White Noise

30 Oct 2021 02:15 - 15 Sep 2023 11:05
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    • My 2020 quarantine reading 2020 began with with Delillo's White Noise, which I thought had a loose thematic connection to the circumstances. The central event of the book is The Airborn Toxic Event, an industrial accident that turns the characters into temporary refugees, upsetting their self-absorbed suburban-academic lives. Death, a shadowy presence in their lives from the start, is now something close by, intimate, and even more inescapable than it was before. They are acutely aware not just of death, but of their own fear of death, and of the inadequacy of their strategies for holding it at bay.
    • But death is merely the most obvious form of the more abstract threat of nonbeing or meaninglessness. This is not really a subtle theme, it's right there in the title – the ever-encroaching white noise of civilization that threatens the death of meaning by slow suffocation. The background of the book is ate 20th century American suburban civilization, comfortable but without any true center or source of meaning. As toxins inexorably penetrate the body and lead to death, consciousness succumbs to a pervasive buzz of product names and empty cliches.
    • White Noise is really a comedy about the attempts to maintain the pose of a civilized intellectual in the presence of the encroaching reality of nonbeing. The protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a professor of Hitler Studies, a field he helped invent, and enmeshed in the normal rounds of academic politics and campus relationships. The novel is told in his voice and depicts him grasping at solidity but too aware of his own frailties and pretenses to really achieve it.
    • The core of the novel is his dialogs with various figures representing harsh reality. Chief among those is Murray, a visiting professor with academic schemes of his own:
    • "You've established a wonderful thing here with Hitler. You created it, you nurtured it, you made it your own. Nobody on the faculty of any college or university in this part of the country can so much as utter the word Hitler without a nod in your direction, literally or metaphorically. This is the center, the unquestioned source. He is now your Hitler, Gladney's Hitler. It must be deeply satisfying for you. The college is internationally known as a result of Hitler studies. It has an identity, a sense of achievement. You've evolved an entire system around this figure, a structure with countless substructures and interrelated fields of study, a history within history. I marvel at the effort. It was masterful, shrewd and stunningly preemptive. It's what I want to do with Elvis."
    • The most obvious threat to Gladney's bucolic life of the mind is a chemical spill that leads to The Airborn Toxic Event and makes the threat of death concrete and imminent.
    • I'm not just a college professor. I'm the head of a department. I don't see myself fleeing an airborn toxic event. That's for people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the county, where the fish hatcheries are. (p117)
    • Gladney is exposed to the toxic agent Nyodene D, and immediately goes into a state of denial as he interacts with representatives of science and medicine:
    • "...It's the two and a half minutes standing right in it that makes me wince. Actual skin and orifice contact. This is Nyodene D. A whole new generation of toxic waste. What we call state of the art. One part per million million can send a rat into a permanent state." He regarded me with the grimly superior air of a combat veteran. Obviously he didn't think much of people whose complacent and overprotected lives did not allow for encounters with brain-dead rats. I wanted this man on my side. He had access to data. I was prepared to be servile and fawning if it would keep him from dropping casually shattering remarks about my degree of exposure and chances for survival.
    • But the data and the system that produces the data is not going to be denied:
    • “But you said we have a situation." "I didn't say it. The computer did. The whole system says it. It's what we call a massive database tally. Gladney, J. A. K. I punch in the name, the substance, the exposure time and then I tap into your computer history. Your genetics, your personals, your medicals, your psychologicals, your police-and-hospitals. It comes back pulsing stars. This doesn't mean anything is going to happen to you as such, at least not today or tomorrow. It just means you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that.” (p 141)
    • As Jack wrestles with his fate, Murray becomes more of a gnomic prophet of death and violence
    • “This is the nature of modern death," Murray said. "It has a life independent of us. It is growing in prestige and dimension. It has a sweep it never had before. We study it objectively. We can predict its appearance, trace its path in the body. We can take cross-section pictures of it, tape its tremors and waves. We've never been so close to it, so familiar with its habits and attitudes. We know it intimately. But it continues to grow, to acquire breadth and scope, new outlets, new passages and means. The more we learn, the more it grows. Is this some law of physics? Every advance in knowledge and technique is matched by a new kind of death, a new strain. Death adapts, like a viral agent. ” (p150)
    • and a merciless observer of Jack's own weak character:
    • "Helpless and fearful people are drawn to magical figures, mythic figures, epic men who intimidate and darkly loom." "You're talking about Hitler, I take it." "Some people are larger than life. Hitler is larger than death. You thought he would protect you. I understand completely." "Do you? Because I wish I did." "It's totally obvious. You wanted to be helped and sheltered. The overwhelming horror would leave no room for your own death. 'Submerge me,' you said. 'Absorb my fear.' On one level you wanted to conceal yourself in Hitler and his works. On another level you wanted to use him to grow in significance and strength. I sense a confusion of means. .
    • And eventually advocating violence as the only answer to dealing with death (in this he started to resemble the character of Judge Holden in Blood Meridian, another loquacious spokesman for nihilism and violence):
    • "I believe, Jack, there are two kinds of people in the world. Killers and diers. Most of us are diers. We don't have the disposition, the rage or whatever it takes to be a killer. We let death happen. We lie down and die. But think what it's like to be a killer. Think how exciting it is, in theory, to kill a person in direct confrontation. If he dies, you cannot. To kill him is to gain life-credit. The more people you kill, the more credit you store up. It explains any number of massacres, wars, executions." "Are you saying that men have tried throughout history to cure themselves of death by killing others?" "It's obvious...Nothingness is staring you in the face. Utter and permanent oblivion. You will cease to be. To be, Jack. The dier accepts this and dies. The killer, in theory, attempts to defeat his own death by killing others. He buys time, he buys life. Watch others squirm. See the blood trickle in the dust."
    • Anyway, White Noise is thematically timely and one of the best novels of the late 20th century according to Harold Bloom, who placed it in the tradition of "American comic apocalypses" that includes Melville's The Confidence Man and Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49. (I guess I'd put Infinite Jest and the work of Philip K Dick in that bucket as well). And it's due to be turned into a movie this year.
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