“The world is full of abandoned meanings.”
White Noise takes place in a realm one small step removed from an easily recognisable reality – or “just outside the range of human apprehension”, as DeLillo puts it. On face value none of its characters or events are quite credible – the characters are too eloquent, the scenes too stage managed. Why, for example, would people choose to go out in the open on foot to escape from a toxic cloud? Why not get in their cars or simply stay barricaded in their homes? So DeLillo can give us an image of a nomad biblical exodus because Delillo wants to strip down humanity to its rudiments in this novel – the fear of death and subsequent gullibility it induces to submit to all kinds of generalised information that will keep us safe. He wants to show us how information is used to cower us into a herd mentality. The Hitler warning always stalking the outer corridors of the novel. “Put on a uniform and feel bigger, stronger, safer”.
White Noise, on the surface, is DeLillo’s most orthodox novel. First person narrative. Straightforward chronology. Mainly domestic setting. Lots of humour. The novel’s white noise is the endless stream of (mis)information we are subjected to in our lives. Data has a viral role in this novel. Data that rarely translates into wisdom. The narrator Jack Gladney’s oldest son articulates this theme brilliantly: “What can we do to make life easier for the Stone Agers? Can we make a refrigerator? Can we even explain how it works? What is electricity? What is light? We experience these things every day of our lives but what good does it do if we find ourselves hurled back in time and we can’t even tell people the basic principles much less actually make something that would improve conditions. Name one thing you could make. Could you make a simple wooden match that you could strike on a rock to make a flame? We think we’re so great and modern. Moon landings, artificial hearts. But what if you were hurled into a time warp. If a Stone Ager asked you what a nucleotide is, could you tell him? How do we make carbon paper? What is glass? If you came awake tomorrow in the Middle Ages and there was an epidemic raging, what could you do to stop it, knowing what you know about the progress of medicines and diseases? Here it is practically the twenty-first century and you’ve read hundreds of books and magazines and seen a hundred TV shows about science and medicine. Could you tell those people one little crucial thing that might save a million and a half lives?”
Children, still unencumbered by fear of death, are better (and more mysterious) filters of information in the novel than the fear-stricken adults. The adults are both blinded and deafened by the wall of white noise of ubiquitous multimedia information because “the deeper we delve into the nature of things, the looser our structure may seem to become.” The children therefore often have to resist what passes as wisdom in the parents. “The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation.”
As he becomes much more intimate with the advent of his own death Gladney begins finally to glean wisdom from information. “The air was rich with extrasensory material. Nearer to death, nearer to second sight. I continued to advance in consciousness. Things glowed, a secret life rising out of them.”
White Noise, not quite the masterpiece that is Underworld, is a brilliant achievement, his second best novel.