(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

At once hilarious and horrifying, Don DeLillo’s White Noise dramatizes a contemporary American family’s attempt to deal with the mundane conflicts of day-to-day life while grappling with the larger philosophical issues of love, death, and the possibility of happiness in an uncertain world. The novel is divided into three sections. All incidents, images, and exchanges among characters in the first section, “Waves and Radiation,” culminate thematically in the second section, “The Airborne Toxic Event.” The third section, “Dylarama,” chronicles not only the direct effects of the “event” but also the indirect but even more profound changes in the way the characters subsequently see themselves and their world.

The novel’s first-person narrator is Jack Gladney, a college professor specializing in studies of Adolf Hitler. Many of the other characters are also in some sense observers of contemporary culture: Murray Jay Siskind, an Elvis Presley specialist; Jack’s other colleagues in the popular culture department; his son Heinrich, who translates technical information to his father and the reader; and his daughter Steffie, whose obsession with health has made her into an expert in drugs and medical matters. The bulk of the novel is less a sequence of important events than a series of dialogues concerning various interests and obsessions.

Immediately after the opening chapter, with its description of incoming college...

(The entire section is 603 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

White Noise probably succeeded mostly for its dramatization of a topical issue: the danger to the environment—and to humankind—represented by the many substances continually issuing from chemistry laboratories. While death from chemical poisoning is a major theme of the novel, however, it is only subsidiary to the grim awareness of inevitable death and annihilation that seizes everyone’s consciousness in the book. White noise fills up all frequencies, creating a steady hiss. In DeLillo’s imagination, it becomes a sobering metaphor for that low, monotonous, but steady small whisper of human mortality constantly filling up the otherwise unused frequencies of an individual’s mental processes.

White Noise has all the best features of a DeLiIlo novel: crazy characters presented with wit and imagination, language that carries its conceptions gracefully, several wonderfully conceived set pieces, and a major character who at the end braces himself against the world’s madness. It also has the failure of plot that is not unexpected in a DeLillo novel.

White Noise is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Waves and Radiation,” develops the comic characterizations and dwells on the ubiquitous noises that make up the background to everyday life; the “dull and unbeatable roar” of the supermarket, the “great echoing din” of the hardware store, and, most disturbing of all, a seven-hour spell of loud crying that inexplicably overtakes the protagonist’s young son. Jack Gladney, the first-person narrator, chairs the department of Hitler studies at College-on-the-Hill.

Jack suffers much unease over his inability either to read German or to speak it, a scholarly failure that leads to a comic interlude when Jack hosts a conference on Hitler studies but hides from all the German participants. His welcoming speech includes all the words he can find that are the same in both German and English, and it features many allusions to Hitler’s dog, Wolf, whose name is the same in both languages.

Jack’s two closest colleagues are Howard Dunlop, a self-taught meteorologist, and Murray Jay Siskind, a researcher in popular culture. Howard’s correspondence school degree in meteorology authorizes him to teach that subject “in buildings with a legal occupancy of less than one hundred.” Even this eccentricity traces to a preoccupation with death, as Howard...

(The entire section is 989 words.)