White Noise by Don DeLillo

I don’t consider myself an overly harsh critic, but these things are in the eye of the beholder. Most of what I read ranks 3 to 5 stars because I’ve developed the skill of finding books that appeal to me across a wide variety of genres and subject matters.  Ditto with music, films, television, and other forms of art and entertainment.  It confuses many people I know who loudly and vehemently protest that I can’t possibly know the details of how bad a movie will be by watching a trailer, but I’ve proven capable of the feat after seeing only two still shot photos.  My accuracy is alarming, repeatable, and frequently denied at every turn because the people around me are desperate to believe the hype of whatever they’re being fed.  It’s why I buck pop culture trends.  It’s how I avoid the rampant stupidity of the world.  It’s how I find the true gems that are worth exploring.  Mine is not a perfect record, and my tastes will not always appeal to those who suckle at the teat of pop culture, but mostly it’s worked pretty well so far.  Every so often, I find a clunker.  I truly believe with all my heart that people need to occasionally confront those works that challenge their beliefs, their sensibilities, or their idea of quality.  It’s how you learn to recognize the art from the junk , and how you refine the definitions of either one in relation to your personal tastes.  It’s not enough to recognize it when you see it.  You have to know how and why you recognize it for it to mean anything.  But sooner or later, we all get to the point where we feel we’ve refined the process enough to know when to cut our losses and move on.  After reading Thomas Pynchon’s presumed magnum opus Gravity’s Rainbow, I made a promise to myself that I would never again waste my time finishing a book that proves itself unworthy long before the ending.

I suspended that promise here, determined to see through a deal made with LunaLuss, a friend of mine on Booklikes. Her excitement over the works of Don DeLillo made me curious enough to check out his work.  The deal in question pushed this particular work, chosen by her, to the top of the TBR pile.  I want to say up front that I do not regret this deal, nor do I feel my time has been wasted.  Very seldom do I walk away from a book and feel my time has been wasted.  If LunaLuss finds that she enjoys her side of the deal, then her world has been made richer for the experience.  If not, then at the very least we commiserate together in Pyrrhic victory.  If she doesn’t enjoy her experience, it’s no reflection on my sense of taste, nor is my review of this book a reflection on hers.  Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.  If we were all the same, it would be a boring world indeed.

White Noise is a 1985 novel, winner of the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.  It is the breakout novel for Don DeLillo, ranked by Time Magazine as one of the “Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.”  All this praise combined with the excitement of a fellow reader led me to believe I was in for a treat.

I could not have been more wrong. I should have looked further into it before readily agreeing to the deal and committing myself blindly.  There’s a moment in Revenge of the Sith where Kenobi and Skywalker step into a simple trap involving ray shields and lament, “Wait a minute.  How did this happen?  We’re smarter than this.”  This pretty much sums up my entire experience with White Noise.  I have no one to blame but myself.  This is what I get for walking into this with no idea of what the novel is actually about, and thus no foreknowledge of whether or not it’s something I could appreciate.  It turns out I’m predisposed to despise this book as a prime example of postmodern literature.

To clarify how I see this train wreck of a classification, postmodern literature is often (but not always) characterized by fragmentation, paradox, an unreliable narrator, and an overwhelming cynicism poorly disguised as wit and cleverness. Sometimes (and usually) it winks at itself in a self-congratulatory manner and occasionally props itself up on this accolade by calling itself metafiction.  Even when it doesn’t do that outright, it still pats itself on the back for looking at the world and perceiving that there is some cosmic joke that the author knows, and the reader will be in on it by the end of the work if they aren’t already.  This is often seen as a response against the dogmatic followings of Enlightenment era thinking and Modernist approaches to literature that developed out of the industrial revolution and World War I.  Most modernists rejected the certainty of Enlightenment thinking and religious belief.  Postmodernists rejected the certainty that there was anything to be certain about.  In short, postmodernism is wishy-washy at best, flapping back and forth in the stench of foul winds.  It tends to appeal to the hopeless, the helpless, and the powerless as a confirmation of a similar worldview that helps these types feel more normal.  “Misery loves company.  I’m miserable… how the hell are ya?”

