Kemper's Reviews > White Noise

White Noise by Don DeLillo
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Jan 24, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: 100, classic-lit
Read in January, 2010

A few years back, shortly after Katrina had her way with New Orleans, Time magazine did a cover story about how Americans prepare and cope with disasters. And we don’t do well with them. The story pointed out that while Americans love to obsess about all the potentially horrible things that can happen, we refuse to take actions to prevent or minimize their impact because we don’t want to admit that they’re really possible.

That’s why Americans will freak out if you try to spend a few hundred million dollars of tax money on something like shoring up the levees in New Orleans or making stricter building codes for hurricanes in Florida despite the fact that doing so would have saved many lives and countless billions in rebuilding costs before Hurricanes Katrina or Andrew. (My favorite recent example of this is when the Republicans tried to turn a few million dollars for a volcano eruption early warning program into an example of Obama’s wasteful spending, yet when an actual volcano eruption occurred in Sarah Palin country shortly after that and early warning was credited with saving lives, you never heard about it again. Oh, you wacky right wingers!)

On a more personal level, your average American will obsess endlessly about their weight, their cholesterol, heart disease, cancer, swine flu, bird flu, etc., but most will do so as they still don’t exercise, eat poorly, avoid regular physicals that might provide early detection of a life-threatening illness or get vaccinated. Or people will refuse to evacuate an area where potentially devastating storms are headed.

I kept thinking about that Time story while reading White Noise. The book itself lives up to it’s billing as a post-modern masterpiece with a black, absurd sense of humor, and it’s got layer after layer of themes. But it was DeLillo’s masterful presentation of how people worry themselves to death about death while still trying to deny that it's ever going to happen that I found really engaging.

The story revolves around Jack Gladney, a professor at a small college who created a department and academic field of studying Hitler. Jack and his wife Babette have a typical nuclear family circa 1985, with several divorces and a large group of children from their previous marriages, and their kids seem a lot more adult than the parents in a lot of ways. Jack spends most of his time getting into surreal discussions with his children and colleagues about a number of trivial subjects, but their suburban tranquility is eventually disturbed when a train accident leads to an ‘airborne toxic event’, and the entire community is forced to flee.

After the event, Jack learns that he may have been exposed to potentially fatal doses of the toxins, but it’s uncertain when the effects may start. This leads to both Jack and Babette admitting to each other that they’ve both got an intense fear of death. In Babette’s case, she’s taken extreme measures and been keeping some pretty serious secrets to deal with her phobia.

Even though both Jack and Barbette believe they’ve got a larger than normal dread of death, the lengths they go to in admitting potentially lethal problems are hilarious in a demented way. After the train accident, the kids are watching the toxic cloud grow larger from their view of the train yard and try to alert Jack that there may be trouble. Jack refuses to admit that it’s even possible that middle-class people such as themselves will be victims of an industrial accident. Only the poor people who live around train yards and factories have to worry about such things Jack assures the children even as the cloud grows larger.

So they sit down to dinner instead of packing up the car and getting to a safe distance. When emergency vehicles go down the street and use loudspeakers to tell everyone to evacuate, and the kids again urge that they should leave, Jack and Babette want to debate whether the guy on the loudspeaker said that they should leave NOW or whether they still have time. Surely, he would have told them to run immediately if there was any real danger, wouldn’t he?

Later, when Jack is talking to a doctor about his blood test results, he insists on lying about his health habits, claiming that he eats well, exercises, doesn’t drink, etc. as the doctor is trying to explain what they’ve found. Even though the results of a chemical test are sitting in an envelope in front of him, Jack’s irrationality makes him lie to the doctor as if pretending to live a healthy lifestyle will change the outcome. It’s a terrific scene of both bargaining and denial.

There’s also great satire about academic careers, suburban American consumer culture, family life, media and a couple of hundred other things. It’s a treasure trove of dark deadpan humor with brilliant writing.
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message 3: by Jennie (new)

Jennie That article sounds totally familiar, unless I am confusing it with a stack of book reviews that destroy any notion in the benefit of "positive thinking."

I'll have to read this and feel my "expect the worst, no...worse than that" upbringing was far superior to that of these other grinning American idiots that surround me.

Not bitter, not morbid...I'm just the grinning American idiot that's going to survive b/c I didn't waste my time worrying, I just expected something shitty would happen, and now I have plenty of energy to move my ass.

I'd like to thank my Eastern European/WWII/DP family now...and go watch TV.


Kemper My favorite part of the article was where it described how after stressing about potential disaster, but never admitting it was possible, that the next reaction was, "Oh, well. If it happens, I'm shit out of luck anyhow so why bother doing anything about it?"


message 1: by Carol (new)

Carol Neman Thanks for the detailed info as to the content of this book, so much so that I get the joke without having to slog through the book. Kudos.


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