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Don DeLillo

White Noise (1984)

As usual, some of this is quite fully developed and some is a series of indicative notes towards an interpretation of the novel. Please use these to develop your own readings, analyses and interpretations further.

Kenneth Millard suggests that: "White Noise is not a postmodern novel, simply a brilliant interrogation of the conditions of postmodernity; this is a fundamentally different thing." (131). I want to try and explore this distinction for a while, bearing in mind that my own affinity as both reader and writer is to a modernist aesthetic, rather than a postmodernist one. So my appreciation and indeed comprehension of "postmodernism" is most likely severely limited.

Postmodern Novel

That’s not entirely true, but it is perhaps indicative that I am drawn to a text written relatively early in the chronology of postmodernist writing, in order to establish a paradigm for postmodernism; namely Ihab Hassan’s "POSTmodernISM: A Paracritical Bibliography," 1971. 

The Unimaginable

[…] I know the near infinite resources of man, and that his imagination may still serve as the teleological organ of his evolution. Yet I am possessed by the feeling that in the next few decades, certainly within half a century, the earth and all that inhabits it may be wholly other, perhaps ravaged, perhaps on the way to some strange utopia indistinguishable from nightmare. I have no language to articulate this feeling with conviction, nor imagination to conceive this special destiny. To live from hour to hour seems as maudlin as to invoke every hour the Last Things. In this feeling I find that I am not alone. […]

[From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology, ed. by Lawrence Cahoone (Blackwell, 1996), 394-95]

Hassan continues in his next section by offering a definition of postmodernism, based on this premise that we are or shortly will be living or dying in the realm of the "unimaginable," where quotidien reality is stranger than fiction. This is it:

Postmodernism may be a response, direct or oblique, to the Unimaginable that Modernism glimpsed only in its most prophetic moments. Certainly it is not the Dehumanization of the Arts that concerns us now; it is rather the Denaturalization of the Planet and the End of Man. We are, I believe, inhabitants of another Time and another Space, and we no longer know what response is adequate to our reality. In a sense we have all learned to become minimalists – of that time and space we can call our own – though the globe may have become our village. (395)

Hassan glosses "Dehumanization" as finally meaning "the end of the old Realism. Increasingly, illusionism takes it place, not only in art but also in life. The media contribute egregariously to this process in Postmodern society." (397) He also defines how "Dehumanization affects the use of irony in literature. It "becomes radical, self-consuming play, entropy of meaning. Also comedy of the absurd, black humor, insane parody and slapstick. Camp. Negation." (397)

Although he makes the distinction that postmodernism moves beyond modernism in that the concern is now the "Denaturalization of the Planet and the End of Man," he avoids a further discussion of this important distinction, presumably because it is still unimaginable and unthinkable. Yet I think that his definition of "Dehumanization" under the rubric of postmodernism together with his bald statement of the fact of "Denaturalization" combine to give us a useful way into White Noise as a postmodern novel.

I believe Millard claims that White Noise is not a postmodern novel, because his analysis doesn’t find or reveal sufficient postmodernist literary strategies. Millard sees it as basically a realist novel, without the textual disruptions or authorial self-reflexiveness or parody of prior texts or pastiche or inclusion of Pop, etc. etc. which for him would characterize the postmodern novel. Yet this text is a parody of prior genres, and it also mixes its genres in a satisfyingly postmodern way. The novel is simultaneously a campus novel, a detective fiction, a black comedy and an example of the fiction of domesticity. I think this latter category (fiction of domesticity) is particularly important, since DeLillo clearly both parodies and thoroughly transforms the genre to reflect changes in family structure from the nuclear family to the reconstituted family of the eighties.

