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July 11, 2012

“White Noise”

by Anne Paddock

Don Delillo is an American novelist who was born in 1936 and started writing novels in the 1960’s. His eighth book, “White Noise” won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1985. Set in a midwestern college town called Blacksmith on the campus of “College on the Hill,” “White Noise” is told from the perspective of Jack Gladney, a 51-year old professor who chairs the Hitler Studies Department at the local college. Gladney is married to Babette (his 5th wife) and together they have six children:  his three – Mary Alice (19), Heinrich (14), and Steffie (9) and her three:  Denise (11), Eugene (8) and Wilder (3). It may seem like the Brady Bunch but the Gladney family is more like George Banks (Steve Martin from “Father of the Bride”) meets “Mother’s Little Helper” on the set of “Home Alone.”

whitenoise-front-coverJack Gladney is funny, witty, observant and a man preoccupied with death while trying to come to terms with his life:  his former wives and current blended family, and his career as a college professor. If not ordinary, Gladney’s life is certainly not extraordinary with trips to the supermarket, encounters with other professors, discussions with his children, negotiations with ex-spouses, and everyone’s fascination with the definitive invention of the 20th century:  the television, which is where the name of the first part of the book – Waves and Radiation – came from. Over lunch one day, Gladney along with his fellow professors agree that “for most people there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set” with the television the source for entertainment, especially disaster footage. But, disaster for Jack is death and he is overly preoccupied with his impending mortality, as is his wife, Babette, whose fear would be paralyzing if not for her children and distractions of day-to-day life.

Delillo is a master at observing the seemingly mundane parts of middle class American life: the station wagons, consumerism, the obesity epidemic, volunteering, the role of pharmaceuticals, mealtime banter, making time to exercise, the ridiculous ism of college professors and their own displays of one-upmanship – the wearing of academic robes on a daily basis to show everyone else who they are, the meaning of tourist spots and the everyone’s tendency to photograph these sites, the ritual of going to church, dinner at the Wagon Wheel, or donuts at Dinky Donuts, and what would life be without visits to Mid-Village Mall?  If not for these daily rituals and events, the fear of death would consume both Jack and Babette and that is at the heart of the story…how do people accept they are going to die?

The novel is divided into three parts with the first part – Waves and Radiation – divided into 20 short chapters of life before the “event.’ The event – The Airborne Toxic Event – is one long chapter in the middle of the book while the third and final part of the book entitled “Dylarama”  is 19 short chapters of life after the “event.” Collectively, the parts form a story in which we learn “in a crisis the true facts are whatever other people say they are. No one’s knowledge is less secure than your own.”

Cover Art by Michael Cho

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