White Noise
Don DeLillo, 1984

White Noise est omnis divisa in partes tres. The first part introduces us to Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies at one of those expensive little colleges under a tree in Vermont or Ohio or someplace, lives with his fifth wife, her two children, and two of his own four children. In the second part, he and his family have to evacuate due to a chemical spill that is dubbed "the airborne toxic event." In the third part, he discovers that his wife has been popping experimental pills to try to block out her fear of death. This might seem like a pastiche of the mid-1980s if not for the fact that the book was actually written ever so slightly before Bhopal and Prozac.

This is at least the third time I've read White Noise. I read it in high school on the recommendation of Greg West, who said it was strange: "He'll be in the middle of a chapter and then just say, 'Regular, unleaded, super unleaded.'" Strangeness is pretty much all I got out of it too. Then in college I read it for a rhetoric class. This was back before real professors taught the freshman seminars, and my instructors were a pair of dull hipsters who taught me nothing. Perhaps because I was sour on the class, or because I was still too young to get it — half my present age, frighteningly enough — I thought DeLillo was trying too hard to be clever. I may have read it again after that — I forget. If I did, I didn't like it enough to keep it when I went on one of my book-selling binges. When it popped up on the apocalypse syllabus I had to check it out of the library. And this time I really enjoyed it. Yes, it was trying really hard to be clever, but it was succeeding. I laughed out loud many times, which doesn't happen very often.

I've already written about the main theme of this book, so instead I'll talk about other stuff.

White Noise is one of the most-studied books of the last quarter of the twentieth century. I've read a lot of critical analysis of this book, both by students and academics. A lot of it seems to miss something very important. The book is a comedy. A lot of the writing serves a dual purpose: to make you think, yes, but also to set up jokes. Here is a perfect example:

Steffie turned slightly, then muttered something in her sleep. It seemed important that I know what it was. In my current state, bearing the death impression of the Nyodene cloud, I was ready to search anywhere for signs and hints, intimations of odd comfort. I pulled my chair up closer. Her face in pouchy sleep might have been a structure designed solely to protect the eyes, those great, large and apprehensive things, prone to color phases and a darting alertness, to a perception of distress in others. I sat there watching her. Moments later she spoke again. Distinct syllables this time — but a language not quite of this world. I struggled to understand. I was convinced she was saying something, fitting together units of stable meaning. I watched her face, waited. Ten minutes passed. She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, world that seemed to have ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant.
        Toyota Celica.

I've seen this passage crop up in a number of papers and articles. They all seem to sagely accept this as DeLillo making a serious point about American culture. Some see it as a condemnation of consumerism. Others argue that, on the contrary, it reveals "the mythic and subconscious resonances behind our language of trademarks." But— but— it's a joke! When you read "Toyota Celica," you're not supposed to stroke your chin and ponder the reductio ad absurdum of world as symbol and symbol as world— you're supposed to laugh. See? There's all this buildup, all these reverent sentences setting up Steffie's utterance as something profound and holy, and it turns out to be Toyota Celica. And you burst out laughing. And, yes, the next paragraph is about how Gladney nevertheless interprets this as a moment of "splendid transcendence"... which is a nice follow-up joke, part of the satire. That doesn't mean that it's "just a joke" that we're not supposed to think about; jokes often have deep messages. But a lot of the analysis of White Noise seems to lose sight of the type of text it's analyzing.(1)

I read The Great Gatsby in high school and got nothing out of it. I read it in college and this time I was able to understand the themes, discuss in a paper Gatsby's reworking of his own past and what this tells us about American culture and so forth. But it wasn't until I read it in grad school that I realized that The Great Gatsby is funny. The narrator is a smartass! The dialogue is amusing! As I turned the pages, deeply absorbed in this highly entertaining novel, I couldn't help but wonder: how is it that I was able to read this twice before and not enjoy it? What was my brain doing as my eyes passed over the jokes?(2) And now I have to ask the same question about White Noise.