At the same time this text is about "Denaturalization of the Planet and the End of Man." If all postmodern art must be merely parody, pastiche, illusion and simulacra, then of course this isn’t a postmodern text; it is telling the story of what it is really like to live with the fact of Denaturalization of the Planet and the End of Man. The author is still engaged with this unimaginable reality, which we now exist in. He hasn’t disappeared into a textual void of his own composing. I invoke Hassan, because he allows us to consider postmodernism as still engaged with global / village realities. It would be more problematic to argue that White Noise is a postmodern novel if I were to base my argument on the philosophies of Lyotard, Baudrillard or Jameson; yet I think you could borrow the intellectual paradigms from any of these theorists of postmodernism, and still argue the case successfully. However, I want to argue that this is a postmodern novel precisely because it reflects contemporary reality, when we define that reality as a process of dehumanization and denaturalization, which is the inescapable condition of our lives. And, even though the postmodernist textual strategies are muted, and the general reader can read this as a comic / realist text, I think a careful analysis of the text should reveal the extent to which the condition of postmodernity is inflected in its literary style.

Millard, on the other hand, argues that the novel is about postmodernity, but does not reflect or enact that in its textual strategies. So I want to argue the counter case. And I shall start by thinking about the implications of the title. If we pause to reflect we should see that form does mirror content, at least to a certain extent. 

White noise, n. random noise with a uniform frequency spectrum over a wide range of frequencies. (Webster’s 1991)

Consider the implications of these two textual examples:

The room was very quiet. I walked over to the TV set and turned it on to a dead channel – white noise at maximum decibels, a fine sound for sleeping, a powerful continuous hiss to drown out everything strange. (Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1971, 61)

It made perfect sense. What was I here for if not to define, fix my sights, take aim at? I heard a noise, faint, monotonous, white. (306)

You might also think of white noise as racialized discourse, not a "neutral" voice, but one which "others" other ethnic groups. And think of the novel racialized joke about whiteness; these are noises the white middle-classes in middle America makes. At the same time, consider the implications of "white noise" as metonym for anxiety. In modern office buildings, low level, white noise is circulated to counteract an acoustic deadness, which can cause a sense of unease.

There is a white noise in this text, it is the recurrent incantation of corporate brand names, which usually come in threes, and intrude into the first person narration without any indication as to their provenance or their relevance. Millard explains them as a part of Jack Gladney’s consciousness, illustrating how saturated he is in the commercial culture of late capitalism. Yet if this "white noise" is an element in his consciousness, which happens when he is temporarily and intermittently "out of tune," doesn’t that imply that the rest of his consciousness is composed of media messages, which he is tuned in to? So I would argue that this is postmodern, in that the tonal quality of the first person narration is hyperreal or unreal. We are given the illusion of a realistic first person narration, but with a devastingly comic irony, which undermines both the narrator’s and our confidence in his substantive grip on an unimaginable reality. I have been trying to think of film equivalents that also represent the American family and domesticity in a style that incorporates the phenomenon of family members performing stylized versions of themselves. The effect of this phenomenon is to render their identity — both superficially and in terms of consciousness and interiority (if such a category still exists in human experience) — into a series of reflected performances, which act out the TV soap opera images of themselves, which in an earlier era one might have described as clichéd versions of their "true" selves. For me the best example of this comes in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Admittedly it is more extreme than the style of White Noise, but I think we should be alert to elements in the text of DeLillo’s novel that perform a similar function of reflecting man’s "dehumanization." Consider the passage on pp. 16-17 as an early introduction of the trope: " I am the false character that follows the name around."

"Living with the conditions of modernity"

So in my analysis that follows, while I shall address themes, I want to try to keep issues of literary style in the foreground as well. So, what are the conditions of modernity, which we all live with? Taking my cue from the text, I could list the following bits of evidence:

