Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Friday, 28 August 2009

"White Noise" by Don DeLillo (Viking Penguin, 1984)

2 pages in, all's ok - the suspense of whether this author can write is resolved. Layers of irony are unapologetically applied. Implausibly bright post-LisaSimpson children spar with their parents.

The theme is death in the modern world, the world of supermarkets and TV. In supermarkets, "nonbrand items in plain white packages" are "the last avant-garde. Bold new forms. The power to shock" (p.19). The TVs usually on somewhere in the house, a voice from upstairs. Heinrich tells them that radio and TV causes deformed babies (p.175). Murray says that data's dangerous. Children and TV often appear together

  • "I watched Steffie in front of the TV set. She moved her lips, attempting to match the words as they were spoken" (p.84)
  • "The small boy remained at the TV set, within inches of the dark screen, crying softly, uncertainly, in low heaves and swells, as Murray took notes" (p.105)
  • "They're beginning to feel they ought to turn against [TV], exactly as an earlier generation turned against their parents and their country" (p.50)
  • When a child says "Toyota Celica" in her sleep he realises it's one of the "Supranational names, computer-generated, more or less universally pronounceable. Part of every child's brain noise" (p.155)
We have the white and the noise of the title in these extracts, later meeting the main theme
  • X-ray - "It is when death is rendered graphically, is televised so to speak, that you sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself" (p.142)
  • "What if death is nothing but sound?" "Electrical noise." "You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful." "Uniform, white." (p.198)

The white theme is emphasised by snow, and the belief by UFOs. These themes combine too

  • [Mr Gray the composite] "A little like extraterrestrials" (p.241)
  • "You are very white, you know that?" "It's because I'm dying" (p.310)

Throughout there is comedy, peaking above realism during the toxic event. There may be knowing asides whose meaning escapes me - "I knew she reviewed fiction for the CIA, mainly long serious novels with coded structures" (p.213). The choice of brandnames - "Dylar", "Mylex" - probably isn't accidental either. There's a Germanic thread too - he's a Hilter expert trying to hide his lack of German. He meets German shepherd dogs, German nuns, etc.

Reading "Are you saying that men have tried throughout history to cure themselves of death by killing other?" (p.290) I thought there'd be a suicide (it would explain the otherwise disconnected father-in-law section, which introduced a gun), or maybe a suicide pact. By p.300 I assumed that Mink would be murdered. Finally though, the child who's unaware of death defies death and we're back in the supermarket.

The tone manages to harness together pretentious/clever dialog and comedy with mortality and observation. Worth studying.

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