Literature is supposed to be enjoyable. That doesn't mean that it should all be light comedy. It can be serious, it can be disturbing. But thinking about serious things can be enjoyable. Even disturbing things can be enjoyable: Requiem for a Dream, for instance, was absolutely dysphoric, and yet I would say it was one of the better movies I've seen in the past few years and I'd be interested in seeing it again. It seems to me that one of the main purposes of arts education should be to teach students how to enjoy art. This is something I got better at over the years, but mainly as a side effect. Everyone reads The Great Gatsby in eleventh grade. Instead of spending class after class dully walking through the symbolism and the green light and stuff, how about teachers focus on why they like it? And if they don't like it, why are they teaching it?

To me, one of the most successful elements of White Noise is that even though everyone basically sounds the same — like Scary Go Round, White Noise has its own distinctive language, and the dialogue is more recited than spoken — the three older children, Heinrich, Denise, and Steffie, emerge as distinct, well-drawn and lovable characters. Steffie, the nine-year-old, is especially adorable:

         Wilder [the three-year-old] sat on a tall stool in front of the stove, watching water boil in a small enamel pot. He seemed fascinated by the process. I wondered if he'd uncovered some splendid connection between things he'd always thought of as separate. The kitchen is routinely rich in such moments, perhaps for me as much as for him.
         Steffie walked in saying, "I'm the only person I know who likes Wednesdays." Wilder's absorption seemed to interest her. She went and stood next to him, trying to figure out what attracted him to the agitated water. She leaned over the pot, looking for an egg.

"She leaned over the pot, looking for an egg." That is perfect. JD Salinger once strung together a few such moments, called it "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," and made his career.

Here's a famous exchange in which the family is packed into the car evacuating after the chemical spill:

From the radio we learned that dogs trained to sniff out Nyodene D. were being sent to the area from a chemical detection center in a remote part of New Mexico.
        Denise said, "Did they ever think of what happens to the dogs when they get close enough to this stuff to smell it?"
        "Nothing happens to the dogs," Babette
[her mother] said.
        "How do you know?"
        "Because it only affects humans and rats."
        "I don't believe you."
        "Ask Jack."
        "Ask Heinrich," I said.
        "It could be true," he said, clearly lying. "They use rats to test for things that humans can catch, so it means we get the same diseases, rats and humans. Besides, they wouldn't use dogs if they thought it could hurt them."
        "Why not?"
        "A dog is a mammal."
        "So's a rat," Denise said.
        "A rat is a vermin," Babette said.
        "Mostly what a rat is," Heinrich said, "is a rodent."
        "It's also a vermin."
        "A cockroach is a vermin," Steffie said.
        "A cockroach is an insect. You count the legs is how you know."
        "It's also a vermin."
        "Does a cockroach get cancer? No," Denise said. "That must mean a rat is more like a human than it is like a cockroach, even if they're both vermins, since a rat and a human can get cancer but a cockroach can't."
        "In other words," Heinrich said, "she's saying that two things that are mammals have more in common than two things that are only vermins."
        "Are you people telling me," Babette said, "that a rat is not only a vermin and a rodent but a mammal too?"

The first couple of times I read this, back in 1990, I thought, "Har har. So they're dumb. Oh, my sides." But there's so much more going on here! These aren't just interchangeable dumb people. Just from this very passage, we get:

—Denise, conscientious in the way eleven-year-old girls are, hears that dogs are being sent in to deal with the chemical spill that has driven her from her home and is currently threatening her life. Her first thought? "Awww, poor doggies!"

—Babette isn't just dumb. She's trying to be the voice of authority and reassurance. The only problem is that her children and stepchildren are all brighter than she is. Realizing this adds much more depth to the conversation and makes it more than an Abbott and Costello routine.