  • The Airport Marriott, the Downtown Travelodge, the Sheraton Inn and Conference Center. (p. 15) [Cf Jameson’s thesis that the best example of postmodern architecture is in m/hotels.]
  • May the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to plan. (p. 98) [The condition of anomie, textually free floating and not attached to Jack’s personality, because of crisis of ego.]
  • Tegrin, Denorex, Selsun Blue. (p. 289) [I have to admit that despite my reasonable familiarity with American supermarkets and drug stores, I don’t recognize this particular tripartite mantram, but I assume it is culled from product labels.]
  • Random Access Memory, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, Mutual Assured Destruction. (p. 303) [In a recent interview with Chris Bigbsy, the following exchange occurs:
    "C.B. Both Underworld and Libra, for example, blend together fiction and history. Does the writer of fiction have any particular responsibility with respect to history?
    DDL. I would answer for myself, Yes. As a general proposition I’m not sure if the writer does have an obligation, but I would prefer to interpret such matters case by case. I do think that in Libra I try to create a Lee Harvey Oswald that was as close to the real person as I was able to do within my abilities, and I think the same could be said of Hoover in Underworld."
    I tend to think that it is the theoretical definitions of postmodernism that need to be revised. Surely a text which treats RAM, AIDS, & MAD with a sense of obligation or responsibility has as much a claim to the tag postmodern as one that treats them superficially.]

In "Tales of the Electronic Tribe," Frank Lettricchia invokes more of these tripartite mantram, and offers an explanation for their presence in the text. Here is the paragraph in question:

Just how far down and in media culture has penetrated is illustrated by the novel’s formally most astonishing moment — an effort to represent the irruption of the unconscious — variations on which are played throughout. A deep refrain — like a line of poetic chant, with strong metrical structure — is placed by itself in privileged typographical space, part of no paragraph or dialogue, without quotes and related to nothing that comes before or after: a break in the text never reflected upon because Jack never hears it. It is, of course, Jack who speaks the line because White Noise is a first-person novel, and it could therefore be no one else. Jack in these moments is possessed, a mere medium who speaks:

Dacron, Orlon, Lycra Spandex

MasterCard, Visa, American Express

Leaded, Unleaded, Superunleaded

Jacques Lacan said the unconscious is structured like a language. He forgot to add the words "of Madison Avenue." (sic, 102)

[Comment: beware any critic who slips in a redundant "of course"! In a novel written in the postmodern genre, it is quite conceivable that a first person narrative could be disrupted inexplicably from time to time.]

Millard gestures towards an alternative reading only to discard it, when he says:

Jack’s narrative is a deeply ironic and satirical encounter with the pressures of postmodern America, but unless it is conceded that white noise occurs as a feature of the text, then Jack’s narrative is not itself postmodern." (131)

Yet when we are told by the first person narrator that his identity is that of "the false character that follows the name around," how can we read Jack’s narrative voice as sincere and "deep"?  Surely the point is that he is an inauthentic pastiche of personality, he is the simulacrum.

There are many other ways in which this novel is about living with the conditions of postmodernity, and I’ll come back to some of these and deal with them separately, but first I want to talk a little more about the narration.

Features of First Person Narration

DeLillo sets Jack up from the start:

The point is that Babette, whatever she is doing, makes me feel sweetly rewarded, bound up with a full-souled woman, a lover of daylight and dense life, the miscellaneous swarming air of families. I watch her all the time doing things in measured sequence, skillfully, with seeming ease, unlike my former wives, who had a tendency to feel estranged from the objective world — a self-absorbed and high-strung bunch, with ties to the intelligence community. (5-6)

Babette and I tell each other everything. I have told everything, such as it was at the time, to each of my wives. There is more to tell, of course, as marriages accumulate. But when I say I believe in complete disclosure I don’t mean it cheaply, as anecdotal sport or shallow revelation. It is a form of self-renewal and a gesture of custodial trust. Love helps us develop an identity secure enough to allow itself to be placed in another’s care and protection. Babette and I have turned our lives for each other’s thoughtful regard, turned them in the moonlight in our pale hands, spoken deep into the night about fathers and mothers, childhood, friendships, awakenings, old loves, old fears (except fear of death). No detail must be left out, not even a dog with ticks or a neighbor’s boy who ate an insect on a dare. The smell of pantries, the sense of empty afternoons, the feel of things as they rained across our skin, things as facts and passions, the feel of pain, loss disappointment, breathless delight. In these night recitations we create a space between things as we felt them a the time and as we speak them now. This is the space reserved for irony, sympathy and fond amusement, the means by which we rescue ourselves from the past. (29-30)

