Thursday, September 07, 2017

White Noise by Don DeLillo

Every so often a reader needs to take on a masterpiece. You can only bump along with decent or pretty good books for so long: once in a while you need to open the floodgates wide and let a writer at the full tide of his powers wash over you.

And so I came back to White Noise in the summer of 2017, twenty years or so after I read it the first time. White Noise was more than a decade old then, and it's more than thirty now -- I read a semi-fancy "25th Anniversary Edition," with French flaps and evocative cover art from cartoonist Michael Cho.  (When I have a choice, I take the edition with work by a cartoonist; I like to encourage them.)

There are things that date the novel: the central section is partially a portrait of misleading, confusing information that comes in dribs and drabs, to people disconnected from their usual media, and how new stories spread by word of mouth. Our modern media landscape is much quicker and more ubiquitous -- though just as misleading, just as confusing, and just as prone to have people latch on to the detail that resonates with them. So the how is not quite the way it would happen today. But the what is still perfectly true and resonant.

I found that to be true of White Noise throughout: it's a novel of great sentences, fine paragraphs, excellent scenes, and lurking icebergs of meaning that float in the text, daring the reader to dive down and investigate them. It's a novel of fear, most of all: existential fear, immediate fear, quiet long-term fear, both sudden panic and the fear that always lurks in the back of your mind.

What's it about? DeLillo shows us one year in the life of Jack Gladney, chair of the Hitler Studies department at the College-on-the-Hill, and his blended family. One year of regular, ordinary life, with kids of various ages and problems and concerns. And the Airborne Toxic Event in the middle of that year, the quintessential lit-fic Outside Context Problem that shakes up those lives and leaves Jack and his family to grapple with who they are and where they fit in the world in its aftermath.

Hitler Studies is both a DeLillo joke and DeLillo being coldly earnest -- it's a shocking phrase, and the way Gladney teaches it, from the glances we see, is also unsettling. But it's part of DeLillo's overall critique of modern life's conflation of medium and message. White Noise is not an exercise in Hitler Studies itself. But the fact that its protagonist invented that field is deeply important: several characters note that Gladney, especially outside his usual college environment, is an insignificant man by nature, one who found something to make him more important, more dangerous, than he really is.

I'm not going to explicate White Noise here. It is a masterpiece, a major book by a major American writer -- probably DeLillo's best. (I haven't re-read Libra in as long; that's the other main contender.) If you haven't read it, you should. It's about modernity in similar ways to good science fiction novels of the same era, critiquing a somewhat different set of ideas and mores than the cyberpunks but working to parallel ends. And, again: you can only spend so much time drinking small beer; the true firewater will show you things you didn't realize before.

(In case anyone tries to draw a conclusion I didn't mean from that last paragraph, let me note that my last dose of the true firewater was Kelly Link's Get In Trouble. Masterpieces are found everywhere, from all kinds of writers.)

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