I wrote a column on Thursday ranking the top ten starters on this year’s playoff rosters, and also did my usual weekly Klawchat, although the next one may not be for two or three weeks.
Don DeLillo’s White Noise – part of the TIME 100 and #82 on the Radcliffe Course’s top 100 – blends the science fiction-tinged paranoia of Philip K. Dick and the bleak views of postwar suburban families from novels like Revolutionary Road while foreshadowing the hysterical realism of Zadie Smith and the more recent A Naked Singularity, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. It’s a very dark, often morbidly depressing look at runaway consumerism, overreliance on pharmaceuticals, fear of death in a world of declining religiosity, and the vacuous, sterile nature of life in the American exurbs. It’s also often very funny, with a distinctive narrative voice that often jumps off the page, although DeLillo couldn’t quite maintain that macabre exuberance for the novel’s full length.
Jack Gladney is a professor of Hitler studies at a fictional midwestern University and lives with his fourth wife, Babette, and their gaggle of kids from previous marriages, all of whom but one are beyond precocious, developed (by pharmaceuticals? by environmental toxins?) into odd stages of emotional maturity even before reaching their teens. Jack and Babette both live comfortable but morally and emotionally aimless lives, talking at length about their terror of death, which becomes much more tangible to them when a nearby chemical spill spawns an “airborne toxic event” that gives Jack a slightly grim medical prognosis while setting him and Babette at odds over her own use of an experimental mood-altering medication.
While every description I’ve found of White Noise dwells on the central characters’ shared fear of death, that’s just one of several themes in the novel and, for me at least, it’s almost a cover story for the more pressing anti-consumerist sentiment that pulsates just below the novel’s surface from start to finish. Repeated scenes of characters all lost in the supermarket lead to casual descriptions of emotional satisfaction from large purchases, from a car full of consumer goods, from recognition of familiar mass-market brands, from the mere participation in the economy of commodities. DeLillo indicts American consumer culture by depicting real-but-too-real postnuclear American family whose members can’t relate to each other without the bond of household goods. I thought the occasional interpolations of three major brands, one after another – “Tegrin, Denorex, Selsen Blue” – almost pedantic, as if DeLillo didn’t realize his focus on the Gladneys was sufficient for a guilty verdict.
The fear of death theme covered familiar ground as well, something explored in many novels over the past century as the role of religion has diminished in many developed nations, whether through a decline in general religiosity or an increase in nonbelievers. White Noise particularly reminded me of a novel I hated, Tom Robbins’ fantasy Jitterbug Perfume, which eventually makes no argument stronger than that we can’t be sure what follows death, so we might as well enjoy and extend life as much as we can. I didn’t really need Robbins to tell me that, and I don’t need DeLillo too, either.
That theme actually works better when it underpins the novel’s second, slower-burning subject, our reliance on pharmaceuticals to solve our problems and/or improve our lives – better living through biochemistry, in a way. Earlier in the novel, characters casually mention use of prescription drugs, but the chase for one drug in particular (minor spoiler) that is designed to suppress our natural horror of our own mortality comes to occupy the third of three sections of the book, as Jack realizes Babette is taking it but for reasons unknown won’t discuss it with him. (Of course, it’s one of their precocious kids, Denise, aged nine going on twenty, who finds the bottle and figures out something’s amiss.)
From the point of discovery and confrontation, however, DeLillo goes off the rails in both plot and theme, as if he knew he’d hit on something powerful but couldn’t figure out how to wrap up the story in a manner consistent with his character development and greater intentions for the novel. Jack is somewhere between a desperate man and an enraged husband but not really enough of either to be credible, and by this point in the book, the lack of depth to all of the side characters, including their kids, and to previously significant details like Jack’s choice of academic subjects becomes glaring. What might have built up into a great crescendo sputters into an unsatisfying conclusion. It’s a rare case of a book being too short, where most other books in the hysterical realism realm, both before and after White Noise, came in much longer so that their twisted, layered versions of reality have more time to vest. If the first section stood alone as a novella, it would feel a little incomplete, but could stand on its own for its creativity and manic vision, a lot like Philip K. Dick’s more serious works. Unfortunately, DeLillo stopped in the no-man’s land between that and the more ambitious works I referenced earlier.
Anyway, that leaves me with just four more books on the TIME 100, but none under 600 pages.
Next up: A brief detour into non-fiction with food writer Peter Kaminsky’s book on eating more healthfully without giving up the pleasure of great cooking, Culinary Intelligence.