In the middle of the paragraph is a phrase in parenthesis, it comes in the list of details Babette and Jack talk about deep into the night: "(except fear of death)". Who says this? Is it Jack, acknowledging his point of resistance to disclosure? Or is this the language of Jack’s unconscious mind irrupting into his speech? Or is it the "white noise" of the text, speaking without his being aware? Or is it the author inserting a sneaky prolepsis (or textual anticipation), which most readers won’t register as significant on their first reading? Or is it Jack, writing or editing his narration with hindsight? Any way, "fear of death" is the crux of the plot. For it is Jack’s total failure to realize the extent of Babette’s fear of death, which leads to the startling peripeteia and anagnorisis (reversal and recognition) in Chapter 26, which in turns leads to the black comedy of the failed murder towards the end of the novel.

As Ian Reid puts it, in Narrative Exchanges:

Because one’s previous knowledge and attitude in reading White Noise has been derived almost wholly from Jack’s account of things, untroubled by any structural irony, one shares now his bafflement. Having given credence to his view of his wife, the reader must absorb the discovery that all parties have been gullible […] By shaking our confidence in what is conveyed directly through the narrator-narratee relationship, the text ultimately secures its cunning grip on us, for we no longer know how to "take" what Jack tells us or how to predict what will ensue. (61-2)

[Think in detail about Chapter 26.] 

What we have to bear in mind as readers is that in this text there is a "space reserved for irony, sympathy and fond amusement." One could argue that these qualities define the author’s relationship to his materials. I want to run through some of the themes of the novel as I see them. I shall be brief, so in each case I would suggest that you might want to think about the issues further for yourselves, and both read around the topic and also look closely at exactly what is happening in DeLillo’s textual treatment.

Living with TV & Radio

DeLillo says in his interview with Chris Bigsby that he uses TV and film as further resources for himself as writer, yet White Noise is as much an investigation of the consequences of TV on peoples lives as it is a dramatization of the consequences of a toxic spill taking place in one’s own neighbourhood. I just want to think about two examples in the text, although it’s clear that you could base an entire essay on TV and media in White Noise.

The first occurs at the end of Chapter 20 (103-5). Jack glances at the TV screen in Denise’s room and sees an image of Babette. It is disorientating to the family members to see her as a black and white image, and even more disorientating to discover that even when they turn the volume up, there is no sound coming from this local cable station broadcast. The scene emphasises the uncanniness of TV; this image of Babette is both familiar and unfamiliarized. This is of course the classic uncanny scenario, replayed through the imagery of communications technology. She is Babette, but a detached, untouchable Babette, who doesn’t see or acknowledge them. If the uncanny represents the return of repressed feelings about one’s parents, and figures the trauma caused by their inevitable inability to fulfil one’s infinite desire and yearning for their love and attention, then TV is the perfect image or metaphor for this. The TV offers human images and promises of consolation but they are always mediated through the digital economy. And in plot terms, this scene is a further prolepsis or anticipation of Jack’s discovery that Babette hasn’t been the reassuring maternal figure that he could go to in order to lose all his fears and anxieties, simply by burying his face in her ample breasts.

At the end of Chapter 36 (281) Jack walks the streets of Blacksmith by night:

That night I walked the streets of Blacksmith. The glow of blue-eyed TVs. The voices on the touch-tone phones. (281)

He casts familiar images into simulacra of recognizable TV advertisements — maybe English readers don’t pick up the specific reference to an At&T ad (see Lentricchia 110); but we get the basic idea. The kid who has packed his groceries in the supermarket is transformed into an actor in the commercial; real life is perceived and possibly even experienced as a replay of the TV images, which can either be described as simulacra, or at best as admen’s clichéd sterotypes. There are all sorts of examples of this in the novel, which you might want to think about further (including the conversation Jack has with Heinrich about the weather); and you might also want to look at Lentricchia’s essay, "Tales of the Electronic Tribe," which offers a useful discussion of these issues.