These trends exist in music and other forms of art as well, and I tend to revile those too. This is why I’m bored stupid by most dystopian fiction.  You want to impress me on that front, give me something that can compete with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or The Planet of the Apes… the classic Charlton Heston version, not that subpar Tim Burton remake.  On a personal note, I’m also locked in perpetual combat against depression.  I understand the human mind is fundamentally a computer.  It does what you program it to do.  Garbage in, garbage out.  If I input cynical and depressing bullshit, my worldview will suffer accordingly, and it will take my mood, my health, and my sanity in rapid succession, soon to be followed by friends and relations, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of stupidity that could be otherwise avoided.  Cynicism is often confused with realism.  There needs to be a balance that we might achieve equilibrium and embrace the full range of human experience.  Of course, to the postmodernist, that experience is dull, lifeless, and empty of anything resembling meaning.  Those who subscribe to the postmodernist viewpoint, as Don DeLillo does, are perpetuating the problem they claim exists all around them.  How smart can you be if you only see the negative in this world?  If you’re reading this review, you’re doing so through the wonder of the internet and all that implies.  Give that a think.  I’m sure you can find the negative, but the fact that it exists at all is pretty damned impressive in my book.  That you can access it means you’re probably not living in abject poverty in some disease-ridden village somewhere.  I’m also willing to bet that odds are good you’re not living in a three foot tiger cage in a jungle surrounded by people who torture you for fun.  Nor are you likely to be living in a bubble, although bubble life doesn’t necessarily mean you’re devoid of internet or a fulfilling life of meaning.  If you’re reading this, you’re likely educated to some level, so you’re literate at some level of competency, which means you have the ability to further your own education as you see fit and read better books.  Feel better about yourself yet?  But people only tend to compare their states of existence to their perception of those they see every day.  In the First World, that means rampant consumerism and keeping up with the Joneses.  This is what White Noise is all about, the futile nature of such an existence, the temporary nature of immediate self-gratification or anything that you’ve built over time.  In other words, this is a fucking joyless read.

I will concede the point that not all books need to be joyful. That’s not the point of literature, though it could be one possible objective along the way.  Literature is supposed to expand our minds and make us think, to make us feel.  It’s a conversation between the author and the reader.  The fact that DeLillo has a point he’s trying to convey is a point in his favor.  It gives the reader something to latch on and consider.  The fact that he takes nearly half the book to begin discussing it means that he needs to be pummeled with his own shoes, often, and by somebody who knows how.  Presumably the first half of the book introduces the ideas that will be built upon by the second half.  That may be true, but the pedantic nature of the “observational” dialogue means that the only things being introduced to the reader are rage and boredom.  I seriously doubt that was DeLillo’s intent.  I think his intent was for me to be gobsmacked with his profound wit and say, “Gee, I never thought of it that way.”  He overruns his own points time and again with more points on other things in a manner so rapid fire that the unwary traveler may feel overwhelmed and “dazzled by bullshit.”  A roommate I had in college was a philosophy major who subscribed to this idea, and he loved to debate me over every little thing.  It got tedious.  He relished the idea that he would be able to make an argument that would leave me a drooling mess in the corner.  He would ambush me from nowhere on the smallest, most insignificant of ideas, hoping to tear me down.  He never found that argument because I’m well-versed at puncturing any world view, including the ones I believe in.  Skewering his just wasn’t a challenge I cared to engage, but I did it anyway because I could, and because 20-year-old me couldn’t leave well enough alone.  42-year-old me still wrestles with this, but I’m getting better all the time.  Sometimes I think I’m on this earth specifically to deflate the egos of people like that.  It’s the only way I can figure that I keep encountering them in above average numbers.  DeLillo’s writing style reminds me a lot of that asshole, except DeLillo’s not that clever.  I also suspect his tastes in music sucks just as much, but that’s not really my issue here.  He harvests the cleverness of others and presents it in a new, but no less coherent, format.  See what he’s doing?  He’s focused on the minutiae of otherwise pathetic and meaningless conversations to prop up his entire worldview that life is stupid.  As a result, it comes across as such to him, thus propping it up.  But because he has to prove his *ahem* genius, he must write a book, share it with others, with proof of his righteousness in cold, hard cash.  If you don’t believe it going in, he’ll make you believe it by the end of it because you’re a simpleton who has to be told what to believe.  Don’t you find that offensive?  I certainly do.  Because it’s a book, it’s a one-sided debate, presented with the delusion of multiple viewpoints through what is laughingly defined as “characters.”  More dazzling, more bullshit.  The man’s got a PhD, I’m sure… Piled Higher and Deeper.  Why else make the protagonist a college professor?  It fits right in with that smug, self-centered worldview.

