Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The end of skepticism (Books - White Noise by Don DeLillo)

The last time I saw Sheila we argued about which was Don DeLillo's better book, I went for Underworld and she for White Noise. I found, when thinking about it, that I couldn't really remember White Noise well enough so I'm re-reading it.

I felt like the book told me what it is about point blank on page 27 - "the end of skepticism." Jack Gladney lives in a generic American college town where he has started a department of Hitler studies. He and his third wife and their children from various marriages seem to inhabit a purely relativistic universe, one where no moral choices can be made, in fact no choices of any kind. So heavily blanketed with information is their atmosphere, it seems Jack and his wife cannot have sex without reading pornography aloud and first choosing which era the reading material will come from - the sex is endlessly delayed while they discuss how they will go at it, each claiming that they will get more pleasure from giving the other what they want, and so trying to pass on the decision to the other. All this while the television plays in the background - usually on some sort of educational nature program.

"I want to read, Jack. Honestly."

"Are you totally and completely sure? Because if you're not, we absolutely won't."

Someone turned on the TV set at the end of the hall, and a woman's voice said: "If it breaks easily into pieces, it is called shale. When wet, it smells like clay."

We listened to the gently plummeting stream of nighttime traffic.

I said, "Pick your century. Do you want to read about Etruscan slave girls, Georgian rakes? I think we have some literature on flagellation brothels. What about the Middle Ages? We have incubi and succubi. Nuns galore."

"Whatever's best for you."

"I want you to choose. It's sexier that way."

"One person chooses, the other reads. Don't we want a balance, a sort of give-and-take? Isn't that what makes it sexy?"

"A tautness, a suspense. First-rate. I will choose."

"I will read," she said. "But I dont' want you to choose anything that has men inside women, quote-quote, or men entering women. 'I entered her.' 'He entered me.' We're not lobbies or elevators. 'I wanted him inside me,' as if he could crawl completely in, sign the register, sleep, eat, so forth. Can we agree on that? I don't care what these people do as long as they don't enter or get entered."


This is without a a doubt the intentionally funniest bedroom scene I have ever read! What amazes me continually as I read is how the book, written in 1984, prefigures how we live now. I graduated from college in '83, and we were barely seeing the birth of Women's Studies, Gay Studies, African Studies Departments - the industry of identity education that is now commonplace (for better or for worse) and that DeLillo's Hitler Studies satirizes. It was also prior to the time of every home having a personal computer, multiple channel cable, cell phones, and internet - we were not yet quite inundated with such an ocean of information and so many perspectives each battling for ownership of it that we began to drown in it. But we live in that time now. And while there is a pleasure in being able to download images of the Guttenberg Bible in seconds from your home by Googling it, one also gets videos of scholarly lectures, opportunities to buy replicas, someone's dissertation, an evangelistic blog, and someone having sex dressed as a priest all on the same page - all without reference to their value or validity. In our world, they are all the same and you must choose if you can.

In DeLillo's world the adults are mortified by death, living forever in the shadow of it. Every item in the stream of information that surrounds them either being a source we must avoid for fearing of encouraging it or something we should be doing to ward it off. Jack observes that his fourteen year old son - Heinrich - is losing his hair.

Did his mother consume some kind of gene-piercing substance when she was pregnant? Am I at fault somehow? Have I raised him, unwittingly, in the vicinity of a chemical dump site, in the path of air currents that carry industrial wastes capable of producing scalp degeneration, glorious sunsets? (People say the sunsets around here were not nearly so stunning thirty or forty years ago.) Man's guilt in history and in the tides of his own blood has been complicated by technology, the daily seeping falsehearted death.

Doesn't this feel like now? One of the children is obsessed with reading the Physicians' Desk Reference, trying to keep abreast of all the side effects of the drugs her parents use. In fact, she tries to control everything her parents consume:

Denise watched her mother pull the little cellophane ribbon on a bonus pack of sixteen individually wrapped unites of chewing gum. Her eyes narrowed as she turned back to the address books on the kitchen table before her. the eleven-year-old face was an expert mask of restrained exasperation.

She waited a long moment, then said evenly, "That stuff causes cancer in laboratory animals in case you didn't know."

"You wanted me to chew sugarless gum, Denise. It was your idea."

"There was no warning on the pack then. They put a warning, which I would have a hard time believing you didn't see."

She was transcribing names and phone numbers from an old book to a new one. There were no addresses. Her friends had phone numbers only, a race of people with a seven-bit analog consciousness. [What would he write today!!]

