I must confess to being a bit of a snob when it comes to ‘literature’. Since much of my experience reading contemporary works has been somewhat disappointing while much of the works I’ve read from the early 20th century have been gratifying, I didn’t expect to enjoy a book published in 1985.
White Noise was just the pleasant surprise I was waiting for. Classified as post-modern, I initially feared I was entering sci-fi terrain, but it seemed to be in a class all on its own. DeLillo’s style is finely honed and his ability to capture everyday details without being obtrusive was very refreshing.
The very interesting narrator, Jack Gladney, is the Department Chair of Hitler studies at the College on the Hill. He resides with his fifth wife and some of their respective children and their young son. All seems normal as family members meet their days in their own unique ways and everyone seems to genuinely care for one another. A train derailment and subsequent black toxic cloud, however, causes this already forthright family to become even more candid, with themselves and with each other. Not seeming to take itself too seriously, the subtle ironic undertones allow the reader to smirk while the various characters face potential calamity.
Jack Gladney is still the marrying kind at age 51. His four previous marriages (two to the same woman) were to women whose work involved various forms of Intelligence. The ties that bind him to his current wife are their mutual fear of death. He deals with his family and colleagues with patience and courtesy, more of a listener than a speaker, but this allows him to observe what others might not. Not exactly a knight in shining armor, but an admirable man, the kind of guy you’d want as a father, brother, husband or friend.
Jack’s fourth wife is Babette who cares deeply for her husband and their extended family. Unlike her husband’s previous wives, she spends a lot of time in the home and teaches Posture to the elderly and reads to a blind neighbor. Her shared fear of death has reached a crescendo, unknown to her husband, and she is resorting to very questionable methods of dealing with her phobia.
Heinrich is Jack’s 14-year-old son. An intelligent, but pedantic young man, he seems to use his knowledge to combat his impending puberty and premature receding hairline. Fortunately, his family accepts him and allows him to forge his own road. The type of person who could get pretty annoying until there is an emergency.
I’d have to ask Mr. DeLillo if he keeps a notebook to jot down all he observes. Since much of what he has written can be considered commentary, I’d ask how he chooses among so many issues. Perhaps we could meet at a rally, he incognito and just see where the day takes us.
My rating for White Noise is a 9 out of 10.
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