|<<>>|7 of 223 Show listMobile Mode

White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985) (read in 2021)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This novel felt a bit like others I’ve read about tenured professors in America, like Roth’s The Dying Animal. It’s not got much of a plot to speak of. Instead, it’s more a set of character studies of Jack Gladney and his odd family: Babette (his third wife, I believe) and a mix of his and her children, Heinrich, Denise, Steffie, and Wilder. There are other children and their mothers (Jack’s exes) scattered around the country, who make rare appearances. Jack teaches Hitler Studies at a local university. His closest friend there is fellow professor Murray Siskind, whose kind of an intellectual freelancer, teaching various subjects. If anyone were to make a movie of this book, it should be Wes Anderson.[1]

Especially the character of Heinrich seems quite the type,

“[…] I saw Heinrich crouched on a small ledge outside our attic window. He wore his camouflage jacket and cap, an outfit with complex meaning for him, at fourteen, struggling to grow and to escape notice simultaneously, his secrets known to us all. He looked east through binoculars.”
Page 107
“People listened attentively to this adolescent boy in a field jacket and cap, with binoculars strapped around his neck and an Instamatic fastened to his belt.”
Page 126

Tell me that doesn’t sound like the adolescent character in one or more Wes Anderson movies.

The rough arc of the plot starts with establishing Jack and his extended family. Jack teaches Hitler studies, but doesn’t speak German. He endeavors to learn the language passably well enough that he looks less the fool at the next Hitler convention at his university.

The plot moves forward a bit when Jack and his family—and their whole town—are exposed to a “Toxic Airborne Incident” that forces them all to evacuate from town and hole up in emergency shelters. They are moved from there as well as the toxic cloud (Nyodene Derivative) makes a zig when it had been expected to zag. Here, Jack makes the acquaintance of a man working for SIMUVAC, which is an organization that simulates evacuations.

In the second part, Jack finds out that Babette has been taking a drug called Dylar, but she claims she isn’t taking it. Denise pushes Jack to find out more. This is one way of looking at the story. The other is that Babette is cheating on Jack and the Dylar is just a cover story. Jack chooses to believe the story of Dylar, the wonder drug that cures you of the fear of death.

This is something that Jack incidentally needs more than Babette because someone from SIMUVAC told him that his exposure to Nyodene has given him only decades left to live. This bothers him greatly and he would love to medicate away his terror at his impending doom. That being terrified of a death decades in the future is facially ludicrous is left up to the reader to determine.

When Babette eventually confesses that the drug didn’t help her at all, it’s all the more obvious that she was just cheating on Jack twice a week for months, but Jack doubles down on his belief in Dylar’s efficacy.

Murray, the genius, suggests to Jack that perhaps taking another life would help him conquer his own fear of death. Jack takes his trusty pistol and drives around, looking for Mr. Gray, Babette’s lover. He shoots Gray twice, places the pistol in his hand to make it look like a suicide, is shot by Gray with the final bullet, takes Gray to a bizarre hospital, and returns home, probably no wiser.

The SIMUVAC and the Dylar both indicate that some things are real and others are not, but this book doesn’t go as strongly in the direction of living a possibly unreal lifetime as something like Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch or Lem’s The Futurological Congress. Instead, it kind of suggests that maybe what Gladney experiences isn’t entirely as real as he thinks it is, but that the fears he has are no less real for all that.

The entire book is suffused with American culture, both real and imagined. I wonder how popular is could possibly be outside of America, to be honest. On the other hand, quotes like the following—which would have fit almost uniquely to the U.S. in 1985—are now applicable to many places in the heavily Americanized west, so maybe Europeans can relate to the material now in a way that they couldn’t when the book first appeared.

