“I want to immerse myself in American magic and dread”
— Murray Jay Siskind, White Noise
Don DeLillo is a hero of mine. The finest writer of our times.* I think every reader has one or two writers that just seem to write for them, their very prose causing your brain to hum in appreciation and your mouth to make tiny noises of delight. That’s DeLillo for me. Nobody else quite manages to take vague sensations and capture them in words so lucid or pleasurable. Straddling the postmodern/post-postmodern divide, DeLillo’s work is at once humorous and immensely serious, satirical without being built entirely on the sands of irony.
White Noise is one of the clutch of his novels competing to be my favourite. Narrated by Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies at the bucolic College-on-the-Hill, the book describes the human obsession with mortality, with mass media, pop culture, academia and familial relationships all unmasked as phenomena driven by death and our fear of it. Describing his day-to-day interactions with his wife and kids, his colleagues on campus and the television, White Noise puts Gladney into a world disturbing, hilarious and supremely weird, so bizarre it could only be our own.
That said, describing the ideas or the plot doesn’t really come close to conveying why the novel is so good, so I’ll leave you with a short passage instead. The following is taken from a scene where Gladney is talking to his son Heinrich, a 14-year old Gladney’s wife fears “will end up in a barricaded room, spraying hundreds of rounds of automatic fire across an empty mall.” Gladney is driving his son to school when the boy says:
“It’s going to rain tonight”
“It’s raining now” I said.
“The radio said tonight”
“Look at the windshield,” I said. “Is that rain or not?”
“I’m only telling you what they said.”
Just because it’s on the radio doesn’t mean we have to suspend belief in the evidence of our senses.”
“Our senses? Our senses are wrong more often than they are right… Just because you don’t hear a sound doesn’t mean its not out there. Dogs can hear it, other animals. And I’m sure there are sounds even dogs cant hear. But they exist in the air, in waves. Maybe they never stop. High, high-pitched. Coming from somewhere.”
“Is it raining or isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t want to have to say”
“What if someone had a gun to your head?”
“Someone. A man in a trenchcoat and smoky glasses”
That probably still doesn’t give much of a hint why it’s so good so here is a playlist of songs that get somewhere close to the mood and themes of White Noise. There are 13 tracks, which seems rather apt.
“Always odd numbers at a time like this. What does it mean? Is death odd-numbered?”
1. Dead Letter and the Infinite Yes – Wintersleep
2. Fake Rain – Parts & Labor
3. I Stand Corrected – Hallelujah the Hills
4. Judy Garland – Frog
5. No Future Part II: The Days After No Future – Titus Andronicus
6. I Might Need You To Kill – The Thermals
7. Angel of Death – Pill Friends
8. Metallic Cloud – Damien Jurado
9. Paranoid Clusters – Postdata
10. Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, IL – Sufjan Stevens
11. Waves of Bad Intention – Elvis Depressedly
12. Three Seconds of Dead Air – The Twilight Sad
13. The Sickness Unto Death – Typhoon
* If you disagree then that’s fine, it’s OK to be wrong