White Noise

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Jack Gladney, the protagonist of WHITE NOISE, is a history professor who has pioneered the development of “Hitler studies” as an academic discipline but who is insecure about his weak command of the German language. His wife, Babette, is experimenting with a drug that she hopes will be effective against the anxiety attacks triggered by her fear of death. As Jack attempts to understand Babette’s problem and help with it, their lives are complicated by a toxic waste leak that forces a mass evacuation.

DeLillo’s novels always present several characters who are considerably offbeat but extremely amiable. In WHITE NOISE, Jack has a friend who is a pop-culture scholar addicted to reading a journal called AMERICAN TRANSVESTITE: he also occupies his time thinking up stunts, such as hiring a prostitute on whom he wants to perform the Heimlich maneuver. His zaniness is complemented by that of Orest Mercator, a teenager who is in training (carbohydrate loading) for setting the world’s record for the longest time spent in a cage full of black mambas.

The characters in this loosely plotted but engaging novel follow out their preoccupations against a background of persistent noise. The supermarket is “awash in noise"; TV sends out “coded messages and endless repetitions, like chants, like mantras"; a hardware store emits “a great echoing din, as of the extinction of a species of beast"; the shopping mall is warm with “the human buzz of some vivid and happy transaction.” At one point, the Gladneys’ son falls into an exhausting fit of crying that goes on for nearly seven hours. It is the most distressing of the many sound that penetrate the novel.

WHITE NOISE is representative of DeLillo’s fiction in many ways besides its several zany characters. It sparkles with the bright language that DeLillo’s inventions always exhibit, and it displays the concern with modern American culture evinced in several of his earlier novels such as AMERICANA, END ZONE, and GREAT JONES STREET. In its evocation of the fear of death, WHITE NOISE reaches into the human consciousness in ways that make it a very serious novel.


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...

(The entire section is 1018 words.)