I’ve had a copy of one of Don Delillo’s books on my shelf for the last ten years. I have friends and family members who love his books, but for some reason, not until this past week, did I pick up his book and discover his brilliant prose. White Noise, although published in 1985, still speaks truth about our culture–in fact, I would almost argue it is more relevant today than it was thirty years ago. (Incidentally, it won the National Book Award in 1985)
Jack Gladney teaches Hitler studies (but cannot speak German), spends time with his four children and his fourth wife, Babette, and worries about death constantly. We discover his children are precocious and practically prescient, and his colleagues are quirky and eccentric. White noise surrounds him in the form of television and other media, but there are two other major events in the book that create a kind of white noise–an “airborne toxic event” and his wife participating in a secret drug trial. The evacuation occurring after the toxic situation becomes quickly absurd, and the follow-up simulations present an image of the absurdity of modern life.
Stylistically, his prose reminds me of a (perhaps) more accessible David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon (there were a number of times I thought of either Infinite Jest or The Crying of Lot 49 as I read this). There were so many sentences and even paragraphs I wanted to write down and re-read. I found myself tweeting particularly interesting lines as I read (#whitenoise #bookquotes). Something about his prose really struck me. I wonder, as I often do, if I read this book at exactly the right time in my life. Had I read it a decade earlier, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed or appreciated it as much.
Here are some of my favorite quotes, although the entire book is rich with postmodern wisdom and absurdity:
- “Terrifying data is now an industry in itself…firms compete to see how badly they can scare us.”
- “You are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that.”
- “The power of numbers is never more evident than when we use them to speculate on the time of our dying.”
- “Being alive was a richness of terror.”
- “The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation.”
- “What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation.”
- “We seem to believe it is possible to ward off death by following rules of good grooming.”
- “All plots tend to move deathward. That is the nature of plots.”