I just read “Falling Man” and “White Noise” within a few weeks of each other. I had never read “White Noise,” though I knew it was considered a classic. “Falling Man” (about the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center) was stunning. It captured many of the moods and thoughts I had from the attack. Well, not moods and thoughts I knew I had, but reading it brought me back to that time of dealing with feeling so stunned.
As the result of reading both books so closely together, I have some questions for Don DeLillo:
Do you think we (“we” being us Americans) have improved our ability to handle and process fear over the last 20 years?
Do you think we have improved our ability to discern quality information from news sources?
If J.A.K. Gladney was around when the twin towers were attacked, how do you think he would have reacted?
“White Noise” deals with the same issues as “Falling Man” but with more injections of irony, satire, and humor. “Falling Man” tends toward art and beauty (although found in the semi-surreal fog and ash of that event). Both books deal with information and how we receive it, how we process it.
I was amazed that “White Noise,” first published in 1985, contained few references to products that are out of date. I caught two. One was to an Instamatic camera. The other was a reference to station wagons, which has been supplanted by the SUV and other vehicles. There might have been one or two more. Other than those artifacts, this is a book that could have been published today with only a few edits. (I would love it if DeLillo updated the whole book, front to back). One thing he would have to add is the Web. There’s no reference here to the Web, of course, but one can imagine DeLillo inserting noises and burps and bleeps coming from various computers, just as the television issues various abstract utterances throughout “White Noise.” (Loved those touches.)
I read “White Noise” as the October 2008 Wall Street meltdown went from worse to horrendous. I could feel my heart sink along with my 401(k). (It’s now just a 1(k)). Okay, I stole that line. But during October 2008 there wasn’t much levity around the nation’s economy. It was just another “airborne toxic event” like the one in “White Noise,” a poison cloud of doom and dread. “The cloud resembled a national promotion for death,” is a line from “White Noise” but that could apply to just about any rolling wave of hype and panic that gets going in the media. Didn’t you feel just a touch of doom as the bottom went out of the stock market, that maybe the fall would just keep on falling, that maybe no amount of assurance from Washington or from your most trusted financial advisor would make you feel better? Was there (is there now?) even farther to fall?
I marveled in both “Falling Man” and “White Noise” how DeLillo captured the essence of how we react to fear. I was struck by the common themes of displacement, dread and, of course, death.
“All plots to tend move deathwards” is line from early on in “White Noise” and of course this book follows that course.
What DeLillo does so well in “White Noise” is embed the characters and plot with low-grade paranoia. It’s grinding. It’s ever-present. Weaving in and out of the Gladney’s life are “the sub-literal drone of maintenance systems,” burnt toast as a “treasured scent” to some, flavorless packaging, orange cheese, “vaguely defined food,” bad posture, and the “sad, numb shuffle” of footsteps. Even the mysterious “Mr. Gray” is, of course, “Mr. Gray.”
More than anything, “White Noise” left me thinking about how we react in a crisis, how we get our information as the crisis unfolds, and how our predispositions to be fearful plays a role in what we do and how we behave.
There’s a long conversation near the end of “White Noise” (those looking for an action sequence at the end will be rewarded, but they need to make it through this interesting exchange) about the pros and cons of death. For those who don’t like long, philosophical exchanges to halt the march to the plot’s final turning points, you might steer clear of “White Noise.” Those who don’t mind some thinking and pondering on the road to the “move deathwards,” you might find “White Noise” to be a treat, even a quarter-century (almost) since it first made waves.