The horrors of 1984 did not emerge quite in the form that Orwell imagined, reminding us that novelists are usually more gifted with hindsight than with prescience. Many novelists confess to feeling that there are certain things they dare not write, for fear they will come true, and can tell you of things they have written which have afterward happened, proving, if not prescience, the power of wishes. Novelists stay away from prediction. Not to make too much of the “airborne toxic event” in Don DeLillo’s new novel, White Noise, and the Bhopal tragedy it anticipates, but it is the index of DeLillo’s sensibility, so alert is he to the content, not to mention the speech rhythms, dangers, dreams, fears, etc., of modern life that you imagine him having to spend a certain amount of time in a quiet, darkened room. He works with less lead time than other satirists, too—we should have teen-age suicide and the new patriotism very soon—and this must be demanding. But here, as in his other novels, his voice is authoritative, his tone characteristically light. In all his work he seems less angry or disappointed than some critics of society, as if he had expected less in the first place, or perhaps his marvelous power with words is compensation for him.
White Noise is a meditation on themes of whiteness—the pallor of death, and white noise, the sound, so emblematic of modern life, that is meant to soothe human beings by screening out the other, more irritating noises of their civilization. The hero and narrator is Jack Gladney, chairman of Hitler Studies at a small eastern university:
We are quartered in Centenary Hall, a dark brick structure we share with the popular culture department, known officially as American environments. A curious group. The teaching staff is composed almost solely of New York émigrés, smart, thuggish, movie-mad, trivia-crazed. They are here to decipher the natural language of the culture, to make a formal method of the shiny pleasures they’d known in their Europe-shadowed childhoods—an Aristotelianism of bubble gum wrappers and detergent jingles.
Jack is married to Babette, and they have a number of children from their former marriages. Babette, normally a wholesome, cheerful woman, has taken to sneaking a certain pill, and when challenged denies it. Next, a toxic leak obliges them to evacuate their house and exposes Jack to a chemical cloud which may or will kill him in an unknown length of time.
Now he is seized by the fear of death. He learns that mortality is Babette’s preoccupation too, and that she has volunteered as an experimental subject to take a pill being developed to relieve this fear. She has been giving herself to the drug company man, in a shabby motel, on a regular basis, to ensure her continuing supply.
Will Jack be able to discover what Babette’s taking? Will he be able to get a supply for himself? Is he really going to die of the whiff of Nyodene Derivative? Will he go through with his plan to kill Willie Mink, the drug company man, to revenge Babette and steal the Dylar pills? This is the armature upon which DeLillo hangs a series of observations, descriptions, jokes, and dialogues, approximately Socratic, on sundry great and lesser subjects:
“Did you ever spit in your soda bottle so you wouldn’t have to share your drink with the other kids?”
“How old were you when you first realized your father was a jerk?”
“Exactly how elevated is my potassium?”
As we read fiction, we are always aware of the operative formal principle—it’s either “life” (meandering, inconclusive) or “plot,” as in this novel, where the fortune or fate of an individual is opposed to a conspiracy, to a plot within the plot, which serves as a metaphor for the world itself, organized against you, clever, wickedly determined on its own usually illegal ends, and in this mirroring the illicit desires of our own hearts. Thus the pirates, spy rings, smugglers, dope pushers, CIA, criminal organizations, high-up secret governmental department, terrorist cadre, heartless chemical industry we find in some of the most interesting recent fiction, conspirators representing in microcosm the hostile confusion and formless menace of the big world. A novel whose plot contains a plot might be the postmodern novel, an adaptation of an earlier model of fiction, from before the era of the fiction of the self, when we had novels of the person in society or the universe, making his or her way, and making judgments on it. It is a distinguished tradition from Gulliver to Greene, but harder than ever to succeed in, now that plots demand an extreme imagination if they are to surpass what is furnished by mere reality.
“Remember that time you asked me about a secret research group? Working on fear of death? Trying to perfect a medication?…Such a group definitely existed. Supported by a multinational giant. Operating in the deepest secrecy in an unmarked building just outside Iron City.”
“Why deepest secrecy?”
“It’s obvious. To prevent espionage by competitive giants. The point is they came very close to achieving their objective.”
All of Don DeLillo’s fictions contain these conspiratorial models of the world. In Players two Yuppies get mixed up with urban terrorists. In Running Dog a porn ring tries to get its hands on a dirty home movie reputed to have been made in the bunker. In Great Jones Street a drug syndicate pursues a depressed rock star who unwittingly possesses their stash. Chemical substances and commodities, like the conspiracies, and like the dustheaps in Dickens, embody the moral defects of the society that produces them.
