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 Spooking Orb #3: The Guest

guest3

The Peterson family — father, mother, early 20s daughter, highschool age son — are in mourning. Recently, Caleb, their oldest son and army soldier was killed in the Middle East.

Enter David. The Guest. David shows up at the Peterson’s rural abode, claiming to be a squadmate and great friend of Caleb. We, the audience, know something is off with David, not simply because the movie is titled ‘The Guest’, and Mrs. Peterson senses this at first at well. But David backs up his story by pointing himself out in a picture of Caleb the Petersons had amongst their mourning shrine before he even got there. He ingratiates himself further by being the missing good son/brother — he helps the highschooler stand up to bullies, assists the daughter with boyfriend problems, is a sounding board for the dad’s work woes, a warm son-like presence for mom.

This is a movie of tension, building. Watch David chop food in the kitchen with a large knife and wave it around while he’s talking in his earnest, affable manner. There’s a constant juxtaposition between blue eyed, ultra friendly David, that guy from Downton Abbey, and the violence we’re sure he’s capable of even before we see it. Indeed, the tension is dramatically more engaging and frightening than the violence itself when it does arrive.

While ostensibly a horror movie, The Guest isn’t all that scary or share many commonalities with modern horror. It’s more of a homage to 80s thriller/horror. It’s kind of goofy, kind of campy, there’s purposeful overacting and secret military plots. The type of movie that somehow sets its final set piece amidst a Halloween maze. Dan Stevens keeps David just believable enough to not devolve fully into silliness. 

The mystery of David is never fully explained. The film uses some sci fi handwaving to explain portions of it. But that feels more like a crutch to explain otherwise inexplicable violence than an organic part of the film. I read later that the director had more ‘explainer’ scenes in the initial cuts but removed them because audience’s found them boring. But the end result feels too middle-ground for me — I would prefer a full explanation or none at all. If you read into the details the film drops, there’s definitely a fun sci-fi twists lurking below the surface, but without a reveal, it loses much of its appeal. I realize how fickle I am when I just celebrated a movie for giving no full explanation two days ago and then get annoyed this one didn’t have one. But they’re completely different styles of narrative!

My final thoughts coming away from the movie was that it was a great ride that I really enjoyed while it was happening, but kind of unsatisfying in the end. You could almost chart my tension/engagement as a jagged, rising line that flatlines once the movie ends. Something about this style of horror, even when very well realized like this movie is, just does not stick with me like other, scarier subgenres.