White Noise by Don DeLillo (Penguin, $16)
I have a reading list that no one knows about, a dark little secret list I assume all serious readers keep but don't advertise: Books I Should Already Have Read.
Don DeLillo's White Noise falls into that category.
The novel, which has been out for 25 years, was recently reissued by Penguin Classics in a Deluxe Edition with an introduction by the novelist Richard Powers.
Powers loved the book when it came out in 1985 and still loves it today: "The publication of White Noise ... placed Don DeLillo at the center of contemporary cultural imagination. I can think of few books written in my lifetime that have received such quick and wide acclaim while going on to exercise so deep an influence for decades thereafter. I can think of even fewer books more likely to remain essential guides to life in the Information Age, another quarter century on."
My exposure to DeLillo was limited. I had read (or attempted to, anyway) Underworld, after reading about it in the New York Times Book Review. The opening section of that book is a tour de force, a wild ride through America of the 1950s that features cameo appearances by Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason and a more substantial role for J. Edgar Hoover. Much of the section is set in Brooklyn, at the Dodgers vs. Giants game that produced Bobby Thompson's "shot heard round the world."
Reading that first section was exhilarating. I might even, one day, return to it. But something happened along the rest of my journey through the over-long Underworld: I stopped caring about the characters in the book and then, finally, about the book itself.
Though mightily praised upon its release in 1997, Underworld was not universally loved. At the time, critic James Wood complained, "To call Underworld, Don DeLillo's large novel, a failure might seem an act of slightly flirtatious irrelevance. The book is so large, so serious, so ambitious, so often well written, so punctually intelligent, that it produces its own antibodies and makes criticism a small germ. Moreover, Don DeLillo's huge endeavor represents a promise to restock the novel's wasting pedigree in our age, and few want to see the promise broken. It is easy, and rightly so, for big books to flush away criticism.
"But DeLillo's novel, despite chapters of great brilliance, does not gather its local victories as a book this large should. Instead, it enforces relations between its parts which it cannot coax. Curiously, it is at once distractingly centrifugal and dogmatically centripetal: Its many characters dissolve an intensity which the novel insists on repeating."
I couldn't agree more. And the same criticism, Richard Powers notwithstanding, could be applied to White Noise, which is brilliant in some of its parts but fails to captivate (at least this reader) in a way that makes finishing the novel a priority or even a possibility.
Powers raises the question, Should a novel, any novel, attempt to be a "guide" (essential or otherwise) to life in a given era or age?
To which I would answer, Not if the aforementioned novel sets out to be a guide. For starters, even the best novelist can only give you his or her interpretation of an age. Hemingway's Paris is utterly unlike Jean Rhys' Paris though they lived there at nearly the same time. And the writers of guide books inevitably do what is poison to the novelist: they preach, they become didactic, they set themselves above the reader.
Still, White Noise does, like all of DeLillo's novels, have its deathless moments of insight. What with the disaster in Haiti fresh in my mind, I was especially struck by DeLillo's contemplation of media coverage of natural disasters.
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 sensitive 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 crackles and ignite in a mass of advancing lava. Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping.
When Jack Gladney gets to work the following day (at The College-on-the-Hill) he discusses with his colleagues our obsession with natural disasters on television. Alfonse Stompanato, the chair of the "American Environments" Department, explains:
The flow is constant. Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.
This is not only screamingly funny, but also eerie. Substitute Haiti for California and listen to Pat Robertson talk about that country's pact with Satan to overthrow the French, and we have, yet again, morbid fascination coupled with the sense that the Haitians' doom is somehow "warranted."