Saturday, September 01, 2007

Reading group: White Noise by Don Delillo

Yet another book I read in Wales was Don DeLillo's White Noise, last month's reading group choice, the story of university lecturer and Hitler expert Jack Gladney who lives with his nth wife and a house full of step-children, and suffers existential gloom and unease - or more precisely, a fear of death - in a contemporary world of confusing signs.

It's a while now since we met to discuss it, and in the meantime I've been filming, so my memory of the discussion isn't too detailed: what I remember more than the discussion is the darkness and dampness of the evening, so typical of this odd summer, and the fact that the dog in Hans's house was suddenly different, because his old one had (shockingly) died, and every time we went to the loo the new one jumped up in excitement and wrapped us in her lead.

I know we all liked the book. Some of us, Trevor and I in particular, loved it. Trevor began the discussion by stating that the author was having a go at most things in the modern world, but I said, Wasn't it more precisely about the loss of boundaries between fantasy and reality (see, it's all coming back now) and Jenny said, No, surely it's about the fact that we can no longer distinguish between what's important or not. I had to agree that this was true, too: there's a running joke about the fact that there are 'PhDs now in cereal packets', and key scenes of the book take place in the supermarket, the place where
people scan the small print on packages, wary of a second level of betrayal.. Many have trouble making out the words... Smeared print, ghost images... But in the end it doesn't matter... The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners... This is the language of waves and radiation.
We all loved the hilarious discussions between Jack and the younger visiting lecturer Murray, who is studying such cultural signifiers, and the fact that Jack's subject, Hitler, is of no greater cultural significance than Murray's, Elvis, in the scene in which they lecture together, almost physically dancing their subjects together around the room. We loved the way the household TV set ends up in one of the children's bedroom and becomes a god-like voice from above puncturing conversations with surreal and meaningless or trivial announcements. We loved the irony of the fact that when a real threat suddenly enters the family's life - a chemical spill causing a toxic airborne event - no one can immediately recognize the danger for what it is. We found brilliant the book's subsequent joke in the response of the Simulated Evacuation officer to the real-life toxic event:
'The insertion curve isn't as smooth as we would like. There's a probability excess. Plus we don't have our victims laid out where we'd want them if this was an actual simulation... You have to make allowance for the fact that everything you see tonight is real.'
One of the brilliant strokes in the book is the suggestion by the authorities that the toxic elements in the spill cause deja vu which is consequently experienced by the characters even after the suggestion is withdrawn.

There were some quibbles: neither Hans nor I were convinced by the original premise of Jack Gladney's obsession with dying - we felt that, on the contrary, nowadays people refuse to think about death - indeed this is one of the notions I explored in my recent play, The Processing Room. However, there is a conversation between Jack and Murray in which Murray states that this is the other side of the same coin. Most people, even I, felt that the book lacked forward momentum before the airborne toxic event, when it suddenly became riveting. Doug said that this was his main objection, the fact that there was no real story, and while he agreed about all the other things in the book, ultimately he was left wondering if it added up to much as a novel, rather than an entertaining and well-written exposition of a point that was made from the very beginning. I said, But isn't this the point: the book formally portrays its thesis, that we can't shape narratives any more, we are at the mercy of forces and codes we can't decipher? Jenny, however, said she liked the comfortable tone of the beginning and went off the book when she got to the toxic event.

John said that he wasn't sure about the ending: were we meant to believe that Jack really had committed such an extreme act at the end, and if so why were there no consequences, when he had left so much evidence? Or were we meant to think he had so lost touch with reality as to imagine it? Everyone else said, No, it was meant to have happened, but it's not remarked on because violence is normal now, and no one knows what's important or what anything means, though John still looked doubtful. I said that I had had similar doubts about the unrealistic lack of conflict or emotional disturbance in a house full of stepchildren, but in the end had put them aside because this wasn't a realist novel. Some people said they had skipped bits as boring - which I couldn't believe, as I thought the prose so brilliant - concise, witty and telling.

We all noted how prescient this book was, pre-imagining Bhopal and even 9/11, and prefiguring our present unease and uncertainty about what we are experiencing - is this a freak period in the weather or a new status quo? We marvelled that the book was published as long ago as 1985.

Finally, John said that when he got to the end of the book he experienced deja vu and thought he had read it before.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

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