Friday, March 28, 2014

White Noise by Don DeLillo

Published: 1985
Literary period: post modern

White Noise is the thirtieth book on The Well-Educated Mind novel list.
Part of the TWEM reading challenge involves answering questions.  I have chosen one question from each stage of reading to answer.

Grammar Stage: What is the most important event in which the main character changes? 

Jack, a middle-aged man afraid of dying, thinks he can eliminate his fear by controlling and overpowering death – that is, by killing someone.  (It sounds heavy, but the novel is a humorous satire).  Leading up to the plan to kill, the most important event happens: his plot backfires, literally.

Logic Stage: What does the main character want, and what does he do to get it? 

Jack wants to eliminate his fear of death because it is stifling his desire to live. He learns that Babette, his wife, also has a fear of death and is secretly taking a tablet (medicine) – not on the market - to remove the fear from her mind, as it claims to do. 

Jack wants to see if the tablet will work for him, but Babette refuses to tell him how to get it.  He plots to seek out the distributor and kill him (for a personal reason), but only after obtaining the tablets; this is where it backfires. Instead of carrying out his plan on a higher conscious level, he succumbs to reality. Because of this complication, Jack hypothetically accepts that at some point he is going to die; he just does not want to know when (or how).  

Instead, Jack finds ways to cope: he avoids his doctor whose only purpose is to probe and inform him on "how his death is progressing."  

Another comfort is his youngest son, Wilder, who gives him joy because he is completely ignorant of danger. Wilder can truly live because he has no concept of death, and Jack can experience peace through him.

Rhetoric Stage: What is the author trying to tell us?  Do you agree?

DeLillo is telling us we are losing our humanness because we are inundated with intrusive product advertisement, obsessive consumerism, useless technology, unnecessary health and environmental practices, false predictions, even man-made religions that purport to change us, save us, protect us, make us better, healthier, and definitely happier. 

Instead, we feel, think, and behave like robots, emotionless, disconnected, unenlightened, and unable to communicate within the natural human systems of family and community.  I like what Jack’s son, Heinrich, says to him: 
We think we’re so great and modern…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 [a Stone Ager] one little crucial thing that might save a million and a half lives?...But nobody actually knows anything.
Throughout the novel, DeLillo slips words inside of dialogue or moments of contemplation that appear out of place, almost like a humming background noise, in order to simulate what the characters feel like: distracted and over stimulated.

What does that have to do with a fear of death? Well, there is this part when Jack reveals his fear to a colleague.  She says, 
I think it’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death.  Isn’t death the boundary we need?  Doesn’t it give a precious texture to life, a sense of definition?  You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry of a final line, a border or limit.  
Jack reluctantly understands.

But people cannot know their sense of death or fear of it if they have a distorted view of life, which is because they are constantly bombarded with distractions, fear, insecurity, confusion, and lies about life, preventing a healthy connection to reality and truth. 

In the story, everyone has his own way of dealing with death.  Some face it head on, taunt it, or try to beat it; others embrace it.  Jack is in the process of determining how to deal with his: coping, for now. 
Forget the medicine in that tablet.  There is no medicine, obviously.
...says his wise colleague.

I will deal with the question: Do you agree? later. To be continued...


Anonymous said...

What did you make of Hitler Studies?

Ruth said...

At first, it did not seem unusual, but as I got to know Jack, I found him to be feeble and weak, and his image as a big man on campus sort of fizzled. He did not know the German language, he was sweating in a room full of other intellects, and lots of other examples.

So I guess to answer your question, the Hitler studies were like a facade for Jack to hide who he really was.

Anonymous said...

I just put up an old review/analysis I did of White Noise on the blog if you want to check it out.

Robertstone said...

The second point narrows the focus to the chapter called "The Movie" that kicks off Players. There, DeLillo is obviously using the technique of cinematic narrative known as foreshadowing. I would like to suggest, however, that in this case it does nothing to advance the narrative at all, nor does it enhance the plot, any sense of suspense, our understanding of the characters or the themes, or anything else. I believe it exists in the novel purely for purposes of style, only to heighten our sense of aesthetic appreciation; it stands as a testament to the degree of care, planning, preparation, and levels of concentration and attention that went into the writing of this novel.

John Updike said...

Signs and signage – road signs, movie marquees, newspaper headlines real and imaginary, municipal signs, electronic message boards, storefronts, etc. – function as important indicators of the shifts, changes, and developments in Angstrom’s consciousness as he grows older throughout the decades chronicled in Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ series. Perhaps I should say Angstrom’s awareness of the signs, or, to be a bit more accurate, Updike’s descriptions of Angstrom’s awareness of the signs, rather than the signs themselves.

Sapna said...

In the early twentieth century, in his series of lectures entitled Pragmatism, the philosopher and psychologist William James advanced the thesis that, broadly speaking, people can be separated into two general categories of personality – tough minded and tender minded.[1] Here are these two classes as described by James in his own words.