“It seemed to me that Babette and I, in the mass and variety of our purchases, in the sheer plenitude those crowded bags suggested, the weight and size and number, the familiar package designs and vivid lettering, the giant sizes, the family bargain packs with Day-Glo sale stickers, in the sense of replenishment we felt, the sense of well-being, the security and contentment these products brought to some snug home in our souls—it seemed we had achieved a fullness of being that is not known to people who need less, expect less, who plan their lives around lonely walks in the evening.”
Page 20

There are many places where the self-assuredness, the invincibility, of the well-off middle-class has also become more commonplace. For example, Babette’s blasé dismissal of any safety precautions when she says,

““They’re always saying boil your water,” Babette said. “It’s the new thing, like turn your wheel in the direction of the skid.”
Page 34

Both of these things are important, but she seems to be in some sort of information overload that doesn’t allow her to process them as important to her life. Perhaps this is predicated on the fact that she is able to ignore societal admonitions and nothing bad ever happens. Or perhaps it’s due to a hyperactive media making so much clamor that she can’t tell the signal from the noise, so that everything is a wash of indiscernible white noise?

““That’s the point,” she said. “Every day on the news there’s another toxic spill. Cancerous solvents from storage tanks, arsenic from smokestacks, radioactive water from power plants. How serious can it be if it happens all the time? Isn’t the definition of a serious event based on the fact that it’s not an everyday occurrence?””
Page 166

Jack addresses the same theme when talking to Heinrich about the deadliness of the illness he thinks he has from the Nyodene,

“I wanted to tell him that statistical evidence of the kind he was quoting from was by nature inconclusive and misleading. I wanted to say that he would learn to regard all such catastrophic findings with equanimity as he matured, grew out of his confining literalism, developed a spirit of informed and skeptical inquiry, advanced in wisdom and rounded judgment, got old, declined, died.”
Page 167

This theme of “not knowing what to believe in this media- and marketing-saturated world” dominates the book. It was in the culture in 1985 and has only gotten more prevalent—and insidious—in 2021.

This is a danger for everyone. Babette intimates that the admonitions are bogus, but it could also be that society is looking out for her well-being despite her complete ignorance of how to do this on her own—indeed her actively working against it. When society is dishonest all of the time in order to hawk its wares, it’s not likely to be trusted when it has something true to impart.

This aspect has only gotten worse and, at some point, people end up paying the piper when society can no longer triple-ply its safety precautions to keep people from harming themselves (I’m thinking of the way people are handling the pandemic, two years in). It’s a lesson we get to learn again and again, as our system incentivizes lying because it makes more money and there is no downside. This handful of people selling lies ends up spending all of a society’s goodwill and diluting its ability to keep its members from harming themselves.

There are some observations about a TV-obsessed 1980s America that apply equally well to a nation—nay, a world—obsessed with its devices, and the entertainment they bring. The following feels, 35 years later, almost universal,

““You’re saying it’s more or less universal, to be fascinated by TV disasters.”

““For most people there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set. If a thing happens on television, we have every right to find it fascinating, whatever it is.””

Page 66

Replace the word “television” with “phone” and “TV disasters” with “fabricated dramas” and you’ve captured the online world in 2021 accurately enough. Or there’s the notion of information overload, which I don’t recall being nearly as big a problem in 1985 as it is now (but I was only 13 at the time, so my problem then was not knowing nearly enough). Even “fake news” gets its turn in this book, called “misinformation”,

“The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error. […] Murray says we are fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts. Facts threaten our happiness and security. The deeper we delve into the nature of things, the looser our structure may seem to become. The family process works toward sealing off the world. Small errors grow heads, fictions proliferate.”
Page 81

Again this observation seems to strike at the heart of what it is to be human—or living in a group of humans. It makes you wonder whether the fantasies we have of making a better society are even achievable when we’re hampered by such seemingly iron laws of behavior—recurring as they do over the decades. No matter how much technology or knowledge we gain, we tread the same ground, too stupid even to notice that it’s a repeat with a new coat of paint on it—sometimes not even that.

The book has, in fact, quite a lot to say about how poorly we assimilate and process and reuse information. Another example shows that our tendency to look to the group for leadership and assurance is also not new—it’s simply gone online. But in the example below, expertise is sought from anywhere but within—even in complete strangers (just like Twitter).

