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
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
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 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."
"A dog is a mammal."
"So's a rat," Denise said.
"A rat is a vermin," Babette
"Mostly what a rat is,"
Heinrich said, "is a rodent."
"It's also a vermin."
"A cockroach is a vermin,"
"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
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
—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.
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,
"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
"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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