Notes and Review - White Noise (DeLillo)

Rating: 5/5

What if a novel was very funny? If every single sentence that came out of the protagonist’s mouth, only served to make him look progressively less important and more foolish than you thought? What if it was the author mocking the protagonist privately to the reader, without letting the protagonist in on the joke? That would be a great novel, and White Noise fits the bill. The protagonist is a man who walks around a college in long robes and dark glasses, because it makes him look important and unapproachable, because it gives him authority. He continues this pretense in his thoughts as well. The chaotic misinformation rallies that go around in the back of his car, as everyone is talking over each other, and no one is answering the question which sparked the conversation, are a treat to read. The level of ignorance is deliberately exaggerated to a comic level. I can’t wait to watch the movie adaptation. Meanwhile, here’s a review of the book.

I present this (unnecessarily) long thought that is ricocheting around the protagonist’s phenomenally empty mind:

The kitchen and the bedroom are the major chambers around here, the power haunts, the sources. She and I are alike in this, that we regard the rest of the house as storage space for furniture, toys, all the unused objects of earlier marriages and different sets of children, the gifts of lost in-laws, the hand-me-downs and rummages. Things, boxes. Why do these possessions carry such sorrowful weight? There is a darkness attached to them, a foreboding. They make me wary not of personal failure and defeat but of something more general, something large in scope and content.

When he wants to describe something, the best the protagonist can come up with is “something more general, something large in scope and content.” It is DeLillo’s skill that we do not see this as bad or lazy writing, but as the character’s inability to come up with anything really insightful. It is not much of a comfort that the protagonist spends almost the whole book in this illusion: that he is saying something profound, when what he is actually saying is most banal. That is to say, the whole book is incredibly entertaining. He uses this “something” technique in one other memorable occasion:

In the morning I walked to the bank. I went to the automated teller machine to check my balance. I inserted my card, entered my secret code, tapped out my request. The figure on the screen roughly corresponded to my independent estimate, feebly arrived at after long searches through documents, tormented arithmetic. Waves of relief and gratitude flowed over me. The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval. The system hardware, the mainframe sitting in a locked room in some distant city. What a pleasing interaction. I sensed that something of deep personal value, but not money, not that at all, had been authenticated and confirmed. A deranged person was escorted from the bank by two armed guards. The system was invisible, which made it all the more impressive, all the more disquieting to deal with. But we were in accord, at least for now. The networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies.

The various characters are the main reason I remained interested in getting to the end of the book. The ending is not a satisfying one; it does not tie anything up; I guess that is predictable because the story never ends (because consumerism itself has no end).

First, there is the protagonist Jack Gladney. I have poked fun at him already. His “brain noise” is peppered throughout the book. And the story goes in some bizarre directions. He is the anchor among all the strange twists and turns (some of which are boring). He remains locked into a mind numbing set of car rides between his house, the college where he works, and the store. Every time he goes to the store, he buys things he does not need. Whenever he is at home, is throwing away things that he does not need. He is a symbol: A symbol of the mindlessness that the corporations expect from everyone, perhaps? There is one final thing that he does which I must mention. While talking with his wife Babette, he says:

“We’re going to come through this thing all right,” I said. “Maybe stronger than ever. We’re determined to be well. Babette is not a neurotic person. She is strong, healthy, outgoing, affirmative. She says yes to things. This is the point of Babette.”

The most present character is one of the professors at the college, Murray. He is studying “American environments.” And is constantly talking about the “data” being strong in the grocery store. He is a first class weirdo, but somehow he is the only one Gladney trusts and talks with and really believes. On multiple occasions what Murray tells him about something surfaces during another conversation or in another situation. Murray might well be the author’s stand-in: Always at the ready to explain things that we (Gladney is the naive reader’s stand-in?) don’t understand. Here is a classic:

“This is the nature of modern death,” Murray said. “It has a life independent of us. It is growing in prestige and dimension. It has a sweep it never had before. We study it objectively. We can predict its appearance, trace its path in the body. We can take cross-section pictures of it, tape its tremors and waves. We’ve never been so close to it, so familiar with its habits and attitudes. We know it intimately. But it continues to grow, to acquire breadth and scope, new outlets, new passages and means. The more we learn, the more it grows. Is this some law of physics? Every advance in knowledge and technique is matched by a new kind of death, a new strain. Death adapts, like a viral agent.

