What is White Noise about? Like “the most photographed barn in America,” the tourist attraction down the road from Blacksmith, the college-town setting of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, the book is famous for being famous. Sure, it’s about, among other things, consumerism, ambient dread, the family in the age of consumerism and ambient dread. But “once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn,” says Murray, the visiting professor and Elvis scholar at College-on-the-Hill charged by the author with providing oracular pronouncements—sometimes profound, sometimes very silly—about the nature of modern suburban life. Explaining the novel’s origins in a preface to the new Library of America edition, DeLillo sounds a lot like his fictional displaced New Yorker. “I spent time in a local supermarket, noting the names of products on the shelves,” he writes,
examining the tabloids in the racks near the check-out counter, eventually scribbling long lists of possible titles even as I was still working on the narrative, and finally settling on Panasonic, only to learn ultimately that this was a trademarked name, permission refused by the Matsushita Corporation.
That title change is a perfect example of the odd indignities of the hypercommercialized world that White Noise (a much better title anyway) depicts with exacting ambivalence. Though it’s often remembered as a satire, its stance is closer to puzzled reportage, the narrator depicting a defamiliarized American town with something approaching awe. Here’s autumn in Blacksmith:
There were periods in every day when a stiff wind blew, baring the trees further, and retired men appeared in the backyards, on the small lawns out front, carrying rakes with curved teeth. Black bags were arrayed at the curbstone in lopsided rows.
And then, in a paragraph on its own, punctuating the funereal imagery: “A series of frightened children appeared at our door for their Halloween treats.”
The tenor is similar at times to John Updike’s mid-period novels, though frequently overlaid with an ironic distance that avoids Updike’s occasional pitch of benediction. When DeLillo’s narrator does engage in full-throated praise, as in his hymn to the coffee maker, we’re left to ponder its sincerity:
I watched the coffee bubble up through the center tube and perforated basket into the small pale globe. A marvelous and sad invention, so roundabout, ingenious, human. It was like a philosophical argument rendered in terms of the things of the world—water, metal, brown beans. I had never looked at coffee before.
Such sly impersonation of wonder isn’t parody, exactly; it reads to me as a genuine attempt to inhabit a state of mind he’s curious about. It’s a nearly impossible balancing act: a book about late-capitalist panic and disaster that radiates a Zen-like calm. If his early work could occasionally be zany (the brilliant End Zone) and his later novels cryptic to the point of numbness (The Body Artist, Point Omega), White Noise finds DeLillo in midcareer equipoise, documenting the madness of the world around him with wry bemusement.
Rereading the book for the first time in many years, I was struck by how much it resists easy interpretation. The narrator, Jack Gladney—who, in a joke that wouldn’t be out of place in an Evelyn Waugh novel, deliberately gains weight and goes by J.A.K. Gladney to pump up his stature as a pioneering scholar in “Hitler studies”—is both ridiculous and a shrewd observer of himself and others. Waugh’s version would not have the self-awareness to conclude that “I am the false character that follows the name around.” Gladney loves his third wife, Babette (an echo of Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis’s portrait of middle-class small-mindedness?), worries about his children and stepchildren (there are a lot of them), and, most of all, fears death. He’s a Hitler scholar who doesn’t know German, another good gag from an older, more bumptious literary tradition. But he’s also capable of reflexive, Nabokovian metanarration, as when he walks through town and chides himself for his delicate observations of two boys playing soccer, itself a direct invocation, perhaps, of the two boys playing basketball in the opening pages of Rabbit, Run. “How literary, I thought peevishly. Streets thick with the details of impulsive life as the hero ponders the latest phase in his dying. It was a partially cloudy day with winds diminishing toward sunset.”
It can be hard, now—and maybe it always was—to read the novel’s tone. In an interview around the time of its publication, DeLillo called the idea of a college with a department of Hitler studies “innately comic,” but in 2022 we’ve managed to metabolize without too much difficulty the fact that one of the most important literary works of the twenty-first century is called My Struggle and contains a long section in which the middle-class Norwegian narrator unironically compares his biography to Hitler’s. In that light, the scene in White Noise in which professors deliver dueling lectures about the parallels between Hitler and Elvis seems perfectly reasonable.
