry around crafting machines and drugs and relationships to distract and disconnect us from ourselves from our mortality, now will be the perfect moment to read it.

Jess Walter was a National Book Award finalist in fiction in 2006 for The Zero. He was a National Book Awards fiction judge in 2008.

ISBN: 9780140283303

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Ursula K. Le Guin for Always Coming Home
  • Hugh Nissenson for The Tree of Life

Fiction Judges that Year: Not available

The Year in Literature:

  • Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Claude Simon won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

Rumor has it that Don DeLillo wanted to title his book Panasonic, from the Greek word “pan” meaning “all,” and the Latin word “sonus,” meaning “sound.” However, Panasonic is a registered trademark of the Matsushita corporation, and it seems that Matsushita opposed the title, causing the publisher to deny DeLillo’s request. Nevertheless, the word does appear at the end of Chapter 32.

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  • Response
    White Noise is one of those books that not only doesn’t seem dated–it feels especially true now that Twitter and cell phones and Facebook status updates are constantly competing for our attention.

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