White Noise by Don Delillo is a novel that at times wonderfully showcases our relationship with technology and media, and how it is dispersed in the background of our lives. Those moments of the novel work well when they are subtle sentences, like an advertisement for credit cards taking up a line of text between dialogue, but lose their impact when blatantly pushed on the reader.
As the novel moves through it’s story, it goes through three sections: Waves and Radiation, The Airborne Toxic Event, and Dylarama. The first section is enjoyable and farcical as the main character, Jack Gladney (the chair of Hitler Studies) at a small liberal arts college interacts with his colleagues in the American/Popular Culture Department. Gladney has built up a persona on campus that portrays him as an aloof, eccentric, and commandingly brilliant figure. He wears dark tinted glasses, an academic robe, and gained weight to increase his presence on the campus. His campus life is balanced by that of his family, which is a kind of dysfunctional version of the Brady Bunch, where numerous children enter and depart the scenes. It’s hard to place which child belongs to whom.
In the second part of the novel, a chemical spill interrupts life for both the Gladney family, and the town. This part of the novel also functions well. There’s a little less blatant humor as everyone is in a fight or flight response. By the time the novel shifts to the third section is when the plot begins to fall apart. Gladey’s wife, Babette, has been taking a drug called Dylar that is highly experimental and supposed to block the fear of death which has been weighing on her for most of her life. At this point, the novel becomes overly ridiculous and unbelievable.
One area of interest is how children are portrayed in White Noise. Jack and Babette are out of touch parents who seem disconnected and immature most of the time. In contrast, their children seem to be more aware of the world around them, less fearful of life, and more capable of dealing with reality. This is especially true as, Heinrich, takes on an air of authority and commands respect from a group of adults in regard to the airborne toxic event. Perhaps, since the children have not been surrounded by the white noise that is aging in our media-driven era, they are still at a place in their lives where they can be critical and confident. With that idea in mind, the other interesting point Delillo brings up is a discussion of death; however, the actual dialogues can be unsettling as both Babette and Jack are frantic characters, who spit out bursts of fears, insecurities, and anxieties that sometimes make sense, and other times are over the top.
A small, but huge failing of this book is the introduction of Babette’s father. Like a stagehand who isn’t supposed to be in the scene, he shows up out of the blue with a single functional purpose, to provide Jack Gladney with a gun. It’s terrible. It’s obvious. It’s unfortunate.
If you’re looking for a book to take seriously, don’t read White Noise. If you’re looking for a work of fiction that may engage you at times, but not ultimately lead you to a satisfying end, you should pick up this novel. Most importantly, it’s a book that satirizes the academy, especially the humanities, and is tinged with dark undercurrents.