“Mainly we looked at people in other cars, trying to work out from their faces how frightened we should be.

“[…]

“They knew something we didn’t. In a crisis the true facts are whatever other people say they are. No one’s knowledge is less secure than your own.”

Page 117

The theme of knowing and believing and proving and extrapolating and doubting suffuses the book. Gladney and Murray and Babette—none of them is sure of anything but they must muddle through the day nonetheless. They must make decisions. They must fight against that which they consider to be unknowing or unbelieving or unprovable or wrongheaded or doubtful in order to be sure of themselves. Without this bulwark against which to lean, they’d fall over. It is the ideological enemy that lends them surety. Without it, doubt would creep in; but there is no room for doubt when the enemy must be defeated.

“There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools.”
Page 304

It was a decent enough book, thought-provoking, but not in what I would call a novel way.[2] I feel I got more out of thinking and writing about it than I did from reading it, but that’s how it is with some books. They’re good books—important books?—but someone who reads a book for entertainment will be harder to reach with this one.

Citations

“The eventual heat death of the universe that scientists love to talk about is already well underway and you can feel it happening all around you in any large or medium-sized city. Heat and wetness.””
Page 10

I can’t tell if he’s kidding, but the heat death is about a dearth of heat, not a surfeit.

“It seemed to me that Babette and I, in the mass and variety of our purchases, in the sheer plenitude those crowded bags suggested, the weight and size and number, the familiar package designs and vivid lettering, the giant sizes, the family bargain packs with Day-Glo sale stickers, in the sense of replenishment we felt, the sense of well-being, the security and contentment these products brought to some snug home in our souls—it seemed we had achieved a fullness of being that is not known to people who need less, expect less, who plan their lives around lonely walks in the evening.”
Page 20

““People who can fix things are usually bigots.”

““What do you mean?”

““Think of all the people who’ve ever come to your house to fix things. They were all bigots, weren’t they?”

““I don’t know.”

““They drove panel trucks, didn’t they, with an extension ladder on the roof and some kind of plastic charm dangling from the rearview mirror?”

““I don’t know, Murray.”

““It’s obvious,” he said.”

Page 33

Murray is a wonderful caricature of liberals of any day and age, so smug in their superiority to the lesser classes.

““They’re always saying boil your water,” Babette said. “It’s the new thing, like turn your wheel in the direction of the skid.”
Page 34

Nice. People not understanding the severity of admonitions. It’s nice how this ignorance from 1985 echoes 35 years later, knee-deep in a pandemic.

“I realized the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.”
Page 36

““You’re saying maybe you’re taking something that has the side effect of impairing memory.”

““Either I’m taking something and I don’t remember or I’m not taking something and I don’t remember. My life is either/or.”

Page 53
“As a volunteer reader to the blind, Babette had some reservations about the old gent’s appetite for the unspeakable and seamy, believing that the handicapped were morally bound to higher types of entertainment. If we couldn’t look to them for victories of the human spirit, who could we look to? They had an example to set just as she did as a reader and morale-booster. But she was professional in her duty, reading to him with high earnestness, as to a child, about dead men who leave messages on answering machines.”
Page 57
“Denise came in and sprawled across the foot of the bed, her head resting on her folded arms, facing away from me. How many codes, countercodes, social histories were contained in this simple posture? A full minute passed.”
Page 61

““You’re saying it’s more or less universal, to be fascinated by TV disasters.”

““For most people there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set. If a thing happens on television, we have every right to find it fascinating, whatever it is.””

Page 66

This feels a bit like Infinite Jest, with the fascination with television. The concept outlined above applies smoothly to any screen.

“Elliot Lasher threw a chunk of raw carrot at him, then asked, “Did you ever have a woman peel flaking skin from your back after a few days at the beach?”

““Cocoa Beach, Florida,” Cotsakis said. “It was very tremendous. The second or third greatest experience of my life.”

