What a 1985 Novel Can Tell Us About Life in the 2020s: Almost Everything

Noah Baumbach’s funny and very stylish film adaptation of “White Noise” is a great invitation to return to the source material, Don DeLillo’s novel from almost 40 years ago. When I reread it, I was struck by how hilarious it still is, how accurate to its moment (what in an interview DeLillo called “the particular skin of the late 20th century”) and yet, like all great books, how it also speaks to this moment; the same absurdities and ironies still apply.

“White Noise” is a high comic novel about death, or about fear of death. “White Noise” is a campus novel, “White Noise” is a family romance, “White Noise” is proto-cli-fi, with man-made environmental contaminations. “White Noise” is a critique of corporate capitalism, from branding to malevolent pharmaceutical products. But above all, “White Noise” is about language: the specific language of America in 1985, but also the perpetual way that language is a complicated human gift, an avenue for answering back to the terrible terms (death) of our existence, but also an apparatus that can be deployed to obscure and overwhelm reality. “White Noise” doesn’t have the historical reach of DeLillo’s books “Underworld” or “Libra,” or the international gravitas of “The Names,” all extraordinary novels. It has instead powerful constraints of time, place and people: one academic year in one place, a small, prosperous American college town, and one middle-class white family, both ordinary and not.

“White Noise” is often reductively described as a satire of American consumer culture. And while of course it is satirical, I would argue that it is more deeply alchemic. When DeLillo notices and listens to the world, he arranges its “codes and messages” and transforms chaotic overload into forms that give us meaning and beauty. He takes the common language of the time, such as brand names (“Panasonic”), talk radio, TV voices, advertising, tabloids, bureaucracy (“state-created terminology”), and displaces them or invents his own versions of them so that we can see and hear them. Although writers have long appropriated advertising language to convey the experience of modernity (e.g. Joyce inserting the tagline for Plumtree’s Potted Meat throughout “Ulysses”), DeLillo takes this language to an uncanny, almost mystical level. He uses cadence, patterns, density. Startling insertions and juxtapositions. Spaced out in the novel, often in its own paragraph apropos of nothing before it, we get lines of three brand names separated by commas: “Dacron, Orlon, Lycra Spandex,” “Mastercard, Visa, American Express,” “Tegrin, Denorex, Selsun Blue.” The pattern is constructed, artful. One notices the rhythm, the beats, the pleasing feel in the mouth. Names dislocated from their usual places, set in a novel, made into poetry.

He frequently interrupts the action with lines (either found or invented) from TV and radio. He even uses speech tags: “I heard the TV say: ‘Let’s sit half lotus and think about our spines.’” And: “The TV said: ‘This creature has developed a complicated stomach in keeping with its leafy diet.’” Such insertions of random language occur all the time in real life, yet we absorb and don’t notice them. But of course, these aren’t random when we read them in “White Noise.” They are chosen, arranged, invented for us to laugh at but also to listen closely to.

Perhaps the apotheosis of the mimetic but highly constructed comes in the dialogue of this family, overlapping, associative, argumentative, perfectly evoking the intimate secret systems of familial language. DeLillo takes his remarkable receiver for how people speak to one another and then turns up the embedded absurdity to a higher, stylized pitch. This is very funny and evokes the “pockets of rapport forming unexpectedly … we were a magic act, adults and children together, sharing unaccountable things.”

Credit…Emiliano Ponzi

The book’s attention to the “unlocatable roar” of our age also plays out in how the characters react to events in which language both identifies and obscures what is happening. When a plane starts to hurtle to earth, the pilot on the intercom blurts: “We’re falling out of the sky! We’re going down! We’re a silver gleaming death machine!” A plane crashing becomes a machine of death, but DeLillo’s insertion of “silver gleaming” is unexpected, ridiculous, what makes it so funny. We believe and trust technology because humans like gleaming things. It is also funny because an unspoken truth has been hurled like an exaltation, an orgasm. Desire for safety extends until it reveals its inherent absurdity: Simuvac runs simulated evacuations, but the simulations seem more real to people than the actual emergencies because the danger is only evident in their own bodies rather than via official channels and technical personnel. What is first described as a “feathery plume,” then “a black billowing cloud,” finally becomes the “airborne toxic event,” as tracking each iteration or recitation becomes more powerful than the experience of the thing itself. When the children start reporting their symptoms to their parents, they are informed that they are exhibiting “outdated symptoms,” as the news reportage is more attended than the actual experience. Characters lose their ability to use language to discern meaning or even to make sense of what is happening in the world. And there is Dylar, a drug that has the side effect of making people unable to “distinguish between words and things.”

And yet, the book’s close examination exposes a luminous aura that is both real and ironic. After contamination, the sunsets last for hours and are so vivid that they take people out of their everyday concerns the way a cathedral might have in another time. Things are degraded, absurd, but at the same time they are almost sacred. The supermarket is a place of everyday excess. Yet it glows with light, full of “blasts of color, layers of oceanic sound.” And, my favorite: “Children sailed by in silver carts.” “Toyota Celica” spoken by a child in her sleep is an utterance “gold-shot with looming wonder.” Like Simon Rodia, the immigrant artist who built the Watts Towers out of found and broken stuff (a feat described in “Underworld”), DeLillo is taking the detritus of American culture, the ordinary things we hear and say, the appliances and technology that shape us, and extending his precise noticing until it transforms how we see ourselves within our world.

All these feats of linguistic alchemy make it so that when you finish “White Noise,” you see the “colloquial density” in a new way. You now understand what people mean when they notice something in real life and describe it as DeLillo-esque. And things have only become more DeLillo-esque.

While “White Noise” is intentionally specific to 1985, the tendencies described have only intensified. The global pandemic had its own ever-shifting language that felt akin to being told that we were exhibiting “outdated symptoms.” The appliances DeLillo listened to (“the thermostat began to buzz”) now literally speak (and listen, unnervingly) to us. TV with its “narcotic undertow and eerie diseased brain-sucking power” has been supplanted by the internet and iPhones, but we are more than ever overloaded by “the incessant bombardment of information” described in the novel. A bombardment we absorb but don’t notice. More than ever “we are the sum total of our data.” I put my finger on my touchscreen and tap the New York Times app. I see a headline: How the Global Spyware Industry Spiraled Out of Control. Right under it is the next headline, 20 Cookie Videos That Will Put You in the Holiday Spirit. If I push down a quarter-inch on the screen, I see an ad: Unisys — Don’t follow business trends. Lead them. With the words “break through” in a click button. If I notice the ad at all, I think: What behavior-tracking algorithm got me so wrong? But also: Maybe the algorithm knows more about me than I know about me? That self-reflexivity, if you can bother to form it into a sentence, is the beginning of something shaped like a joke that maybe saves you from total annihilation. The same tensions DeLillo mined so eloquently still grip us. How to be human amid the ubiquity and velocity of data, the endless streams of non sequiturs, the static of modern life. By delineating precisely what it was/is like to be alive then/now, DeLillo lights up the everyday world that we don’t see as we live it, the white noise all around us.

Dana Spiotta’s most recent novel is “Wayward.”

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