And what would the joke (if that’s the right word) even have been in 1985, decades after Warhol flattened the field between pop singers and dictators, car crash victims and movie stars, screen-printing them all with slapdash panache and elevating them to the status of celebrity? Is DeLillo’s depiction of College-on-the-Hill’s faculty, who spend their lunch breaks comparing notes on televised disaster footage and where they were the day James Dean died, an indictment, a prophecy, or just a slightly heightened illustration of the state of play? The novel’s narration continuously doubts itself. Perhaps the most famous formulation in all of DeLillo’s writing—“All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots”—is immediately undercut by Jack’s internal monologue: “Is this true? Why did I say it? What does it mean?”
White Noise is a great novel in part because it refuses to add up. After an opening section focused on Jack’s academic life and his relationship with Babette, Part Two, “The Airborne Toxic Event,” chronicles, as even those who haven’t read the book know, the fallout from a chemical spill outside Blacksmith that forces the family to join a mass exodus of traffic and misinformation in an attempt to reach safety. Part Three, jauntily titled “Dylarama,” relates Babette’s addiction to an experimental drug meant to rid her of her fear of death, culminating in a surprisingly violent confrontation and a beautiful, mysterious coda in which Jack and Babette’s youngest child rides his tricycle across a multilane highway and emerges miraculously unscathed. All of this is related in DeLillo’s smoothed-out prose, punctuated by dialogue and speeches full of repetitions, odd phrasings, and borrowings from advertisements and other televisual junk.
“The greater the scientific advance, the more primitive the fear.” Gladney’s doomy aphorism, like “all plots tend to move deathward,” is a plausible if oversimplified thesis, one of the received meanings that have come to define the book: despite the narcotic comfort of the supermarket, despite the steady, acclimating exposure to televised horror, the grave awaits. “Or,” as DeLillo muses in his introduction immediately after invoking the scientific advance line from the novel, “is this simply the idea of a writer who continued to sit at his desk, looking at the wall, then staring into a sheet of paper, framing sentences and paragraphs, such as these, right now, decades later…” In other words, perhaps the concepts batted around by the novel’s wayward academics, overthinkers by profession, should not be taken at face value. The book is more consistently unsettling and surprising than their prognostications.
Noah Baumbach’s new adaptation, produced by Netflix, attempts to cover as much of the novel’s material as it can in two and a quarter hours. Broad and indecisive, it uses a mishmash of populist genres—1980s comedy, Spielbergian family adventure, horror—to account for the story’s disjunctures. But the contradictory jumble of styles undermines any possibility of tonal consistency, the very thing that keeps what DeLillo called the novel’s “wobbly” plotting from tipping into incoherence.
Baumbach grafts a number of interpretations onto one another, none quite abandoned, but none fully committed to, either. The traffic jam during the evacuation from the toxic event is an homage to Godard’s Weekend and the films of Jacques Tati; when Danny Elfman’s bombastic score cranks up for a chaotic car chase through a forest it plays like a knowing copy of a copy, National Lampoon’s Family Vacation by way of The Simpsons. At one of the evacuation sites where the family bunks down, a man rants in the manner of Network’s Howard Beale about the lack of television coverage their disaster is getting. If there’s a connection being drawn between the overmediated lives of these characters and the viewers’ storehouse of filmic reference points, the effect is a sort of manic, Mad Magazine quality that undercuts the intended emotional register.
Baumbach’s best films—The Squid and the Whale, Kicking and Screaming, Margot at the Wedding—are animated by a minute, naturalistic attention to the specific pains of romantic relationships, friendships, and family dynamics. While White Noise is perhaps the only DeLillo novel that could be accurately described as “domestic” in its concerns, its philosophical inquiries are a long way from these sharp, quotidian dramas. One can find parallels if one looks for them—Baumbach, like DeLillo, is a city cat set loose in the suburbs, and DeLillo’s novel is at least superficially about the fissures in a marriage, a subject Baumbach has repeatedly returned to with great success—but the director never gets a purchase on the material.
One could imagine a version of this film in which Baumbach emphasizes the tendrils of sincerity and realism poking through the novel’s edifice, finding DeLillo’s inner Marriage Story in the crosscurrents of academic competition and Jack and Babette’s awkwardly blended families. Instead he’s done the opposite, pumping up the artificiality and smothering the already smothered humanity of the novel. The film’s color palette is oversaturated and often deliberately ugly, an uncanny, art-directed mid-Eighties that nods at the aesthetics of Blue Velvet, Poltergeist, and other films of the era without transforming them in a substantive way.
