Monday, 16 July 2012

Review: White Noise by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo: could be more funny? (from

Don DeLillo tries hard to be funny. He is sometimes successful, I suppose. But the humour he offers is of a stodgy, academic, over-thought kind: the humour of an author or a professor's midlife crisis. Such is the tone of White Noise, so overpowered with this kind of humour that it comes across grey and brown and flat. Sometimes the novel sparkles with the absurd: an “airborne toxic event”, bizarre conversations with doctors, a surreal and ineffective shootout that recalls Humbert's assassination of Quilty in Lolita. But all are dampened, devoid of joy.

Lolita is a good point of comparison. Like in Nabokov's novel, the first person narrator of White Noise dominates the text with his voice. Unlike in Lolita, however, there are few advantages to be gained. Jack Gladney's voice's overwhelming effect is 
most problematic when it is applied to the dialogue of his children. Denise (11) and Heinrich (14), we are expected to believe, speak and act with the emotional and intellectual range of middle aged college professors. I half expected the denouement of the novel to be silent Wilder's first words – a digression on the cultural importance of burger bars and supermarkets, or a conversation about death, or chemistry. Wilder is three. That he doesn't speak is a source of comfort to his parents – it marks him as young and death-proof – and it is comforting to the reader, who has already been freaked out by the other children's peculiar maturity.

In Lolita, the eerie silence of the title character, her inability to articulate herself, and the unconvincing sketch of her as twelve-year-old temptress is thrown into relief by the American childishness of her directly reported dialogue. There is no such relief in White Noise. Nabokov reportedly rode around on buses eavesdropping on school girls to get an ear for it. DeLillo, childless when he wrote White Noise, clearly took no such pains. The question I am forced to ask is: what is the point of these child-professors? Are they meant to provide pathos, demonstrating to the reader the exacerbated maturity of the TV age, the ageing effect of the 'radiation' the narrator thinks is spewed from television sets and radios and phone lines and god knows what else?

What white noise looks like (?), according to

The other possibility is that the tonal flatness is a form of solipsism. Jack Gladney is obsessed with death. Such is the theme of the novel. Death permeates everything. The children cannot be allowed to escape. Their lack of life, their seamless fit into their (step)father's world and idiolect, denies them the vibrancy and excitement of real-life children.

There was a family at the station in my home town recently, and their children were playing in a puddle on the platform. And they were fucking loving it. They splashed and kicked at the water, finding something beautiful and exciting in a shallow puddle of endless rain on the cracked concrete. When the train came, the little boy started waving his arms, and his two sisters joined in, and together they waved down the train. These are the children I want to read about, not DeLillo's post-apocalyptic dirge.

What TV looked like in the 1980s (from
As has been intimated, the death-obsession is tied up throughout the novel with modern technology, especially with mass communications. There are problems with this other major theme. Technology has a habit of outpacing authors. The challenges posed by television to family life in 1985 seem quaint when compared with the challenges posed to family life by the internet and two-hundred-channel TV and smart phones thirty years later. DeLillo just can't keep up. His generalities, his observations, are not obsolete, but they are no longer compelling. The fear in the novel at the pernicious effects of these devices no longer seem vital. Perhaps this can be seen as a strength: it is appropriate that a book about death should suffer this kind of death itself. But appropriateness, however felicitous, is not substitute for crackling vitality and excitement and life. DeLillo's transformation of the absurd into mud is impressive, somehow, but it is far from satisfying.


  1. Signs and signage – road signs, movie marquees, newspaper headlines real and imaginary, municipal signs, electronic message boards, storefronts, etc. – function as important indicators of the shifts, changes, and developments in Angstrom’s consciousness as he grows older throughout the decades chronicled in Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ series.

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