By Don DeLillo
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
I read ‘White Noise‘ in college. I hated it, but I can’t tell you why. I remember very little about the plot, something about a man who studies Hitler, and a toxic cloud. I had an impression that it was clever but bleak. I found it almost overwhelmingly unpleasant to read, but not bad at all. Just aversive.
I put it on my bookshelf, and looked at it periodically with suspicion. I have long wished to purge and donate it, but something has held me back: some sense that it is a modern classic, an Appreciated Book, critically valued. Also holding me back: though I remember almost nothing of the book, my copy is so full of sticky notes, flagging passages I liked, that it is nearly double its normal thickness. I did not like it, I am sure, but I certainly appreciated lots of things within it.
During my last book-purge, I reached crisis and decided to reread it. I knew I wasn’t going to like it, but I wanted to throw it away with an easy conscience.
I’ve just finished it, and, somehow, I find myself more confused than I was when I started.
‘White Noise‘ is the story of Jack Gladney, who is the head of the Hitler Studies department at a small liberal arts college. He is married to Babette, his fourth wife, and they live near campus with their substantial and blended family. They are happy, although Babette has been sneaking a medication and will not tell anyone what it is. One day, however, an airborne toxic cloud appears over their town. Jack is exposed, and, when his doctor informs him that his exposure will inevitably, inexorably, result in his death, Jack’s life begins to unravel.
I was right all those years ago, with all my flags: ‘White Noise’ is extremely clever, and bristles with quotable passages. Some examples:
“‘The flow is constant,” Alfonse said. “Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.'” (p. 66)
“‘I’m not just a college professor. I’m the head of a department. I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event. That’s for people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the country, where the fish hatcheries are.'” (p. 117)
How about one more:
“‘I have only a bare working knowledge of the human brain but it’s enough to make me proud to be an American. Your brain has a trillion neurons and every neuron has ten thousand little dendrites. The system of inter-communication is awe-inspiring. It’s like a galaxy that you can hold in your hand, only more complex, more mysterious.”
‘Why does that make you proud to be an American?’
‘The infant’s brain develops in response to stimuli. We still lead the world in stimuli.'” (p. 189)
Reading over these quotes now, I can also see why, despite the fact that it is so clever, I hated this book so much. In fact, I think I hated it because it is so clever.
Cleverness in writing is tricky. It can be immensely entertaining, startling and funny and revealing all at once. For me personally, a person susceptible to cleverness in general, it can be tremendously winning, and I will forgive a book many sins if it is clever.
But too much cleverness is alienating.
First of all, cleverness is cold. Being clever requires distance from the observed thing: it is far away from the warmth of human interaction, a dissection, and, when it is really sharp, it is a little cruel in its accuracy. It is fundamentally un-affiliative: it separates and distinguishes.
The most successfully clever books, in my opinion, are books that combine cleverness in observation with great warmth of feeling. It is all well and good to see so clearly, but you must then forgive the objects of your sight. Not many people can pull this off – the one who springs most readily to my mind is Zora Neal Hurston, who is incredibly clever but also deeply humane, all-seeing and all-loving.
DeLillo is not like this – or, at least, ‘White Noise’ is not. It is unrelenting, so clever it becomes aggressive. And this is the second problem with cleverness: it’s a little show-offy. Because it is impossible to be clever without knowing that you are clever, it always has the element of a performance, ‘Aren’t I clever?’ The difficulty is that too much of that quickly becomes tedious, the performance becomes about the performer, and not about the novel. The point of the book stops being the story, or the characters, or the readers; the book instead becomes merely an opportunity for the novelist to show how much smarter he is than anyone else. It’s needy.
But, as I said, I am a sucker for cleverness, and, at moments, I hoped that DeLillo was doing it all on purpose. It’s not impossible – ‘White Noise‘ is, after all, a novel about the fear of dying. The fear is death is unrelenting, icy and inexorable – perhaps ‘White Noise’ is unrelenting and bleak simply because death is. We cannot evade it; all we can do is laugh mordantly while we wait.
I’m giving it too much credit, I suspect. The Great American Male Novelists all had this tendency: to be more interested in the display of their own genius than in the experience of their readers. It’s a shame: DeLillo is clearly capable of tremendous observation. If only he had been willing to observe something redeeming, to observe with some kindness.
I think I am going to keep it on my shelf, though. I still don’t know why, but something holds me back from donating it. In the end, I suppose, imperfection is not the same as badness, and, after all, it is very clever.