Fetishistic periodization is one of the lose-lose dilemmas that haunts the adaptation. The novel has aged well; we can see past the specific moment it conjures, silently updating the brand names and technologies. The historicized specificity of the film, however, feels overdetermined, as in a scene where the children gather around the television to watch plane crash footage. It’s not that we’ve gone so far beyond this as a society (one imagines in 2022 they’d be quietly getting their atrocity fixes on their phones), but rather that the novelty of the setting encourages a certain gee-whiz tone in the director and actors, and a distance on the part of the audience, who can gawk at The American Family in Extremis. Baumbach isn’t exactly wrong that a sociological viewpoint is fundamental to the novel’s vision. But the steadiness of DeLillo’s gaze is replaced in the film by a strenuous busyness that works against the emotional connection it’s trying to draw.
Almost everything in Baumbach’s adaptation comes directly from the novel, but the problem is not the film’s fidelity so much as how it enacts it. The dialogue, a good deal of it awkwardly transposed from Jack’s narration, is delivered in flustered, declamatory bursts by overwhelmed actors. Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig as Jack and Babette are too young and undaunted (even under unflattering makeup and prosthetics) to be convincing as multiply married, middle-aged people desperate to outrun their mortality. Onscreen, the characters seem to be cartoonishly whistling in the dark in the face of mounting catastrophe.
Gerwig can’t help but bring an off-kilter pathos to her performance, but Driver is lost. Don Cheadle as Murray, the New Yorker in awe of the anthropological possibilities of small-town America, exudes a winking authority, but he’s often left to shout scattered catchphrases into the void. The most assured element of the movie is the household’s tribe of pokerfaced teenagers and children, but this, too, feels familiar, imported from the universe of Baumbach’s sometime collaborator Wes Anderson, who perhaps picked up his own characters’ sartorial choices (I swear I’ve seen that green visor before) in the pages of White Noise.
The film is at its best in the scenes with the least dialogue, appropriating the visual language of horror movies to strong effect. There’s a terrifying nightmare sequence with an honorably shameless jump scare, and an eerie, quiet scene in which Jack fills up the car at a gas station during the airborne toxic event, its black “billowing plume” crossing the moon over his head. Babette’s confession of drug dependency and infidelity has a clammy, nauseated quality that elicits real discomfort, and Jack’s trip to the city to confront her pharmaceutical dealer has a garish immediacy.
But the uncertainty of purpose persists. Baumbach makes the bizarre choice to use Jack’s revenge trip as an act of marital reconciliation by having Babette arrive in time to be grazed by a bullet along with him, a plot point straight out of the schlockiest buddy cop movie. (And, not that it particularly matters, a rare deviation from the text.) The novel’s surreal visit to the hospital, where Jack encounters a group of German nuns (it’s the old Germantown section of town—DeLillo is funny!), becomes a chance for Jack and Babette to bond over their mutual injuries. The scene’s final lines of dialogue, in which the nuns astonishingly chide Jack (and now Babette) for imagining them to be so childish as to believe in God or heaven—“Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe”—lose their unsettling power, becoming just another comic bit. And the nuns say most of them in German, which Babette doesn’t know and, we’ve been shown repeatedly, Jack barely understands. Like so many of the film’s choices, it’s intellectually justifiable—another miscomprehension amid the static—without being satisfying.
I don’t know if it’s possible to make a great film from a text as paradoxical as White Noise. One can’t include everything in an adaptation, but the film tends to elide the moments in the novel—a multihour stretch in which Jack and Babette’s youngest son won’t stop crying, a visit from Babette’s elderly, no-nonsense father—that most invoke “real life” and puncture DeLillo’s hermeticism, leaving the film feeling like a staging of the ideas put forward by DeLillo’s characters rather than a reckoning with the novel’s subjects themselves.
And yet there are odd slippages in the film that gesture at elements just under the surface of the text, destabilizing the film’s too-easy readings of the novel’s themes. Murray, for example, is Black in Baumbach’s version, but except for one offhand joke neither his race nor Elvis’s infamous adoption of Black musical styles comes up. Later, in order to create a kind of weird doubling effect, Baumbach has the Dylar dealer played by an actor with a German accent (Lars Eidinger), making him, in some way, a manifestation of Jack’s inability to speak the language and a callback to his academic pursuit. In the novel, the dealer’s ethnic ambiguity is a source of curiosity and anxiety: “Was he Melanesian, Polynesian, Indonesian, Nepalese, Surinamese, Dutch-Chinese? Was he a composite?” In the film, he still calls Jack “white man,” and says, meaningfully, “You’re very white, you know that?” shortly before he’s shot. It’s a jarring moment—is White Noise about race?—that is left to trail off into the ether. It is, of course, right there in the title. But it was almost called Panasonic.