In White Noise the conspirators try to find a drug that will take away the fear of death from a society that is fixedly preoccupied with producing death, but the motive is profit. Sometimes the desire for power, or to possess the substance for its own sake, moves the plot, but the Dickensian themes of mistaken, lost, or found identity, themes that have dominated novels ever since the nineteenth century, are deliberately effaced—another gloss on the modern situation. Perhaps a vestige of the struggle for place, that other Victorian obsession, can be seen in Jack’s efforts to stake out an academic niche for himself as chairman of Hitler Studies.
One finds these plots, these themes, in other contemporary novels—by Robert Stone, or Gore Vidal (in his Duluth or Kalki mode), or Joan Didion, and however one might long for the affirmative charm of, say, Grace Paley, one can’t but admit that these are powerful observers.
Our newspaper is delivered by a middle-aged Iranian driving a Nissan Sentra. Something about the car makes me uneasy—the car waiting with its headlights on, at dawn, as the man places the newspaper on the front steps. I tell myself I have reached an age, the age of unreliable menace. The world is full of abandoned meanings. In the commonplace I find unexpected themes and intensities.
Of course people are by no means agreed that the world is a suitable subject for fiction. The distinguished Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley objects to DeLillo’s topical agenda: “Could there be a more predictable catalogue of trendy political themes: radiation, addiction to violence, television as religion, the trivialization of suffering, the vulgarity of America?” But is topicality only transmogrified into art by the passage of time? Without a willingness to engage the problems of the world around him, we would not have the novels of Dickens, just as, without an acid tone and interest in abstraction, we would not have the novels of Voltaire, or Peacock, or Huxley. Yardley complains, like others, about “fiction as op-ed material….a novel that simply does not work as fiction, which is the novelist’s first artistic obligation.” The difficulty seems to lie in the definition of fiction: “None of the characters acquires any genuine humanity.”
Along with the novel of plot and the novel of character, certain old-fashioned theorists of the novel would sometimes speak of the novel of ideas, implying that it was a special taste, and that there is something distinct, if not antithetical, about ideas and the kind of narrative pleasure one derives from less abstract and more simply suspenseful stories: what will happen next? Perhaps the novel of ideas cannot be as exciting, if the ideas demand, like badly brought-up children, to be noticed. Perhaps, even, the reader’s awareness of the restless and skeptical intelligence of the author may in some absolute sense operate against such reader responses as sympathy and identification. One is always slightly too aware of the efforts of, say, Bellow, another novelist of ideas, to try to combat their effect by putting in charming human touches, and DeLillo certainly tries to do that here, strewing the text with kids and endearing details of family life.
A first-person protagonist is at least a concession to our old-fashioned wish for heroines and heroes, somebody to stumble through the narrative, thinking the thoughts, experiencing the emotions, more reassuringly human than in satires like Vidal’s equally trenchant but chillier Duluth, for instance, where all the jokes are the author’s. Authors in their omniscience can be intimidating, and perhaps should be advised to conceal their intelligence, the way girls used to be advised to do. Anyhow, we are happy to have Jack Gladney, a diplomatic creation on DeLillo’s part, and necessary to a fiction that could otherwise seem too programmatic or too abstract, a regular guy who, because an airborne toxic event and the fear of death are part of his life, convinces us that these unwelcome universals will soon be part of ours.
A more conventional hapless hero, like Jay McInerney’s in his recent Bright Lights, Big City, may make us laugh by doing a bunch of bad-boy dumb things—too much cocaine before an office deadline—but he does them with minimum self-awareness, and a kind of irritating (male?) confidence in the total indulgence of his readers, among whom the men are expected to identify with him, the women forgive. But Gladney disarms by his penetration, even if he is a five-times married academic who goes around wearing his robe and dark glasses and has to pretend to know German. (“I talked mainly about Hitler’s mother, brother and dog. His dog’s name was Wolf. This word is the same in English and German…. I’d spent days with the dictionary, compiling lists of such words.”)
All the characters are infected by Jack’s high interrogative style. The novel is entirely composed of questions, sometimes ones you’d like to know the answers to: “Were people this dumb before television?” “Does a man like yourself know the size of India’s standing army?” “What if someone held a gun to your head?” “What if the symptoms are real?”
What accounts for the charm of these serious novels on dread subjects? Perhaps Jack’s eloquence is such that we are a little less harrowed by his author’s exacting and despairing view of civilization. And he is very funny. Besides, there is the special pleasure afforded by the extraordinary language, the coherence of the imagery, saturated with chemicals and whiteness and themes of poisons and shopping, the nice balance of humor and poignance, solemn nonsense and real questions:
“What do I do to make death less strange? How do I go about it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do I risk death by driving fast around curves? Am I supposed to go rock climbing on weekends?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I wish I knew.”