Wednesday, April 07, 2010

White Noise revisited

I finally replaced my lost copy of Don DeLillo's White Noise, which I lent to a friend, oh, fifteen years ago. (You know who you are, Friend.) I suppose one reason I did not replace it sooner was that I came to think of it as an artifact of the 80s. When I first read it, way back then, I was thrilled to discover that a mere fiction writer knew what the coolest literary critics knew, about simulacra, the omnipresence of television (television!) and data, and the bland toxicity of American life. Somehow that stuff no longer seems so compelling, though it's obvious that we now live amid white noise multiplied by a googol (get it?). We should probably be more alarmed.

Anyway, as I'm rereading the book, I do keep thinking 80s, 80s, 80s. But why should that past be any more off-putting than other eras? I read books from other decades and centuries without thinking of them as relics of their time. Is the problem that I have come to take all the book's concerns in stride? Was the 80s the last time it was even possible to notice media and other toxins as still potentially separate from daily existence? Have I surrendered to white noise?

And here I am, making more of it.

That said, I am really enjoying the book. It is funny as hell. And nobody does dialog quite like DeLillo. The writer's workshop guidelines on dialog are: Dialog is something characters do to each other. Dialog should do more than one thing at a time. Dialog should characterize. DeLillo follows these guidelines and violates them at the same time.

"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 isn't it?"
"I'm only telling you what they said."

The conversation goes on in this vein, sounding very much like a real conversation, but also making the act of conversation itself seem absurd. The son resists his father's appeal to what seems to be an obvious reality, but not because of some problem in their relationship, as would be the case in a more conventional story. DeLillo is less interested in these characters as human beings than in their roles as walking containers of white noise. Everyone's brain is a porous, swirling mass of electrified sounds and imagery; there is only a slight variance in how this condition gets expressed.

Still, what the father, and also the son, really seek here is contact, in a world in which real contact seems impossible. They keep talking past each other; the son spins theories about why what we see before us may not be reality (and therefore not contactable), etc. The important thing, we begin to understand, is that they keep talking. Despite the fact that these characters are barely individuated, we can feel their human yearning for connection. DeLillo makes us sympathize not with individual characters, but with humanity as a whole--which is really cool, if you ask me.

I do love this new cover:

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