The Bookworm: White Noise

White Noise by Don DeLillo. 336 pages. Penguin Books. 1985.

“These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters. People in low-lying areas get the floods, people in shanties get the hurricanes and tornadoes. I’m a college professor. Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods? We live in a neat and pleasant town near a college with a quaint name. These things don’t happen in places like Blacksmith.”

Last night I opened my next book and got a whiff of the crisp, clean, new book smell. It makes me think of Prairie Lights. The whole store smells that way. I bought it at PL when I was back in Iowa City for the winter holidays, so no wonder the book smells the way it does. However, I just wondered: does the store smell like the books, or do the books smell like the store? Regardless, the scent of PL was a nice, bibliophile moment.

My copy of White Noise doesn’t smell like a new book. It has that aged, yellowed pages, basement mildew scent prevalent in used bookstores, and for good reason. It’s a 1986 edition I picked up at the Haunted Bookshop.

As mentioned in another Bookworm post, the Haunted Bookshop moved into the old Northside Book Market location. Though the move was a boon to the used bookstore scene in downtown IC, it’s a little sad the owners had to transplant the store from its spiritual home. Although it wasn’t haunted (the website says the store was named after a novel by Christopher Morley), the Haunted house was the perfect setting for a bookstore, unlike Northside, which I always thought embodied the aged and abused but adequate persona of used books. The creaky wooden floors, hanging plants, and friendly cats made it seem more like a cozy, peaceful, comfortable home than a business. Because they were moving I made sure to venture through the whole house. The top floor, I think, was off limits, but one of the cats followed me as I toured each room and the basement. The owner was unsure what the building’s fate was. I hope it wasn’t torn down.

One quirk about the store — not the house — that annoyed me was the use of British English spelling on shelf labels. Why? Most American literati go through a BE phase. I went through mine during my junior year of high school, writing the alternate spellings I knew like “colour” and “programme.” But I grew out of it — quickly. It was pointless, pretentious, and I’m sure my teachers thought I was an odd duck. It’s okay when you take an “aeroplane” to London, go to the city “centre,” sit on your “arse,” and get “cosy” with a “draught.” But you’re in Iowa City. The owners can use whatever spelling they want — it’s their store — but I think it’s impractical and stupid.

White Noise. I’ve wanted to read it for a while. I heard about it in a writing class and the basic plot fascinated me: Jack Gladney is a renowned Hitler scholar at a small private college, and the town where he and his family live is struck by an “airborne toxic event.”

White Noise is irony, DeLillo style. Gladney, his wife (either his forth or fifth, I can’t remember), and their assorted children from previous marriages live a somewhat stereotypical American lifestyle, which DeLillo uses to mock our consumer-centered culture. It’s heavy handed ridicule, but well calculated and hilarious. For example, one of his children mentions the “sun’s corolla,” then is corrected by an older sibling who says a Corolla is a car.

American pop culture and the heavy influence of corporate commercialism is a normal target of DeLillo’s. White Noise is the only book of his I’ve finished. I tried reading Americana, his first novel, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. One line from that book, though, has stuck with me over the years. In one chapter the main character is in his office talking to his wife or girlfriend on the phone. His attractive secretary is drunk and passed out on the couch, and he indulges in an odd, imaginary three-way: “I did a mad kind of loin dance.” I have no clue how to visualize this “loin dance,” but the sheer uniqueness of the phrase has etched itself in my mind.

Anyway, on with White Noise. The Gladney’s and their city are threatened by the spill of a noxious bi-product created from the production of many everyday household items. The “airborne toxic event.” It makes them victims of their own rampant and thoughtless consumerism.

The “airborne toxic event” is a crucial and haunting event in the novel, encompassing probably 60 pages and the entire second section, and its after affects are mentioned throughout the remainder of the book. But wasn’t the novel’s main focus, as I thought it would be. The book chronicles the everyday oddities and ironies of Gladney’s life, where TV, the supermarket, packaged products, his wife, his children and their other fathers and mothers, and his academic colleagues all play a role. Also, Gladney’s Hitler studies didn’t play as prominent a part as I though it would, either. It was more of a characteristic of his than a plot device. Its allusions abound, but I thought it would be more important.

(Interestingly, DeLillo hints that Gladney is not a good Hitler scholar at all...either that or DeLillo doesn’t know much about Hitler. First, despite teaching Hitler studies for almost 20 years, Gladney ironically doesn’t know any German. You don’t have to know German to study Hitler, but I think it might help a lot. In one chapter, Gladney gives a speech at a Hitler conference and talks about Hitler’s dog, which he says was named Wolf. Hitler’s dog, in fact, was named Blondi. However, Hitler named one of Blondi’s puppies “Wolf.”)

The most prominent aspect of the novel is the main characters’ fear of death. Gladney and his wife, Babette, are afraid of it to the point of distraction, and argue who should die first. Both of them do, neither wanting to experience the crushing loneliness the other’s absence would cause. Babette goes so far as to try experimental medication to suppress the fear.

New word I learned: ashram. The mother of Heinrich, Jack Gladney’s son, now lives on an ashram, which my Word dictionary describes as “a retreat for the practice of yoga or other Hindu disciplines.”

White Noise is a funny and excellent criticism of American life and academia. I highly recommend it.

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