“White light, white light goin’ messin’ up my mind
White light, and don’t you know it’s gonna make me go blind
White heat, aww white heat it tickle me down to my toes
White light, ooo have mercy white light have it goodness knows”
These are the lyrics from The Velvet Underground’s vivacious tune White Light/White Heat, which was the first song on the their second album in 1968. I must apologize, however, because that song is just a red herring that disguises my true purpose– this post is actually a book review of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise (I had to draw your interest somehow!).
Don DeLillo is one of the standard-bearers of American ‘post-modernism’. He has been singled out by no less an authority than preeminent literary critic Harold Bloom as one of four American novelists “who are still at work and deserve our praise” (the other three are Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, and Cormac McCarthy). White Noise won the National Book Award the year it was released, and was included in Time Magazine’s 1995 list of the ‘100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923-2005’. The novel precisely describes and coldly satirizes late-Cold-War-era American topics such as rampant consumerism, media pervasiveness, academic intellectual pretentiousness, conspiracy theories, family dysfunctionality, man-made disasters, the nature of human violence, and, most centrally, man’s fear of death.
The protagonist is J.A.K. (the ‘professional’ name for Jack) Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at The-College-on-the-Hill. He is the pioneer and foremost authority of this academic niche discipline, despite the fact that he speaks no German (“The German tongue. Fleshy, warped, spit-spraying, purplish and cruel.”). He lives with his (fifth) wife, Babette, and their brood of children and step-children from previous marriages. Gladney’s colleague is former New York sportswriter Murray J. Siskind, who teaches pop culture in a department called American Environments. He wants to establish his own field of study for Elvis, telling Gladney “You’ve established a wonderful thing here with Hitler. You created it, you nurtured it…He is now your Hitler. I marvel at the effort…It’s what I want to do with Elvis.” This inevitably leads to an almost-sublime series of dueling monologues in chapter 15 in which the two professors share the floor in a co-lecture, each competing fiercely to present to the audience the most arcane knowledge about the childhoods and personal lives of their respective subjects: Elvis and Hitler. “Elvis and Gladys [his mother] liked to nuzzle and pet. They slept in the same bed until he began to approach physical maturity. They talked baby talk to each other all the time.” “Hitler was a lazy kid. His report card was full of unsatisfactorys. But Klara [his mother] loved him, spoiled him, gave him the attention his father failed to give him. She was a quiet woman, modest and religious, and a good cook and housekeeper.” “Gladys walked Elvis to school and back every day. She defended him in little street rumbles, lashed out at any kid who tried to bully him.” “Hitler fantasized. He took piano lessons, made sketches of museums and villas. He sat around the house a lot. Klara tolerated this. He was the first of her children to survive infancy. Three others had died.” “Elvis confided in Gladys. He brought his girlfriends around to meet her.” “Hitler wrote a poem to his mother. His mother and his niece were the women with the greatest hold on his mind.” Murray and Jack continue this dialogue for several pages, circling each other, until Jack pounds Murray into submission with his superior knowledge and takes full control of the classroom floor.
The ‘white noise’ of the ever-present TV advertising, pop culture, unnecessary consumer products, and humming supermarkets seems to audibly emanate from the very words on the page, continuing throughout the book in a cumulatively overwhelming crescendo until the reader is finally deafened, nauseous, and almost brain-dead, from the effect. The supermarket somehow becomes a temple of reverence and death, as Murray describes it. “Everything is concealed in symbolism…The large doors slide open, they close unbidden. Energy waves, incident radiation…code words and ceremonial phrases. It is just a question of deciphering…Not that we would want to…This is not Tibet…Tibetans try to see death for what it is. It is the end of attachment to things. This simple truth is hard to fathom. But once we stop denying death, we can proceed calmly to die…Here we don’t die, we shop.”
This leads to the main idea of the novel: Jack and Babette are both terrified of death. This secret fear dominates every aspect of their lives, with the only salvation being endless distractions. “Who will die first? This question comes up from time to time, like where are the car keys. It ends a sentence, prolongs a glance between us. I wonder if the thought itself is part of physical love, a reverse Darwinism that awards sadness and fear to the survivor. Or is it some inert element in the air we breathe, a rare thing like neon, with a melting point, an atomic weight?” For Jack, only the formidable presence of Hitler represents a power that is large enough to neutralize and protect him from his own fear of death. Babette teaches a posture class to retirees, and secretly prostitutes herself to gain access to an experimental drug that will suppress fear of dying. Murray suggests to Jack that the best method to ward off death is to take another’s person life. Jack hatches a plan to kill his wife’s ersatz lover (with a gun that was cryptically given to Jack by his vagabond father-in-law), the inventor of the (ineffective) drug. The final series of events leaves both men wounded and in a hospital run by German nuns. Jack is shocked to discover that the nuns themselves don’t believe in God or an afterlife. “You don’t believe in heaven? Your dedication is a pretense?” “Our pretence is a dedication. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe…Nuns in black…Fools, children…We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. There is no truth without fools.” “I don’t want to hear this,” he protests. “This is terrible.” “But true,” she answers.
In White Noise, DeLillo raises many issues about modern American life (which still ring almost-prophetically true 25 years later), and he asks a lot of questions about our existence. But there are few answers to found. Perhaps merely knowing the questions is a good enough starting place to begin to examine ourselves. Written in stone at the Oracle of Delphi, after all, was the sage advice, “Know thyself.”