You might want to consult Bourdieu’s work. Among other things he deals with such issues as the coherence that unifies the cultural habits of individuals across very disparate domains of production and consumption.

Image not history — 

In particular, this situation results in the distinctively postmodern attitude towards history as a kind of museum, or better yet, a supermarket of human possibilities, where people are free to shop around for their values and identities. […] Modernism conceived of itself as coming to the end of history in the sense of its culmination, the privileged moment when traditional myths were shattered and the truth finally emerged once and for all. […] As the heir to the modernist heritage, postmodernism finds itself forced to live in the posthistorical moment. No longer thinking of itself as advancing beyond previous movements or eras to some kind of authentic and definitive truth, postmodernism adopts a new — one might say — tolerant attitude towards history. ("Adolf We Hardly Knew You, 41-2)

Think about the following moments in White Noise:

  • p. 4.
  • Most photographed barn (12)
  • Elvis (70-74)
  • Hitler Studies (25-6, 273-4)
The New Technology

At the start the new technology (i.e. IT) is the subject of comic treatment (see 41, 46). Yet after the airborne toxic event, it becomes far more sinister, since it encodes knowledge of Jack’s health, or impending death as a result of his exposure to Nyodene Derivative. (See, 138-142, 259- 260, 279)

Consumerism, supermarkets, shopping

See "Whole Families Shopping at Night" in New Essays on White Noise ed. by Frank Lentricchia.

Conditions of late capitalism: fast food, shopping malls, hypermarket (generic goods in white wrappers, family as source of disinformation.)

Religious rituals /Family rituals, "In White Noise, De Lillo examines not so much the individuating force of consumer culture as its communalizing power. What he sees is how consumerism produces what we might call an aura of connectedness among individuals: an illusion of kinship, transiently functional but without either sustaining or restraining power, a stimulant that at the same time renders one unable to feel either the sacredness or the tyranny of the family bond." ("Whole Families Shopping at Night," 20-1)

Buying & then discarding. (262)

Novel of Domesticity / Domestic fiction

Reconstituted family. They have no "history." (See 15-16 and "Whole Families Shopping at Night," 35-6). Contains not one but two wunderkinden, miraculous children. Compare:

Babette and I do our talking in the kitchen. The kitchen and the bedroom are the major chambers around here, the power haunts, the sources. She and I are alike in this, that we regard the rest of the house as storage space for furniture, toys, all the unused objects of earlier marriages and different sets of children, the gifts of lost in-laws, the hand-me-downs and rummages. Things, boxes. Why do these possessions carry such sorrowful weight? There is a darkness attached to them, a foreboding. They make me wary not of personal failure and defeat but of something more general, something large in scope and content. (6)

The room around him [Murray] was rich in codes and messages, an archeology of childhood, things Denise had carried with her since the age of three, from cartoon clocks to werewolf posters. She is the kind of child who feels a protective tenderness toward her own beginnings. It is part of her strategy in a world of displacements to make every effort to restore and preserve, keep things together for their value as remembering objects, a way of fastening herself to life. (103)

It’s worth bearing in mind that the social history of family organization is complicated, and it is only in the 20th century that family comes to mean the close kinship group of father, mother and 2.5 children in a stable marriage. In the 14th and 15th centuries the word indicated people living together in a household, and gave rise to the adjective familiar, which "came from the experience of people living together in a household, in close relations with each other and well used to each other’s ways […] familiar still does not relate to the sense of a blood-group." (Raymond Williams, Keywords, 131) Williams definition of the family summarizes the "fascinating and difficult history" of the concept and institution by remarking that in middle-class eyes, "family combined the strong sense of immediate and positive blood-group relationships and the strong implicit sense of property." (133). It seems to me that DeLillo’s treatment of the family might in part be based on his own upbring in the Bronx, where he and his siblings lived together with their cousins, in a household that also housed their Italian grandparents. But also that he is fascinated by the ways in which contemporary culture combines family life with consumerism, and especially with the accumulation of consumer goods.

