White Noise by Don DeLillo (Shane's book 11, 2010)

I have an uneasy relationship with Don DeLillo's work. Parts of Underworld, DeLillo's masterpiece, are stunning, among the best prose that I've read. However, I just don't find his characters convincing. They all sound the same and appear to be there not to have conversations but only to express ideas to each other, ideas that aren't really listened to because characters in DeLillo are always talking at crossed purposes. But I persist because DeLillo's reputation is such that I feel I must be missing something. 

To White Noise, then, which was DeLillo's breakthrough novel and tells the story of a university professor who runs a course in Hitler studies and lives with his wife, their son and their children from assorted previous relationships. The professor, Jack, and his wife, Babette, are both strongly afraid of death and obsessed with the idea of which of them will die first.

The book has three parts. The first sets up Jack's place in the university and his relationship with Babette. In the second, the family has to flee an 'airborne toxic event', caused by a chemical spill from a train. The final section has Jack investigating the mysterious medical trial in which Babette has been taking part.

DeLillo plays with the ideas of simulation and authenticity, examines notions of celebrity and looks at the increasing dominance of technology and mass media. It's delivered with DeLillo's wonderfully-crafted, perceptive prose. This piece from the Panopticist gives a sense of how much work goes into DeLillo's writing. It also highlights one of the book's problems, however. Towards the end of his article Andrew Hearst mentions the book's "first laugh-out-loud line":

"Their husbands content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging, accomplished in parenthood, something about them suggesting massive insurance coverage."

Humour is a very subjective thing but the joke just doesn't seem funny to me and nor does much else in the book. That's a flaw in a comic novel, clearly.

Many of the themes - academia and institutions, waste, media and consumerism, for example - are echoed in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, which is one of my favourite novels. DeLillo was Wallace's mentor so it's likely that White Noise was an influence on Infinite Jest. I think, however, that White Noise suffers from my having read IJ first because Wallace handles those themes so much better. Wallace is not only actually laugh-out-loud funny but also deals in real emotions.

DeLillo pays lip service to real emotions but seems unable to bring them to life on the page. His central characters here are supposedly terrified of death but DeLillo can't make this into more than an intellectual exercise. When confronted with the idea of death his characters toy with the idea of terror but I seldom believed for a moment that real feelings were at issue.

And then there's the dialogue. I know I've already mentioned it but I can't over-emphasise the realism-smashing, nails-down-a-blackboard cringe-inducing effect his dialogue has on me. For a writer whose characters talk so much, DeLillo has such a tin ear for how real people talk. The problem is most obvious with the children in White Noise: even the teenagers here sound like middle-aged men who think too much. Every character does. It's like listening to a monologue by a schizophrenic: he thinks there are lots of people there but in fact there's only him.

When people aren't talking there's a lot of marvellous writing going on and some thought-provoking ideas, such as The Most-Photographed Barn In America, which DeLillo feeds into his meditations on reality and simulation.

The weaknesses, for me, mark DeLillo out as a good, rather than great writer and White Noise is a good, but not great, book. Of course, even saying that puts me on the wrong side of most literary opinion of the last 30 years. It's definitely worth judging for yourself.