My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Don DeLillo won the National Book Award for White Noise in 1985. Theoretically, as marked as our Great Minds as a Great American Novel, I should be very for this book. I picked it up because I am a fiend for all things David Foster Wallace and I know he had an ongoing professional relationship with Don DeLillo and took some of the craft of his dialogue for Infinite Jest from this novel.
So why didn’t I love it?
It’s a couple of things. The Kindle edition has a double space between each paragraph which throws off the flow of the dialogue which, I’m sure, was a mitigating factor. Some of the black comedic assessments of our media culture seem dated simply because they were so prescient. (A friend recently pointed out that science fiction that fails to come true is fascinating; science fiction that does is cliche. Think of the 20 page digression on SSH in Cryptonomicon. It was certainly interesting for its time and a pointless digression today.) Partly because the book seems, in the end, like it is trying to be a meaningful meditation on modern existence and it tries too hard.
Jack (J.A.K.) Gladney is a professor at a small midwestern college in Hitler Studies. He and his current wife Babette have numerous children from previous marriages. One day there is an enormous industrial spill — the Airbourne Toxic Event — where they all pile in the car and flee. During which, Jack is infected with a small dose of industrial compound and is informed that, some day in the future, it will kill him. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. Eventually. The last half of the book is consumed with Babette’s addiction to a drug Dylar, Jack’s obsession with the way Babette acquires the Dylar and the Dylar itself, and Jack’s obsession with death.
So we have the big themes: rampant consumerism (lots of scenes in the grocery store), death, more death, media saturation, underground conspiracies, the family, and violence.
Not really for everyone, no. White Noise is a black satire. It is humorous in places, and has some incredible bits of craft in imagery and language. I found myself highlighting some of the better and more interesting passages. But in the end, the story didn’t hang together as well as it could. This novel is definitely Your Milage May Vary.