I don’t claim to be the most well-read or widely-read person on the planet. Far from it.  But I can smell the putrefaction of postmodernism a mile away.  I knew I wouldn’t like White Noise by the end of the first paragraph.  I knew I’d hate it by the end of the first short chapter.  And yet, I soldiered forward, secure in the belief that even if this were the case, I would gain something out of it, and it would be better than Gravity’s Rainbow, which I still consider to be my lowest literary watermark.  And I did get something out of it.  I can’t pretend otherwise.  I got bored and angry in alternating intervals.  I also got mental whiplash from the rapid and frequent changes in subject, all of them as needlessly pedantic as the next.  I got something else out of this too, but I’ll save that for the end of this review.  As I say, there are no characters in this work worth discussing because they are all placeholders for contrived “conversations.”  They are cardboard cutouts painted in a veneer of absurdity, the protagonist being a college professor.  But that’s not enough.  Let’s pile on even more bullshit.  This college professor teaches Hitler studies, but he’s only recently begun trying to learn German.  Isn’t DeLillo clever?  *groan*  The wordplay associated around this gimmick is the intellectual equivalent of the fart joke, rendered impotent by Godwin’s Law.  It’s as lifeless as a popped balloon.  The conversations are, based on my understanding, more or less transposed from real conversations the author has experienced in his own life.  Again, the contagious mantra of postmodernism: “Misery loves company.”  So the author reconfigures this pedantic crap and makes enough money to live on it because readers think he’s clever.  Good on him.  Standup comics do this all the time, and clearly there’s an audience for it.  Humor is subjective, however, and I like my humor to be… well, funny.  Not clever.  Not witty.  As Mel Brooks famously said, “Funny is money.  Wit is shit.”  In the postmodern worldview, shit is money because shit is all there is, and it’s funny to me that so many people buy into that nonsensical view.  I suppose that means I’m seeing the postmodernist world through an additional postmodern lens, but that’s just the depression and anger talking right at the moment.  I’m experienced enough to know how to combat that and will do so as soon as I’m done with this review.  Suck on that, DeLillo.  At least when you hear what he’s selling in a whiny pop song, it tends to be accompanied by a catchy tune, and it lasts only a few minutes.

The best I can say about DeLillo is that he’s at least competent enough as a writer that I can identify his arguments so as to recognize them as bullshit. The truly disappointing thing is that if I’d only read the climax of this book, I’d probably think DeLillo was a profound genius for the briefest candle flicker of a moment and would want to know more about the story so as to get the full impact of the finale.  Knowing the other 95%, and knowing the characters mean absolutely nothing, there is zero impact.  It actually has more meaning if you read it alone because your imagination fills in the possibility that DeLillo is a competent storyteller who cares about such things.  The denouement would tell me ultimately everything I need to know and tear down that illusion as well.  It’s well-written, but it’s still a house of cards that ultimately gets blown over by that aforementioned windy stench.

And then on a personal note, as the denouement begins, there’s a bit of dialogue where a nun tells our protagonist that it’s dumb to believe in angels. The protagonist agrees, and a conversation about beliefs and tradition ensues.  It is quite possibly the only thing of real meaning in this steaming pile of excrement, and the result of it serves only to highlight – in giant neon letters that can be read from space without artificial enhancement – just how empty the author is.  Not just his worldview, but himself as well.  “As above, so below.  As within, so without.”  It’s the world’s oldest axiom, and it holds up every single time. That’s why it’s called an axiom, folks.  It’s not just common sense; it’s the law!  This scene resonates more for me than merely typical postmodernist twaddle, but I suspect that’s all it is to the author.  This is where any resentment and anger I had towards the author instantly turned to pity because he truly sees no wonder or joy in this omniverse to be experienced.  He sees these things as the dominion of the foolish, which he equates with the religious.  I see the distinction, and I think a little foolishness is no bad thing.  It requires a little foolishness to believe you can publish a book and to believe that others would want to read it, wouldn’t you say?  To him, there is wisdom only in cynicism, intelligence only in acknowledging the empty.  He describes a sunset ringing like bronze, and yet he can’t see what a beautiful event that is.  He attempts to wax eloquent about how empty that is.  That’s so very sad.  Basically, DeLillo needs a hug and his binky.  Heaven forbid he should recognize an angel if he saw one, literally or figuratively – your choice, of course.  Your choice.  But it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be pummeled with his own shoes for proliferating this kind of crap.  After all, if a realm without wonder is what he chooses to believe despite all evidence to the contrary, up to and including his own life or his ability to write this book in the first place, then who am I to deny the would-be martyr his great wide world of meh, surrounded by an omniverse of ho-hum?  I do so love a bit of well-deserved irony.

“Crucifixion? Good.  Line on the left, one cross each.”

Not turned off by any of this? Enjoy the smug, cynical, and self-congratulatory?  Think I’m smug, cynical, and full of crap?  Give it a try, see what you think.  It just might be right up your alley.  And if you use Audible, you can always return the book and get your credit back if you find it’s not for you after all.  That’s what I did.  Better reads await.

1 star.  On a lighter note… still better than Pynchon.  Barely, but it’s enough to mention.