—Then there's Heinrich. He's also trying to be the voice of authority, but in a different way. He's a geeky fourteen-year-old boy in a car full of confused females, trying on the Voice of Science. His lines are full of stereotypically male rhetorical moves such as explaining to everyone what Denise meant (the underlying message being that her own words were inadequate to convey her meaning, since she's just a girl). And I love this line: "'Mostly what a rat is,' Heinrich said, 'is a rodent.'"

See, up to this point the comedy has been fairly straightforward, with Denise as the straight man and Babette as the buffoon, thinking that a chemical could be dangerous solely to rats and humans and no other species, and that "a vermin" constitutes a taxonomic category distinct from "a mammal." Then Heinrich weighs in. First we get the word "mostly," which is already pretty funny, as if you could assign percentages like "a rat is 60% mammal and 40% vermin" or some such. Then we get to the end of the sentence and discover that (a) he is throwing yet a third category into the mix, (b) it is just a subset of the first category, and (c) it is "rodent," which is a funny word. Furthermore, by bookending Heinrich's line with "mostly" and "rodent," DeLillo gets to put two instances of the word "is" together, as the noun phrase "what a rat is" butts up against the linking verb "is" in the verb phrase "is a rodent". "Mostly what a rat is is a rodent." This is how you write comedy.

One more:

        Through his mask Heinrich said, "Did you ever really look at your eye?"
        "What do you mean?" Denise said, as though we were lazing away a midsummer day on the front porch.
        "Your own eye. Do you know which part is which?"
        "You mean like the iris, the pupil?"
        "Those are the publicized parts. What about the vitreous body? What about the lens? The lens is tricky. How many people even know they have a lens? They think 'lens' must be 'camera.'"
        "What about the ear?" Denise said in a muffled voice.
        "If the eye is a mystery, totally forget the ear. Just say 'cochlea' to somebody, they look at you like, 'Who's this guy?'"

"Those are the publicized parts." That is the sort of amusing word choice error that I imagine few of my students would recognize, given that their essays show that they have diction control issues much like Heinrich's, but it's hilarious — you know, "publicized," as if there were public service announcements for the iris playing during commercial breaks. Then there's the mismatch between the tone of the last statement and its content. It's very colloquial — there's the use of the word "totally," the comma splice between "somebody" and "they," the use of the words "like" and "guy" — and then, bam, there's "cochlea." Which all comes on top of the fact that here are these people evacuating a disaster and this kid is lamenting that he can't drop the word "cochlea" into casual conversation without getting weird looks. Which makes you wonder, is this really a big problem in his life? Under what circumstances would he find himself hamstrung by this aspect of our societal mores? Is this a purely hypothetical situation or has this precise exchange been haunting him for some time now? "Who's this guy?" sounds like something out of a mob movie. "Cochlea" does not. Comedy!

(1) In class we had an impromptu writing assignment about the part in which one of Gladney's fellow academics says of the Hitler Studies department, "You've evolved an entire system around this figure, a structure with countless substructures and interrelated fields of study, a history within history. I marvel at the effort. It was masterful, shrewd and stunningly preemptive. It's what I want to do with Elvis." I argued that while you can talk about how this shows that Hitler has been reduced to just another celebrity, a kitschy TV personality over on the History Channel, it's important to remember that this is, again, a joke. The humor relies on our recognition that Hitler and Elvis are not parallel figures.

(2) This question is of more than immediate interest. Much of my day job over the past while has revolved around trying to get kids to recognize the jokes in reading comp passages. In one such passage, GK Chesterton writes, "That young man with the long, auburn hair and the impudent face — that young man was not really a poet; but surely he was a poem. That old gentleman with the wild, white beard and the wild, white hat — that venerable humbug was not really a philosopher; but at least he was the cause of philosophy in others. That scientific gentleman with the bald, egg-like head and the bare, bird-like neck had no real right to the airs of science that he assumed. He had not discovered anything new in biology; but what biological creature could he have discovered more singular than himself?" ...and I don't think I've had a single student pick up on the fact that he's making fun of these people.

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