In White Noise Don DeLillo notes “All plots tend to move deathward.” I’m not sure if he is surprised by this, but he shouldn’t be. All life moves deathward. So how can plots do otherwise?
Let’s put that question aside and simply agree that DeLillo in White Noise is obsessed with death. But Gladiola, white noise is my favorite noise. How can it be linked to death? Sorry, my friend, white noise is always there in the background. Just like death. And Jack (the narrator) can’t stop thinking about death. Even when he’s thinking with his penis, his penis is thinking about death. He chairs the Hitler Studies Department at a small college on the hill. Why Hitler? “Some people are larger than life. Hitler is larger than death.”
Jack is married to Babette, and they have a blended family with a child from their own marriage but also children from several prior marriages. Babette is taking some kind of medication that she refuses to admit she’s taking. Like Jack, she is terrified by death. Even when she’s thinking with her vagina . . . well, you get it. “We (humans) are the highest form of life on earth and yet ineffably sad because we know what no other animal knows, that we must die.” When a train accident happens on the edge of town, a deadly toxic cloud gets released. Jack is exposed to the poison, and his fear of death becomes all-consuming. The novel explores the reckless ways Jack and Babette try and fail to manage this intense fear.
Published in 1984, the novel also skewers consumerism and our culture’s reliance on television – a precursor of the internet and social media. “When TV didn’t fill them with rage, it scared them half to death.” And it touches on inequality and inequity. During the toxic event, Jack thinks “These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters.” The novel succeeds best when it is focused on these themes. But back to death.
The lengths Babette and Jack go to calm their fear are hard to relate to. When they wonder why no one else is overwhelmed by the fear as they are, Jack acknowledges that “Some people are better at repressing it than others.” He’s wrong. Everyone is better at repressing it. They become the poster children for repression and denial being the correct strategy. And that’s good news for me because I repress and deny everything. So I must be healthy as hell.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor
Not my usual type of read (the book), but I thoroughly enjoyed your review!
Thanks, Liz. Yeah, this was not an enthusiastic review.
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I do not know why I never read White Noise since people say I am obsessed with death. Many of those people have already died, so maybe death obsessions are good for longevity (I have no data to support this). Btw, Gladiola, have you seen the movie White Noise?
Hi Geoff, I have not seen the movie yet though I plan on doing so. From what I’ve heard it might be one of those rare situations where the movie is better than the book.
Me too! 🙂 I read the novel years ago and the phrase “airborne toxic event” etched itself in my bean. I like your tart remark about plots at the outset: Indeed, how could they lead other than in life’s direction?
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