Heinrich is one of the kids in Gladney’s house. He, Heinrich, is Gladney’s son from a previous marriage, and his mother has joined a cult as their accountant. Heinrich is constantly the most interesting and the most confusing of all the characters: He talks about the looming ominous thing when there is a manmade disaster near Gladney’s house and he really shines during this time: He spreads all kinds of doubts, speculation, and theories about what is going on and is very authoritative about it. He asks Gladney questions that throw him off his studied center; these questions dethrone him from the pedestal of authority which Gladney maintains at the college by wearing his robe and dark glasses. At home, he is vulnerable to Heinrich’s probing.

Babette speaks the least. She only has one really long conversation with Gladney. And she goes through it matter-of-factly, without revealing much about herself. She remains the most mysterious until the end; even though she is being seen and assessed and commented upon by everyone else, she never has her own voice. I have a lingering feeling that she wanted to escape, and that she was one of the saner ones in the house looking for an escape actively, rather than lamenting the apparent lack of one as Gladney is or studying this condition as Murray was.

That night, a Friday, we gathered in front of the set, as was the custom and the rule, with take-out Chinese. There were floods, earthquakes, mud slides, erupting volcanoes. We’d never before been so attentive to our duty, our Friday assembly. Heinrich was not sullen, I was not bored. Steffie, brought close to tears by a sitcom husband arguing with his wife, appeared totally absorbed in these documentary clips of calamity and death. Babette tried to switch to a comedy series about a group of racially mixed kids who build their own communications satellite. She was startled by the force of our objection. We were otherwise silent, watching houses slide into the ocean, whole villages crackle and ignite in a mass of advancing lava. Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping.

The story is meandering, and this is not a novel that one would read for the story. One might read it for its commentary on modern consumerism. One might read it simply because it is the funniest book ever. To attempt a serious review of this book would be to dissect a great joke. A joke such as this one:1

PLEASE NOTE. In several days, your new automated banking card will arrive in the mail. If it is a red card with a silver stripe, your secret code will be the same as it is now. If it is a green card with a gray stripe, you must appear at your branch, with your card, to devise a new secret code. Codes based on birthdays are popular. WARNING. Do not write down your code. Do not carry your code on your person. REMEMBER. You cannot access your account unless your code is entered properly. Know your code. Reveal your code to no one. Only your code allows you to enter the system.


I shopped with reckless abandon. I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies. I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it. I sent clerks into their fabric books and pattern books to search for elusive designs. I began to grow in value and self-regard. I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgotten existed. Brightness settled around me. We crossed from furniture to men’s wear, walking through cosmetics. Our images appeared on mirrored columns, in glassware and chrome, on TV monitors in security rooms. I traded money for goods. The more money I spent, the less important it seemed.

– p.99

I threw away picture-frame wire, metal book ends, cork coasters, plastic key tags, dusty bottles of Mercurochrome and Vaseline, crusted paintbrushes, caked shoe brushes, clotted correction fluid. I threw away candle stubs, laminated placemats, frayed pot holders. I went after the padded clothes hangers, the magnetic memo clipboards. I was in a vengeful and near savage state. I bore a personal grudge against these things. Somehow they’d put me in this fix. They’d dragged me down, made escape impossible.

– p.338

(Gladney is the one narrating in both those quotes.)

“What is a radio? What is the principle of a radio? Go ahead, explain. You’re sitting in the middle of this circle of people. They use pebble tools. They eat grubs. Explain a radio.” “There’s no mystery. Powerful transmitters send signals. They travel through the air, to be picked up by receivers.” “They travel through the air. What, like birds? Why not tell them magic? They travel through the air in magic waves. What is a nucleotide? You don’t know, do you? Yet these are the building blocks of life. What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. It changes and grows every second of every day. But nobody actually knows anything.”

– p.173

The others who spend their lives believing that we still believe. It is our task in the world to believe things no one else takes seriously. To abandon such beliefs completely, the human race would die. This is why we are here. A tiny minority. To embody old things, old beliefs. The devil, the angels, heaven, hell. If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse.”

– p.366

“My trainer says, ‘Breathe, don’t think.’ He says, ‘Be a snake and you’ll know the stillness of a snake.’” “He has a trainer now,” Heinrich said. “He’s a Sunny Moslem,” Orest said. “Iron City has some Sunnies out near the airport.” “The Sunnies are mostly Korean. Except mine’s an Arab, I think.” I said, “Don’t you mean the Moonies are mostly Korean?” “He’s a Sunny,” Orest said.

  1. This is one of several random paragraphs that appear as if they are unrelated codas to the chapter.