White Noise

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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.

Bibliography

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 Don DeLillo.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (Spring, 1990): 281-304. Especially important and interesting because DeLillo is generally so reluctant to speak or write about himself. Most of the interview focuses on Libra, then recently published. The last several pages, however, largely concern White Noise.

Edmunson, Mark. “Not Flat, Not Round, Not There: Don...

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DeLillo’s Novel Characters.”Yale Review 83 (April, 1995): 107-124. Discusses how DeLillo’s characters reflect the modern self and challenge Freudian notions. Edmundson analyzes this method in several of DeLillo’s books, including White Noise.

Goodheart, Eugene. “Some Speculations on Don DeLillo and the Cinematic Real.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (Spring, 1990): 355-368. Goodheart notes that DeLillo characteristically puts the “existence of the self into question.” This old theme is made fresh by the use of cinematic techniques that make the characters, even in their own eyes, two-dimensional. White Noise is discussed at length.

Keesey, Douglas. Don DeLillo. New York: Twayne, 1993. A thorough introductory study of DeLillo that covers DeLillo’s major works and includes a chapter devoted to White Noise.

King, Noel. “Reading White Noise: Floating Remarks.” The Critical Quarterly 33 (Autumn, 1991): 66-83. King begins with a theoretical discussion of the term “postmodern.” He concludes that White Noise is at once a “quite traditional novel” and a meditation of the postmodern. The novel shows modern times as an age of “distorted communication and information.”

LeClair, Tom. In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997. LeClair asserts that DeLillo should be acknowledged as one of America’s leading novelists. In this study, LeClair examines eight of DeLillo’s novels in detail from the perspective of systems theory.

Lentricchia, Frank, ed. Introducing Don DeLillo. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991. A collection of critical essays which are a solid overview of DeLillo’s art, and the social and intellectual context of his writings.

Lentricchia, Frank, ed. New Essays on “White Noise.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. This collection of essays provides an overview of DeLillo and his novel.

McClure, John A. “Postmodern Romance: Don DeLillo and the Age of Conspiracy.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (Spring, 1990): 337-353. McClure addresses the concept of the conspiracy, prevalent in DeLillo’s fiction. Historical currents are the stuff of romance; DeLillo’s modern heroes locate romance in espionage and conspiracy. McClure discusses DeLillo in a context of such writers as Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, and Graham Greene.

Peyser, Thomas. “Globalization in America: The Case of Don DeLillo’s White Noise.” CLIO 25 (Spring, 1996): 255-271. Although White Noise is often seen as “obstinately domestic,” Peyser argues that DeLillo presents a disturbing vision of a globalized America whose cultural and territorial boundaries exist in theory only.

Saltzman, Arthur. “The Figure in the Static: White Noise.” Modern Fiction Studies 40 (Winter, 1994): 807-826. An analysis of DeLillo’s technique of flooding the main characters with information and cultural debris without compromising plot.

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Critical Context