Ecological disaster is not a simulacrum

But DeLillo’s darkest irony is reserved for the environmental hazards and ecological disasters of contemporary life. The irony functions through the "awareness of an […] incongruity between […] appearance and reality," to invoke the dictionary definition. SIMULVAC is fixated on rehearsing for disasters, for simulating incidents, so that when a real disaster occurs they use it as a practice run for their next simulation. Similarly, Jack believes that the toxic spill can’t be dangerous, because it happens in a middle-class neighbourhood, where such things don’t happen. A further irony is present at the level of words, and one must remember DeLillo is fascinated by the connotative qualities of words, in a way that one might more readily associate with poetic utterance. So at the level of imagery we have a line of irony running through the text. Jack lives in Blacksmith, Babette is manipulated by Mr Gray, and intermittent White noise intrudes into the narrative. This is a world of black and white images, until the airborne toxic event, at which point the sunsets become spectacular:

Ever since the airborne toxic event, the sunsets had become almost unbearably beautiful. Not that there was a measurable connection. If the special character of Nyodene Derivative (added to the everyday drift of effluents, pollutants, contaminants and deliriants) had caused this aesthetic leap from already brilliant sunsets to broad towering ruddled visionary skyscapes, tinged with dread, no one had been able to prove it. (170)

"The sky takes on content, feeling, an exalted narrative life. The bands of color reach so high, seem at times to separate into their constituent parts. There are turreted skies, light storms, softly falling steamers. It is hard to know how to feel about this. Some people are scared by the sunsets, some determined to be elated, but most of us don’t know how to feel, are ready to go either way. (324)

In my life time the following major chemical and nuclear accidents have occurred: Bhopal (dioxin contamination); Chernobyl (1986); Seveso (dioxin contamination); Three Mile Island, Harrisburg (1979); Windscale / Sellafield (1957). Not to mention minor disasters: I recall a route diversion at the top of the Rhone valley on a journey to Salon de Provence because of an accidental release of nuclear waste products at Tricastin one summer in the 1970s. In the summer of 1986 the weather was particularly fine and my three young children played outside in the garden the whole time, despite the warnings that the global weather systems were carrying fall out across the UK. (I'm sure it wouldn't be too difficult to extend this list considerably, and even more by including a number of major oil spillages, and oil and coal-mining disasters.)

One characteristic of postmodern fiction is the phenomenon of interchangeability between fact and fiction, which raises the question whether factual or fictive accounts can best describe "strange realities". So it’s interesting to note the following:

One remarkable coincidence was the publication back in August 1978 of Meltdown: Tomorrow’s Disaster at TMI, a fictitious account in which the reactor not only suffered a meltdown but also containment-bursting explosions. Curiously, the author, Larry Arnold, starts his story on March 28th, the day of the real accident, although Arnold’s meltdown was set for Christmas. (Peter Bunyard, "Living on a Knife-Edge: the Aftermath of Harrisburg," The Ecologist, 3, May June 1979, 97-102, 102).

Fear of Death

Finally, you might want to consider whether this is a novel depicting the condition of male menopause (See 47). At the level of character: is this why Jack Gladney is so afraid of death? In terms of genre the parody of the conventions of detective fiction would suggest this is a text engaging with anxiety; although it’s arguable whether it offers any catharsis, as classic detective fiction does. The alternative model for dealing with fear of death that the text posits is that of The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation through Understanding in the Between (See 38, 72. 221) The Tibetan Book of the Dead is also a prior text for Pyncheon’s Crying of Lot 49. (I don’t know about Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, but it feels to me as if it had some influence on that novel as well.)

A very natural fear, experienced in a heightened manner in the condition of denaturalization and dehumanization, leads authors / protagonists / characters / texts to look towards Buddhist ways of preparing to die creatively, and Buddhist paradigms of self / selflessness and Buddhist paradigms of states between death and reincarnation. [Consider  97-8. See also "Whole Families Shopping at Night", 31-2].

Helen M Dennis

Don DeLillo. White Noise. London: Picador, 1986. (Frist published 1984).

 Click here for bibliography and further reading.