““Was she naked?” Lasher said.

““To the waist,” Cotsakis said.

““From which direction?” Lasher said. I watched Grappa throw a cracker at Murray. He skimmed it backhand like a Frisbee.”

Page 68

I like the succinctness of that question. It’s relevant to picturing the story.

“The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error. Overcloseness, the noise and heat of being. Perhaps something even deeper, like the need to survive. Murray says we are fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts. Facts threaten our happiness and security. The deeper we delve into the nature of things, the looser our structure may seem to become. The family process works toward sealing off the world. Small errors grow heads, fictions proliferate.”
Page 81
““Indonesia, more or less. Malcolm’s working in deep cover, sponsoring a Communist revival. It’s part of an elegant scheme designed to topple Castro. Let’s get out of here, Tuck, before children come swarming around to beg.””
Page 86

There are these occasional jarring reminders that the world they inhabit is vaguely more dystopian than ours. The unironic Hitler studies was one of the first signs.

“Attila the Hun died young. He was still in his forties. Did he feel sorry for himself, succumb to self-pity and depression? He was the King of the Huns, the Invader of Europe, the Scourge of God.

“I want to believe he lay in his tent, wrapped in animal skins, as in some internationally financed movie epic, and said brave cruel things to his aides and retainers. No weakening of the spirit. No sense of the irony of human existence, that we are the highest form of life on earth and yet ineffably sad because we know what no other animal knows, that we must die.

“Attila did not look through the opening in his tent and gesture at some lame dog standing at the edge of the fire waiting to be thrown a scrap of meat. He did not say, “That pathetic flea-ridden beast is better off than the greatest ruler of men. It doesn’t know what we know, it doesn’t feel what we feel, it can’t be sad as we are sad.””

Page 98
“This is the level of our discourse. The relative size of holes, abysses and gaps. We have serious arguments on this level. She says if her death is capable of leaving a large hole in my life, my death would leave an abyss in hers, a great yawning gulf. I counter with a profound depth or void. And so it goes into the night. These arguments never seem foolish at the time. Such is the dignifying power of our subject.”
Page 100
“When I was halfway down the street I saw Heinrich crouched on a small ledge outside our attic window. He wore his camouflage jacket and cap, an outfit with complex meaning for him, at fourteen, struggling to grow and to escape notice simultaneously, his secrets known to us all. He looked east through binoculars.”
Page 107

This family reminds me of a Wes Anderson movie.

““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 the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters. People in low-lying areas get the floods, people in shanties get the hurricanes and tornados.

“I’m a college professor. Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods? We live in a neat and pleasant town near a college with a quaint name. These things don’t happen in places like Blacksmith.””

Page 112
“The men in Mylex suits moved with a lunar caution. Each step was the exercise of some anxiety not provided for by instinct. Fire and explosion were not the inherent dangers here. This death would penetrate, seep into the genes, show itself in bodies not yet born.”
Page 114
“We made it onto the road as snow began to fall. We had little to say to each other, our minds not yet adjusted to the actuality of things, the absurd fact of evacuation. Mainly we looked at people in other cars, trying to work out from their faces how frightened we should be.”
Page 117
“They knew something we didn’t. In a crisis the true facts are whatever other people say they are. No one’s knowledge is less secure than your own.”
Page 117
“People listened attentively to this adolescent boy in a field jacket and cap, with binoculars strapped around his neck and an Instamatic fastened to his belt. No doubt his listeners were influenced by his age. He would be truthful and earnest, serving no special interest; he would have an awareness of the environment; his knowledge of chemistry would be fresh and up-to-date.”
Page 126
““It’s like we’ve been flung back in time,” he said. “Here we are in the Stone Age, knowing all these great things after centuries of progress but what can we do to make life easier for the Stone Agers? Can we make a refrigerator? Can we even explain how it works? What is electricity? What is light? We experience these things every day of our lives but what good does it do if we find ourselves hurled back in time and we can’t even tell people the basic principles much less actually make something that would improve conditions. Name one thing you could make. Could you make a simple wooden match that you could strike on a rock to make a flame?”
Page 142

““I’d like to lose interest in myself,” I told Murray. “Is there any chance of that happening?”

