I’m attempting to remember the last novel I read that was just a pure powerhouse in every facet. Probably Infinite Jest. I’ve read other absolutely outstanding novels since; ones that I can’t say that there was anything wrong with whatsoever. However, there exists another level of the novel, for me. So when I rate Things Fall Apart with a perfect score, that doesn’t mean it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever read. In fact, if I were to release a list of my favorite books of the year, it might surprise some people that I would put some books ahead of others that I have actually “rated” higher. The whole scoring system on this blog is bunk. That’s what I am trying to say. I keep it going so I don’t just lapse into being a reviewer that you can only tell if they loved it or hated it, and there is no inbetween.
Now, I must also go into a small wondering of just how I avoided Don Delillo until now. You see, he pops up on every list of great authors. He almost always tops the show on “postmodern” fiction writers when the subject is brought up. Yet for some reason I have just decided that Don Delillo was someone I would get to later. This, my friends, was a mistake. If White Noise is any indication of Don Delillo’s style as an author, not some aberration where an author has one outstanding book and flounders from then on out, then I question why someone has not sat me down and plainly forced me to read his complete works.
White Noise is a novel about death and family. It is just that simple. Delillo isn’t doing anything that complicated here. The novel is presented from the view of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies who can’t speak German. He and his wife are obsessed with death and have almost weekly runnings into it. Primarily, they both want to die before the other one does. The novel’s plot hinges upon one of them taking this obsession with death and the fear of it as something that can be treated as if it were a simple sickness.
It becomes difficult to explain what makes the novel so enthralling. I don’t think any of the characters are particularly lovable, but Gladney’s interactions with all of them feel so genuine and real that you do deeply care for them. I don’t want to give off the impression that the novel is full of an immense swath of characters. It’s not. In fact the book is interesting in that it primarily takes place in a home and bases itself on the interactions between family members. Delillo’s writing comes alive in dialogue and he is aware of it, choosing to spend the majority of the book in conversation rather than description or narrative. Each conversation that Gladney has with his wife Babette, or his son Heinrich, or his daughter Denise, is perfectly executed. This all is a fascinating exploration of not just the nature of the family dynamic, but what is created by the family dynamic. Namely, that the family thrives off of it’s own myth. That it becomes a world of laws within the world that helps to stave off reality itself, no matter what type of family it is:
“The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error. Over-closeness, the noise and heat of being. Perhaps even something deeper like the need to survive. Murray says we are fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts. Facts threaten our happiness and security. The deeper we delve into things, the looser our structure may seem to become. The family process works towards sealing off the world. Small errors grow heads, fictions proliferate. I tell Murray that ignorance and confusion can’t possibly be the driving forces behind family solidarity. What an idea, what a subversion. He asks me why the strongest family units exist in the least developed societies. Not to know is a weapon of survival, he says. Magic and superstition become entrenched as the powerful orthodoxy of the clan. The family is strongest where objective reality is most likely to be misinterpreted. What a heartless theory, I say. But Murray insists it’s true.”
Don Delillo, White Noise
Delillo’s thoughtful but easy-going observations make White Noise next to impossible to put down. I don’t think it just too far off to simply say that the novel is just Don Delillo explaining the the honest-to-God truth of things to the people who bother to read him. Nothing is overly intellectual or elitist or opaque. He avoids such potential pitfalls completely. As I searched for the right comparison of another author to bring to mind as an example, no one is very much like him. It would be impossible to be without forcing it. It’s difficult to imagine someone being “like” Don Delillo. It’s easy, though, to imagine someone trying to be like Don Delillo. He is like Hemingway with Existential Humor. The style is dry but it just works. His jokes are on point consistently, hitting their marker without fail.
You will think about death while reading this novel, and that’s a good thing. It shouldn’t scare you away. And when you worry that he might be going into a contrived space, he doesn’t. It is almost like he is simply presenting you with your options on what to believe to make you feel better about death. What ways can you go to get a better handle on the fact that you will die? Does death make life meaningful, because you then know that life ends? If that is true then why wouldn’t someone want to know when they will die? What if the charade we call life is just a big way for us all to avoid coming to terms with death?
“That’s what it all comes down to in the end,” he said. “A person spends his life saying good-bye to other people. How does he say good-bye to himself?”
Don Delillo, White Noise
This novel is almost in a league with East of Eden and Infinite Jest for me. White Noise feels beyond perfect. It is an unmistakable masterpiece.
Recommended to: Those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. I realize now how even that language is exclusive in some manner. No one should avoid this book.
Avoid as if it were a Browns-Jaguars Monday Night Football Matchup: Just read this book.