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 Trial by Franz Kafka


before the Law stands a door-keeper. To this door-keeper there comes a man from the country who begs for admittance to the Law. But the door-keeper says that he cannot admit the man at the moment. The man, on reflection, asks if he will be allowed, then, to enter later. ‘It is possible,’ answers the door-keeper, ‘but not at this moment.’

K. is accused of a crime. He is stand trial. He is not informed what his crime is, when or where his trial will take place, or anything but a long list of obscure and contradictory facts on how the process will be run.

The Trial is the haunting companion piece to The Castle. A character locked in incomprehensible bureaucratic hell. Unlike The Castle, with its monotonous city streets and inclement weather, The Trial is cramped, claustrophobic. The law offices of the court, the rooms of K.’s lawyers, anything related to the proceedings at all, take places in dusty old attics with low ceilings that cause people to stoop. The light is dim. The air is so stifling you literally cannot breathe if you have not become acclimated to the atmosphere. There’s secret closets K. stumbles upon in his own workplace that contain torture chambers; K’s office goes from a place of triumph to a prison he yearns to leave.

You can liken The Trial to everything from the seemingly arbitrary state-sanctioned process of contesting a parking ticket to grim foreshadowing of the holocaust. The system itself is monstrous. No single person squares off but a small portion of it. K. stumbles across various characters who give him contradictory tales about the courts, who lord their knowledge over him and then become baffled when he doesn’t act on their nonsense. It drains him completely. He meets men who have divested their fortunes across several lawyers and years later still do not know for what crime they have been accused. It’s completely absurd but also reasonable and chilling and the same critique Kafka was terrified of and writing in the twenties can be applied to modernity.

K. maintains the the Law must be just and reasonable and he simply has to comprehend its workings and all will make sense. But that is impossible. Like today, many people are assured there is some reason, some logic to the madness of state. It’s funny because readers summarize this as “we never know what K. did wrong”, when I think it’s implicit that K. did nothing wrong. 

Who could these men be? What were they talking about? What authority could they represent? K. lived in a country with a legal constitution, there was universal peace, all the laws were in force; who dared seize him in his own dwelling?

The Metamorphosis and Other Stories

metamorpmosisA MAN TURNS INTO A BUG. Franz Kafka is known for this. And one hundred years later, his work remains inimitable. Bizarre, grotesque, monotonous, true. Gregor Samsa wakes up as a cockroach and this is remarkable to everyone but his own self, because as the overworked and under-appreciated breadwinner of his family, he already lives like one. His initial trials involve trying to get out of bed (he’s stuck on his back carapace and hasn’t managed to control his multitude of tiny fluttering legs yet) and trying to open doors. What follows, as his family begins to ostracize him, is a black humor-laced* depiction of how some families treat the terminally ill among them.

The stories maintain a striking relevance. The Penal Colony is a story about the failed maintenance of the once great ‘apparatus’, an impossible steampunk device that writes a victim’s crimes in their own skin until they run out of blood and it (the apparatus) tosses them into a bottomless desert pit. It is a political tale of capital punishment and changing opinions tied to changing regimes. It could have been written today, which is sort of depressing in its resonance.

There’s fragments and meditations. Short recursive pieces where characters sunk in pathos consider and reconsider their life and emotions mark Kafka as a very direct antecedent to David Foster Wallace’s short fiction. There’s dark fairy tales and sardonic observations of social interaction and weird, coincidence laden tales of ship crews where no one acts or responds as they should. Why does that kid love the awkward crewman (‘the stoker’) like a father after knowing him for five minutes, why??

But yes, more Kafka. I intend read his entire oeuvre, which isn’t terribly long, but I’d do the same if it were much longer.

*I never realized the horror-trope of a man covering his mouth with his hands and slowly backpedaling away had its roots in Kafka. I do now, thanks to Gregor’s jerk boss coming to the Samsa house to lecture him on the requirements of showing up to work before he opens the door and sees roach-Gregor and reacts accordingly.

The Castle by Franz Kafka

castleK. is trying to get to the castle. The surrounding town’s streets are always deserted. It’s often snowing, often dark, and time starts to lose reason and constancy. Mystifying supernatural events occur without explanation — divide two youthful twins, and now they are individually old and grizzled, unable to split their combined age between them. The town has its own internal rhythm and customs and idiosyncrasies, or so it would seem. What is devastatingly obvious w/r/t to social etiquette and procedure to the villagers is inexplicable to K., and to the reader. K. is often compared to a child in how little he understands adult affairs. There are lengthy monologues, personal histories, and bureaucratic minutia explained page after page by one character, only to be contradicted in the same fashion by another character.

This is the meaning of Kafkaesque. Nightmarish, bureaucratic monotony.

I remember reading the Phantom Tollbooth as a kid. And all of Roald Dahl’s works, one by one from the school library’s bottom shelf. I was enchanted and found them entirely natural in their grim absurdity, peopled by heroic albeit vindictive heroes. They often lacked a cogent moral lesson and horrible things happened, both to the protagonists and as a result of their actions. All this I loved and felt was proper. This is a child’s version of maturity, but important nonetheless, since its absence in other age-appropriate works is obviously felt by children.

Much later, as an adult I read analyses of why Juster and Dahl are so popular with kids. They spoke to the fear and bedevilment and chaos and cruelty that are all inescapable components of everyday childhood life, rather than endless summer afternoons amidst the dandelion fuzz like adults like to wistfully recall.

This implies one of two things:

1. The bedeviled nonsensical world is merely one of children, and as we become adults, things make more sense even if it is a somber kind of sense.

2. As adults, we gain some sort of pathos or maturity that allows us to handle the bedeviled world in some fashion.

Franz Kafka proves both of these false. The adult world is just as baffling, nonsensical, insoluble, and unfathomable. There is a reason that K. is constantly compared to a child. Except, unlike childhood and its apposite stories, there is no logical end, however fraught. Alienation in perpetuity. There is death, which is the conclusion Kafka apparently had in mind for K. had he lived to finish The Castle. Darkly ironic, but still no conscious end.

(I’m on a bend of great authors posthumously published great works lately. See The Pale King.)

(Also, I did finally find an image of the cover despite earlier troubles, albeit artifacted and grainy.)

Book As Physical Object

this one

Reading an old 1959 copy of Kafka’s The Castle. It must be somewhat obscure. I cannot find an image of its cover online and the book itself only appears companioned by a fuzzy photograph on antique book sites.

The joy of the physical book confounds — the yellowed edges of the grainy-wood page, the elegant serifed typeface, and the papery book jacket that swishes and crinkles when the book is handled.

And the smell; that nostalgic blend of decay and dust and musty knowledge. It’s an avowal that the elements of the book were made from a living thing, damp and leafy.

It smells alive.