““None. Better men have tried.”

““I guess you’re right.”

““It’s obvious.””

Page 146
““That’s the point,” she said. “Every day on the news there’s another toxic spill. Cancerous solvents from storage tanks, arsenic from smokestacks, radioactive water from power plants. How serious can it be if it happens all the time? Isn’t the definition of a serious event based on the fact that it’s not an everyday occurrence?””
Page 166
“I wanted to argue with him. I wanted to ask him why I should believe these scientific findings but not the results that indicated we were safe from Nyodene contamination. But what could I say, considering my condition? I wanted to tell him that statistical evidence of the kind he was quoting from was by nature inconclusive and misleading. I wanted to say that he would learn to regard all such catastrophic findings with equanimity as he matured, grew out of his confining literalism, developed a spirit of informed and skeptical inquiry, advanced in wisdom and rounded judgment, got old, declined, died.”
Page 167
“I tell myself I have reached an age, the age of unreliable menace. The world is full of abandoned meanings. In the commonplace I find unexpected themes and intensities.”
Page 175
““This is not a story about your disappointment at my silence. The theme of this story is my pain and my attempts to end it.””
Page 183
“The enormity of the mission, of flying to a foreign country at nearly supersonic speed, at thirty thousand feet, alone, in a humped container of titanium and steel, caused her to grow momentarily silent.”
Page 203

““You could put your faith in technology. It got you here, it can get you out. This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.”

““It is?”

““It’s what we invented to conceal the terrible secret of our decaying bodies. But it’s also life, isn’t it? It prolongs life, it provides new organs for those that wear out. New devices, new techniques every day. Lasers, masers, ultrasound. Give yourself up to it, Jack. Believe in it. They’ll insert you in a gleaming tube, irradiate your body with the basic stuff of the universe. Light, energy, dreams. God’s own goodness.””

Page 272
“I ran a red light when I crossed Middlebrook. Reaching the end of the expressway ramp, I did not yield. All the way to Iron City, I felt a sense of dreaminess, release, unreality. I slowed down at the toll gate but did not bother tossing a quarter into the basket. An alarm went off but no one pursued. What’s another quarter to a state that is billions in debt? What’s twenty-five cents when we are talking about a nine-thousand-dollar stolen car? This must be how people escape the pull of the earth, the gravitational leaf-flutter that brings us hourly closer to dying. Simply stop obeying. Steal instead of buy, shoot instead of talk. I ran two more lights on the rainy approach roads to Iron City.”
Page 288

““All the others. The others who spend their lives believing that we still believe. It is our task in the world to believe things no one else takes seriously. To abandon such beliefs completely, the human race would die. This is why we are here. A tiny minority. To embody old things, old beliefs. The devil, the angels, heaven, hell. If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse.”

““Pretend?”

““Of course pretend. Do you think we are stupid? Get out from here.”

““You don’t believe in heaven? A nun?”

““If you don’t, why should I?”

““If you did, maybe I would.”

““If I did, you would not have to.””

Page 303
“Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools.”
Page 304
“The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers. They walk in a fragmented trance, stop and go, clusters of well-dressed figures frozen in the aisles, trying to figure out the pattern, discern the underlying logic, trying to remember where they’d seen the Cream of Wheat. They see no reason for it, find no sense in it. The scouring pads are with the hand soap now, the condiments are scattered.”
Page 309


[1] A quick search to determine whether anyone’s made a movie of this shows that Noah Baumbach is directing a film of the book, to be released in 1922. Adam Driver will be playing Jack Gladney.
[2] Not novel for me, anyway, but maybe that’s because the book was written in 1985, and I’ve read imitators since then, e.g. Infinite Jest.