Beige, flavorless oatmeal, boring, these were the words that spun circles in my brain as I read White Noise by Don DeLillo. I went in with no expectations having never heard of him or any of his work, though through some research I discovered that he is considered a literary genius of the 20th century. I honestly don’t see it. Nothing could have prepared me for the level of eye droopage I would suffer in reading this book over the course of a week and half. My sole motivation in finishing was really to have it read by the time my book club meeting came around, that was it. Nothing sustained me, nothing about this story kept me going. It was through sheer force of will that I managed to finish at all.
It’s hard to discuss the plot, because I wasn’t really certain what that was exactly aside from death playing a key role. The main character is Jack Gladney who is on his fifth marriage, fourth wife. See Jack teach Hitler studies at the local college. See Babette, Jack’s wife, read to blind people. See their four intermixed offspring say obnoxious shit that no child would ever say. This is the basis of their lives. There is nothing more to them and unless you pay particular attention you will forget who is speaking when dialogue appears because every single character, be them male, female, adult, or child, all sound exactly alike. Monotonous, self-righteous, and brilliant (but only to them).
The first time something even dancing on the precipice of interesting happens is when the “Airborne Toxic Event” occurs, but even the first introduction of it is eclipsed by the author’s need to, through his characters, express how intelligent he is. Denying what is right in front of you does not make you wise, it makes you a fucking moron. Jack waits until the last second to evacuate his family, which ultimately causes him to be exposed to whatever chemical has spilled into the air. If it were me, I would have taken my kids and left his ass to stew in the house expressing to the silence how fucking brilliant he is for not losing himself in the frenzy of wanting to be safe.
GOOD POINT: I learned that the band Airborne Toxic Event got their name from this book. I actually stopped and googled it because I wanted to see if they had in fact done that. They did. Here’s my favorite song by them. Sometime Around Midnight.
We get this long sequence of them joining other refugees evacuating from the chemical spill, first in a boy scout camp and then fleeing across an interstate or something. It’s within this chaos that Jack learns that his exposure to the cloud will result in his death. When and how it will happen is left ambiguous to the point of my screaming at the book, “so it’s inevitable that he will die like fucking every other person on the planet?” This book was really just trying too hard to be smart and relevant and I bet the author was smugly tapping away at his typewriter going, “This is the best thing EVER!” So smart, much WOW.
Jack and his family go back to their boring as shit lives, but he notices that something is off. His wife isn’t herself and for some reason when he speaks to her now it’s in the third person, which adding this to the monotony of the dialogue makes it completely confusing/unbearable to read. He discovers that his wife has this anxiety riddled fear of death that she has been taking a drug for that isn’t even out on the market. She received this medication from a man in a motel whom she fucks a bunch in order to get her drugs.
GOOD POINT: I’m not here to claim adultery or cheating in any fashion is good, but god damn I was just happy that something was happening in this story. She cheats on her husband in order to get medication that she isn’t even sure will work. I also enjoyed the fact that her little nosy kid called her out on it. (The drug use, not the cheating part).
This is all because not only does she have a fear of death, but she has a fear of her husband dying before her. So what does Jack do? He explains that there is no point for her to worry because he is going to die before her anyway because of the exposure. This doesn’t immediately cure her and he is flabbergasted as to why not. I hate his character, but not as much as I hate their kids.
Jack comes to the conclusion that he needs to take the drug in order to cure his own fear of death and then everything will be fan-fucking-tastic. Of course to do this he has to find the man that was boinking his wife. We get a lot of daydream scenes where Jack envisions Babette with this guy and you can kind of see how it would make someone crazy, but Jack seems perfectly fine about it. It gets to the point that I wonder why bring up these scenes at all if he is just going to brush it aside like a mere annoyance.
He asks Babette for the man’s information and she refuses, because and I quote, “I made a promise.” Guess your wedding vows were just chop liver then hey Babette? Eventually Jack does discover the company who is working on the pill and the man, who is now living out of that motel. Before seeking him out however, Jack’s friend and colleague suggests that to get over his fear of death he needs to steal the life from someone else. Murder, his friend is straight up suggesting murder and Jack actually takes the suggestion seriously.
He attempts to murder the man that fucked his wife, but fails miserably which I honestly saw coming. In a bizarre turn of events he forgives the guy, leaves him alive, and then just goes home and crawls into bed with his wife. That’s it.
There is nothing remarkable to this story and I’m not sure that is really the point, though I have seen some people claim it is. Look, I’m not an idiot, but I realize I’m not a scholar either, so I could have missed something. But I strongly STRONGLY doubt it. The characters are annoying at the best of times, the writing is bland and you have to sift through it like sand in an endless desert, and you just don’t know where the author is trying to get you to go. There are also weird references to brand names that come out of no where. Again, I think this is the author trying to be clever and just missing the mark entirely.
I think some people like this because it’s supposed to be this amazing portrait of what life is like in the 20th Century, but that isn’t even true. This is one perspective and it is a perspective that is clearly a very white old CIS gender straight male who probably has wet dreams about Leave it to Beaver. There is literally a line in the book during the Airborne Toxic Event where Jack says something to the effect of, “We live on the hill, we have money, I teach at the college, stuff like a chemical spill doesn’t happen to people like us.” This story does not encompass all stories during this time period. There are vast differences between people and to claim otherwise is not only false, but just pathetic especially in 2018. This book does not hold up, nor should it.
BAD POINT: Let’s play a game called The Dialogue Sounds the Same!
“What do you want to do?” she said. “Whatever you want to do.” “I want to do whatever’s best for you.” “What’s best for me is to please you,” I said. “I want to make you happy, Jack.” “I’m happy when I’m pleasing you.” “I just want to do what you want to do.” “I want to do whatever’s best for you.” “But you please me by letting me please you,” she said. “As the male partner I think it’s my responsibility to please.” “I’m not sure if whether that’s a sensitive caring statement or a sexist remark.”
2 Out Of 5 Stars
Read This Instead:
Book Review: This is Me: Loving the Person You Are Today by Chrissy Metz
Book Review: A Mark Unwilling (The Reckoning #1) by Candace Wondrak