BOOK REVIEW | White Noise by Don DeLillo

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Jack Gladney teaches Hitler Studies at a liberal arts college in Middle America where his colleagues include New York expatriates who want to immerse themselves in “American magic and dread.” Jack and his fourth wife, Babette, bound by their love, fear of death, and four ultramodern offspring, navigate the usual rocky passage of family life to the background babble of brand-name consumerism.

Then a lethal black chemical cloud floats over their lives, an “airborne toxic event” unleashed by an industrial accident. The menacing cloud is a more urgent and visible version of the “white noise” engulfing the Gladney family—radio transmissions, sirens, microwaves, ultrasonic appliances, and TV murmurings—pulsing with life, yet suggesting something ominous.

My thoughts:
I can’t recall the last time that I was deeply affected by a book; shaken to the core, forced to analyze my beliefs, and profoundly changed on the other end of reading it. I just put White Noise down, and am wondering how I’ll be able to read anything else going forward. I haven’t had time to process all of my thoughts coherently, and am not sure I ever will, but I know that I didn’t want this book to end. There are so many layers to this book that I could talk about, but its most overt commentary – an incapacitating fear of death – hit me at the right time.

Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.

There is nothing dated about this work from 1985; the underlying themes feel relevant in our modern world, overrun by technology. This story is told from the perspective of Jack Gladney, patriarch to a blended family and teacher of Hitler Studies, but is very much about all of the members of his family. His kids are unique and represent many viewpoints, and his wife, Babette, provides powerful insight into the feeling of nothingness experienced by so many. These characters busy themselves with the white noise of life and are so consumed with the fear of death, that they ultimately fail to live meaningfully while they have the chance.

How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink. We manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn’t they paralyze us? How is it we can survive them, at least for a little while?

Yes, this book is nihilistic. It’s over the top and fantastical, yet somehow completely realistic. While I don’t fear death in such an extreme way as these characters, I do fear it for my loved ones. I can barely handle the thought that my kids are mortal beings, and at times it overwhelms me. Yet, I manage to function, because that’s what people do.

Isn’t death the boundary we need? Doesn’t it give precious texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry a final line, a border or limit. 

 

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