Routine gives us security. Routine keeps us busy. Routine allows us to ignore the existential crisis: what does a life mean?
In White Noise, Don DeLillo constructs characters that embrace or shun routine as much as they need to deny their fears. He weaves humor into his description and dialogue to mock them. Jack Gladney, the father, the published scholar who leads Hitler Studies at a university, still can’t speak German after years of lectures, so he “wore an academic gown and dark glasses day and night whenever I was on campus.” He hoped no one would find out about his recent German language lessons, valuing impressions over meaning.
Gladney’s friend, Murray, lives in an opposite fashion. No secrets, no fears. He relishes in the grocery store when he spots generic food packaging, devoid of marketing. “This is the new austerity,” he says. “Flavorless packaging. It appeals to me. I feel like I’m not only saving money but contributing to some kind of spiritual consensus.”
I tend to look for blind characters in books now. DeLillo features Old Man Treadway, a secondary character in the novel. He exists as a distraction, to give Gladney’s wife someone to help, someone to read tabloid stories to, someone to check in on, and someone to search for when she finds his house empty one day. When blind people are portrayed as unable to find a way out from a kiosk in a mall for days, I pause. That doesn’t build an accurate portrayal of people living with vision impairments. I’ll take the Treadway character as a joke and laugh instead.
One day, a plume of black smoke rises into the air from a chemical spill and wafts over the town. Gladney’s family falls into shock, and he says:
“These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters. People in low-lying areas get the floods, people in shanties get the hurricanes and tornadoes. I’m a college professor. Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods? We live in a neat and pleasant town near a college with a quaint name. These things don’t happen in places like Blacksmith.”
Bad things don’t happen to good people like him. Until they do. As the plot advances, DeLillo plays with tone. He flips from hysterical conversation to mundane label instruction narration to contrast life from the white noise.
One criticism. Gladney sees colored spots in the periphery of his vision, conveniently at times when change occurs. Instead of noting the urgency of this vision change, DeLillo uses it metaphorically. In real life, vision changes aren’t white noise.
I like DeLillo’s writing style. I think I will pick up new things with each reading of this book. I recommend White Noise for anyone interested in human behavior, dark humor, or an ironic read. You might notice yourself in some of the characters or routines.
Have you read White Noise or any other novel by Don DeLillo? What do you think?