The Spooking Orb #5: White Noise by Don DeLillo

white noiseWhite Noise? Not a Halloween read, you say? Reagan-era family life not scary enough for you?

Listen up, pal; the theme of this novel is fear. Not fear of serial killers or tentacle monsters or lab experiments, but the granddaddy of them all: Fear of death. Specifically, fear of death in the technology and marketing focused final quarter of the 20th century, where you can’t even entertain the fantasy that death is noble or holy anymore.

I only know I’m just going through the motions of living. I’m technically dead. My body is a growing nebulous mass. They track these things like satellites. All this is a result of a byproduct of insecticide. There’s something artificial about my death. It’s shallow, unfulfilling. I don’t belong to the earth or sky. They ought to carve an aerosol can on my tombstone.

These are the thoughts of Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler studies at a quaint midwestern university and our first-person protagonist. The novel follows Jack and his family: his fifth wife and their assorted children from various marriages. Much of the book is simply Jack’s musings and his back-and-forth chats with his family and friends. It’s the type of book, like A Naked Singularity (a book that draws much influence from White Noise), where people have these long philosophical conversations about life, death, media, family that rarely ever happen in the real world. It’s a warm take on family, though. I grew very fond of this clan of fatalists.

While the novel is mostly dialogue, both external and internal, the major plot happening is a catastrophic gas leak that shuts down Jack’s town and forces everyone to spend a night huddled on cots in a communal warehouse. The Airborne Toxic Event. The family car runs out of gas while stuck in traffic en route to the sanctuary and Jack gets out for a few minutes to fill it up. The two minutes he spends outside brings him into contact with ‘Nyodene D’, the toxic contaminant that kicked off the leak, with its potentially harmful side effects. Including vomiting, nausea, deja vu, and death. Potentially.

This launches an obsession for Jack. Death. Even though the effects of Nyodene D are mostly unknown and probably won’t affect him for 30+ years (he’s in his 50s), it’s all he can think about. He repeatedly visits doctors. Then stops altogether. He discovers that he’s always been terrified of death — it’s why he created the field of Hitler studies, so he could siphon some of Hitler’s aura/endurability and stave off death. Jack steals his wife’s experimental medication. He digs through trash, chases down neurochemists. Stalks people with guns. Considers killing to increase his own longevity.

This book feels old. It was written in 1985, the year I was born. Does that mean I’m old? It’s not like the text is dated. It’s more like Don DeLillo influenced writers two generations over. Bands named themselves after his chapter headings. I’ve seen these themes rehashed so many times, seen writers attempt to mimic his wit and reflection, I felt a (topical) sense of deja vu* while reading White Noise. Even though I’ve never read it before. Not only that, but DeLillo’s influence lies heavily in Kafka, and he was writing in a time much closer to him than we are now. Take this passage for instance, which could almost be ripped right out of The Trial, if it were about medicine instead of law.

I didn’t say it. The computer did. The whole system says it. It’s what we call a massive data-base tally. Gladney, J. A. K. I punch in the name, the substance, the exposure time and then I tape your computer history. Your genetics, your personals, your medicals, your psychologicals, your police-and-hospitals. It comes back pulsing stars. This doesn’t mean anything is going to happen to you as such, at least not today or tomorrow. It just means you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that.

Maddening bureaucracy. Death became banal and ignoble and worst of all, unfulfilling, as digital technology arose.


*A potential side effect of The Airborne Toxic Event!

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

ThecorrectionscvrThe great triumph of this novel: Franzen takes a family of reprehensible goons, who do little more than hurt each other or themselves or anyone who has the misfortune of being around them, and makes them both compelling and sort of sympathetic. Everyone is awkward. Everyone is lost. By the end, I wanted them all to succeed.

The Lamberts

Alfred and Enid, the progenitors of the Lambert clan, seem never to have had a happy marriage. Even its inception was dubious. Enid, your midwestern mom obsessed with maximizing status and minimizing shame, could have been satisfied if Alfred had acted differently, perhaps shown some actual physical love and affection or exploited the easily exploited stock market. But Alfred was never that person. A consummate workaholic, he spent the prime of his life working at a railroad, baffled by people who took unpaid coffee breaks, who used phrases like ‘take it easy’, who yearned for sexual intimacy. Now, in their elder years, Alfred has Parkinson’s disease and is largely unable to take care of himself. Enid is as miserable and nagging as ever, convinced Alfred needs merely to try and many of his physical woes will disappear.

Oldest son Gary, who is probably the biggest prick of the lot, ties his existence to being more successful than average people, especially average midwesterners. He fled to Philadelphia to work in finance and marry a pilates-bodied blonde woman and beget 3 children. Gary is a condescending tightwad. He has little-to-no relationship with his children. He’s clinically depressed and the only way his viewpoint even works is that he has such a heinous, manipulative wife that portions of Gary’s chapters actually turn my stomach and give me no choice but to side with him. He has the least satisfying character arc, and I’m not totally sure he adds that much to the novel.

Youngest daughter Denise, an ultra-perfectionist chef, will probably try and sleep with your husband, or your wife, while maintaining the fiction that if she does not make the first move, she is being totally honorable and not responsible for the fallout. Clearly the marriage egg timer was up and it was gonna happen anyway. She has an ironclad set of defenses that govern her relationships with family, generally involving not getting too close whilst desperately wanting to. Denise also has absolutely no idea what she really wants, which is the crux of her character arc. Honestly, this I-Don’t-Actually-Know-What-I-Want problem is characteristic of all the Lamberts but the rest of the family have some fictive ideal that they at least think they want.

The middle child Chip is obsessed with the corruption and moral vacuity of capitalism, while also being head-over-heels immersed in it (much of his plot involves money). He laments objectification of women in media, especially after his sister poses in a magazine to promote her restaurant, and then flips through a Victoria’s Secret magazine to get off. Hypocrisy defines him. And he knows it. After losing his job at a university for sleeping with a student and then failing to write a decent avant-garde screenplay, Chip finds himself amongst Lithuathian gangsters, writing internet copy for their e-scams. He kind of skews golden child a bit, having the happiest emotional arc in the book. His major philosophical conflicts feel like an author-insert of Franzen’s own internal turmoil.

The story lives in in the late 90s, a time of American excess that feels fantastical by today’s standards. Enid feels like everyone around her is getting rich and it’s her life’s great frustration that Alfred wasn’t up to the task of making them the same. Everyone is investing in something. Finance seminars on cruise boats.The goblet of public confidence is overflowing and splashing on the floor. While all of this is building up to the rdecline that begins around the time of The Corrections publication (2001), the tone/time feels alien to someone like myself who was too young to interpret business/finance as it was happening.

Franzen is a pretty slick writer. All of the Lamberts are realized splendidly and his clever metaphors only occasionally fall flat. The writing, tone, and pacing are consistent the whole way through and I found it the sort of book I could open on a holiday flight and read straight through. It’s funny, but not that funny. And it probably could have been cut like 30-50 pages. Like the family it encapsulates, it’s often awkward. I am glad I read it.