White Noise (Magill's Literary Annual 1986)
Jack Gladney is chairman of the department of Hitler studies at College-on-the-Hill, but he feels insecure because he can neither speak nor read German. He lives harmoniously with his wife, Babette, and with his kids, her kids, and their kids. They are a likable, bright family, and the children are especially vulnerable and appealing. Uneasy about a conference on Hitler studies soon to be hosted by his department, Jack studies German with an eccentric autodidact who has studied meteorology by correspondence and “got a degree to teach the subject in buildings with a legal occupancy of less than one hundred.”
Howard Dunlop, the self-taught meteorologist, makes up a comic trio along with Murray Jay Siskind, Jack’s friend who rummages around in the debris of popular culture, and the imaginative teenager Orest Mercator, obsessed with spending a record time in a cageful of black mambas. Readers of earlier novels by Don DeLillo, especially End Zone (1972) and Ratner’s Star (1976), will quickly recognize in these three characters a special kind of amiable looniness that DeLillo is adept at creating. Such characters in his fiction are always charming, guileless, and original. Dunlop, the German teacher, for example, besides German, teaches Greek, Latin, and ocean sailing, as well as the weather classes in small buildings. When Jack gets to...
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DeLillo gains his comic effects in White Noise by the constant juxtaposition of traditional expectations about meaning — of language, of relationships, of professions — with the contemporary phenomena of popular culture, all effectively devoid of the kind of significance assumed to have been part of life "before." Jack Gladney, robed in traditional academic garb, is representative of this. Even he is uncomfortably aware that "Hitler Studies" is hardly consistent with older notions of valid academic disciplines or curricula. When everything is supposed to be significant, when even the most trivial phenomena demand "equal time" and attention, then those things that had seemed important lose importance and meaninglessness becomes the norm. DeLillo evokes the image of a supermarket line in the concluding paragraphs of the novel: "A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. 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." That passage is a microcosmic example of DeLillo's comic technique, as well as an effective summary of the world of White Noise.
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White Noise may be said to be an amalgam of a number of recognizable contemporary fictions. It is a satire of academic life as were Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution (1954), Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe (1952) and John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy (1966); although the apocalypticism of White Noise is a different kind altogether from Barth's version). The disruptive impact of the arrival of the mysterious cloud — revealing the underlying negative characteristics of the academic pastoral — is reminiscent of any number of "catastrophes," though none of the others is worthy of comparison. (Some interesting comparisons might develop by juxtaposing Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins, 1971, however.) Gladney's badly botched effort to murder the man responsible for his wife's deteriorating mental and physical state, and its comic aftermath, might suggest a comparison with the many versions and imitations of the film Death Wish. It is part of DeLillo's genius that he is able to transform such common materials through his satiric vision into stories and images frighteningly strange and distressingly familiar.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Aaron, Daniel. “How to Read Don DeLillo.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (Spring, 1990): 305-319. Aaron provides a general survey of the salient elements in DeLillo’s fiction. He addresses various themes and concerns under such headings as “catastrophe” and “conspiracy.” White Noise figures prominently in his examples.
Bonca, Cornel. “Don DeLillo’s White Noise: The Natural of the Species.” College Literature 23 (June, 1996): 25-44. Bonca examines White Noise as one of a few postmodern novels that has the ability to reach students and encourage them to explore the effects of mass media and the idea of death. Bonca describes his experiences teaching the White Noise and discusses recent critical work on the novel.
Caton, Lou. “Romanticism and the Postmodern Novel: Three Scenes from DeLillo’s White Noise.” English Language Notes 35 (September, 1997): 38-48. Caton examines the novel’s depiction of romantic attitudes despite the critical view of the novel as skeptical about an orderly universe. Catton asserts that White Noise questions the notion that people have never been confronted with the philosophical crises that they face at the end of the twentieth century.
DeCurtis, Anthony. “ An Outsider in This Society’: An Interview with...
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