White Noise (1985)


Second time with DeLillo after Underworld.

Definitely continuity with U. Flows of information, products, entertainment, waste. The “darkness” and “foreboding” of objects from previous lives, previous marriages, that fill up your house (6). 33-4 introduces the garbage compactor that becomes a kind of de-scrambler, a horrid machine that exposes the continuity of our operations, consumptions, hobbies and ablutions (“Is garbage so private? Does it glow at the core with personal heat, with signs of one’s deepest nature, clues to secret yearnings, humiliating flaws?” 259). White Noise functions quite like this, returning our lives to us repackaged and digested, sifting through our trash to drag up evidence of the stuff we’d like to forget. (also in the populations, the crowds  “assembled in the name of death” like Pafko At The Wall (73).)

But this is much funnier than U, with a stronger narrative voice that carries much more irony. I was laughing by 9’s depiction of the American Environments faculty: “all his teachers are male, wear rumpled clothes, need haircuts, cough into their armpits. Together they look like teamster officials assembled to identify the body of a mutilated colleague” (this natural imagistic creativity is elsewhere deployed to make us reexamine objects from daily life, elsewhere to restore the poignancy of the natural beauty of a sunset or sleeping children). I’ve also gotta paste part of the story about a near-miss aircraft tragedy:

Objects were rolling out of the galley, the aisles were full of drinking glasses, utensils, coats and blankets. A stewardess pinned to the bulkhead by the sharp angle of descent was trying to find the relevant passage in a handbook titled “Manual of Disasters”. Then there was a second male voice from the flight deck, this one remarkably calm and precise, making the passengers believe there was someone in charge after all, an element of hope: “This is American two-one-three to the cockpit voice recorder. Now we know what it’s like. It is worse than we’d ever imagined. They didn’t prepare us for this at the death simulator in Denver. Our fear is pure, so totally stripped of distractions and pressures as to be a form of transcendental meditation. In less than three minutes we will touch down, so to speak. They will find our bodies in some smoking field, strewn about in the grisly attitudes of death. I love you, Lance.” This time there was a brief pause before the mass wailing recommenced. Lance? What kind of people were in control of this aircraft? The crying took on a bitter and disillusioned tone. (90-1)

The real theme is the pre-internet streams of information, data. I kept thinking of Tom Noonan on his porch in Heat, telling Robert Deniro about how he got the blueprints to the bank:

McCauley: How do you get this information?
Kelso: It just comes to you. This stuff just flies through the air. They send this information out, I mean it’s just beamed out all over the fuckin place. You just gotta know how to grab it. See I know how to grab it.

See Murray on 51:

You have to learn how to look. You have to open yourself to the data. TV offers incredible amounts of psychic data. It opens ancient memories of world birth, it welcomes us into the grid, the network of little buzzing dots that make up the picture pattern … Look at the wealth of data concealed in the grid, in the bright packaging, the jingles, the slice-of-life commercials, the products hurtling out of the darkness, the coded messages and endless repetitions, like chants, like mantras. … The medium practically overflows with sacred formulas if we can remember how to respond innocently and get past our irritation, weariness and disgust. (51)

Heimlich, seemingly paranoid, later (174) phrases the concern that this world of bombardment raises: carcinogenic blasting waves, not from obvious sources but from all around us. The Airborne Toxic Event is like the “nebulous mass” that it induces in Jack: they are both just manifestations, dark and unknowable ext/internalisations of pervasive effects. Like the storm at the end of A Serious Man (see esp. 127 looming cloud, “our fear was accompanied by a sense of awe that bordered on the religious”). 104 Babette subsumed into the celestial televisual matrix is like the emergent conclusion to U (connecting, as all over the place here, with Synecdoche New York)

The data flows are beyond our control; they create structures and dynamics that pin us and extort a kind of quietistic compliance or a thirst for validation: see 46 Jack’s “waves of relief and gratitude” at the “support and approval” of an ATM that justifies his estimated finances, 76 health as beating the hospital, 118 table manners to appease a siren. Again prophetic on the internet in terms of outsourcing our most basic functions and memories to systemic storage; “knowledge changes every day” says B in justification of teaching a class about how to eat. Most Lo and Behold in H chiding J about how proximity to knowledge does not equal understanding:

If you came awake tomorrow in the Middle Ages and there was an epidemic raging, what could you do to stop it, knowing what you know about the progress of medicines and diseases? Here it is practically the twenty-first century and you’ve read hundreds of books and magazines and seen a hundred TV shows about science and medicine. Could you tell those people one little crucial thing that might save a million and a half lives? (148)

What is most unsettling is the way we actually rely on systemic uncertainty as a safety net against proper knowledge: M disputes the notion that we might prefer to have the circumstances of our deaths revealed to us; “exact dates would drive many to suicide, if only to beat the system.” (285)

At points the observation is American modernist, Paterson particularly in the domestic rhythms, habits (“blue jeans tumbled in the dryer” 18). But much of the style seems an update of Woolf, particularly The Waves in the porous family experiences:

When I could not decide between two shirts, they encouraged me to buy both. When I said I was hungry, they fed me pretzels, beer, souvlaki. The two girls scouted ahead, spotting things that they thought I might want or need, running back to get me, to clutch my arms, plead with me to follow. They were my guides to endless well-being. People swarmed through the boutiques and garment shops. Organ music rose from the great court. We smelled chocolate, popcorn, cologne; we smelled rugs and furs, hanging salamis and deathly vinyl. My family gloried in the event. I was one of them, shopping, at last. (83)

(Wilder becomes a kind of archetypal woolfian child; he is “selfish without being grasping, selfish in a totally unbounded and natural way,” dropping and grabbing, able to “appreciate special moments [and] occasions” in the way others are not (209). See above, Murray on the need to regress to a childish apprehension of culturally imbedded messages? (also 67) See 312 “I knew what red was” – moment of woolfian epiphany at the point of killing Gray, Mary’s room. [I also thought of philosophy in the Under The Net-style conversations between J and M)

Definitely a hauntological sense. “We drove through a warehouse district, more deserted streets, a bleakness and anonymity that registered in the mind as a ghostly longing for something that was far beyond retrieval.” (88) J’s observations are diachronic: “the world is full of abandoned meanings. In the commonplace I find unexpected themes and intensities.” I can’t remember where I read something like this but it definitely rings a bell: J telling M about Speer’s plan to build edifices that would decay gracefully, “the ruin is built into the creation.” (258) It is out of this observational tendency that J’s mania for disposing of trash comes from: “there was an immensity of things, an overburdening weight, a connection, a mortality.” (262)

During the Event, J sees an abandoned petrol station: “…the attendants had fled suddenly, leaving things intriguingly as they were, like the tools and pottery of some pueblo civilisation…” (127) The catastrophe is hollowing out structures, revealing the ruin inside the edifice – its like Vesuvius, or the x-ray machine in The Magic Mountain which reveals the hollow world inside Hans Castorp through unsettlingly modern technology – see 141 the computer revealing the “nebulous mass” inside J:

I think I felt as I would if a doctor had held an X-ray to the light showing a star-shaped hole at the centre of one of my vital organs. … It is when death is rendered graphically, is televised so to speak, that you sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself. A network of symbols has been introduced, an entire awesome technology wrested from the gods. It makes you feel like a stranger in your own dying. (141-2)

Two points here: firstly this image helps cast the empiricism as observation of some natural catastrophe (“Stark upheavals bring out every sort of quaint aberration by the very suddenness of their coming. Dashes of colour and idiosyncrasy marked the scene…” 138), which WN seems itself to be acting as. Secondly this intrusion of a symbolic framework is the opposite effect to that produced by Dylar, which undoes the signification relationship of signifiance, erasing the distinction between word and thing (193).

All sorts of stuff about simulations, simulacra. Thought of McCarthy’s Remainder. “Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?” (139) I particularly loved the image of the old couple lost in the mall (59); the supermarket as a sort of mausoleum, a portal to the next life, a point at which we can access the matrix which builds death into the system.

This is also more wholesome than U. Part of the success of the ironic voice can be attributed to the relatable poignancy of the family, a beautiful incubator: “Heat, noise, looks, words, gestures, personalities, appliances. A colloquial density that makes family life the one medium of sense knowledge in which an astonishment of heart is routinely contained.” (117)

Some of the interjections of “manual” voice seem a little outdated, post-Palahniuk schoolboy disaffection. But it all hangs together as an amusing and vivid historical cross-section. A polythene tapestry

This is a mess because I made too many notes:

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