"I'm happy to do it either way," Babette said. "It's totally up to you. Either I chew gum with sugar and artificial coloring or I chew sugarless gum that's harmful to rats."

Steffie got off the phone. "Don't chew at all," she said. "Did you ever think of that?"

Two details add credence to this scene - one is the fact that ideas are communicated through behavior by well established characters, and the other is that they perform behavior other than that which will function to illustrate the main idea of the scene (they live lives in this book, Babette transcribing her address book). This is one of DeLillo's skills as a writer. He imagines the lives of these characters so completely. And then later...

I forget that Steffie doesn't like to be called Stephanie. Sometimes I call her Denise. I forget where I've parked the car and then for a long, long moment I forget what the car looks like."
"Forgetfulness has gotten into the air and water. It's entered the food chain."

"Maybe it's the gum I chew. Is that too farfetched?"

"Maybe it's something else."


"To the best of my knowledge, Jack, I'm not taking anything that could account for my memory lapses. On the other hand I'm not old, I haven't suffered an injury to the head and there's nothing in my family background except tipped uteruses."

"You're saying maybe Denise is right."

"We can't rule it out."

"You're saying maybe you're taking something that has the side effect of impairing memory."

"Either I'm taking something and I don't remember or I'm not taking something and I don't remember. My life is either/or. Either I chew regular gum or I chew sugarless gum. Either I chew gum or I smoke. Either I smoke or I gain weight. Either I gain weight or I run up the stadium steps."

"Sounds like a boring life."

"I hope it lasts forever," she said.

Man is that ever our self-conscious era in a few brief sentences - forever trying to get it right, to control all, to push away death. The two notions that DeLillo connects in this book are avoidance of death and relativism. One sentence really hangs in the air in that scene - We can't rule it out. Jack's son, Heinrich, the balding one, exemplifies a child brought up in an age of pure relativism:

"It's going to rain tonight."

"It's raining now," I said.

"The radio said tonight."

I drove him to school on his first day back after a sore throat and fever. A woman in a yellow slicker held up traffic to let some children cross. I pictured her in a soup commercial taking off her oilskin hat [in the moment of this scene with his son he daydreams, which is perfectly realistic and a nice character detail, but his daydream is sourced in TV.] as she entered the cheerful kitchen where her husband stood over a pot of smoky lobster bisque, a smallish man with six weeks to live.

"Look at the windshield," I said. "Is that rain or isnt' it?"

"I'm only telling you what they said."

"Just because it's on the radio doesn't mean we have to suspend belief in the evidence of our senses."

"Our senses? Our senses are wrong a lot more often than they're right. This has been proved in the laboratory. Don't you know about all those theorems that say nothing is what it seems? There's no past, present or future outside our own mind. The so-called laws of motion are a big hoax. Even sound can trick the mind. Just because you don't hear a sound doesn't mean it's not out there. Dogs can hear it. Other animals. And I'm sure there are sounds even dogs can't hear. But they exist in the air, in waves. Maybe they never stop. High, high, high-pitched. Coming from somewhere."

"Is it raining," I said, "or isn't it?"

"I wouldn't want to have to say."

"What if someone held a gun to your head?"

"Who, you?"

"Someone. A man in a trenchcoat and smoky glasses. He holds a gun to your head and says, 'Is it raining or isn't it? All you have to do is tell the truth and I'll put away my gun and take the next flight out of here.'"

"What truth does he want? Does he want the truth of someone traveling at almost the speed of light in another galaxy? Does he want the truth of someone in orbit around a neutron star? Maybe if these people could see us through a telescope we might look like we were two feet two inches tall and it might be raining yesterday instead of today."

"Hes' holding a gun to your head. He wants your truth."

"What good is my truth? My truth means nothing. What if this guy with the gun comes from a planet in a whole different solar system? What we call rain he calls soap. What we call apples he calls rain. So what am I supposed to tell him?"

"His name is Frank J. Smalley and he comes from St. Louis."

"He wants to know if it's raining now, at this very minute?"

"Here and now. That's right."

"Is there such a thing as now? 'Now' comes and goes as soon as you say it. How can I say it's raining now if your so-called 'now' becomes 'then' as soon as I say it?"


"Just give me an anwer, okay, Heinrich?"

"The best I could do is make a guess."

"Either it's raining or it isn't," I said.

"Exactly. That's my whole point. You'd be guessing. Six of one, half dozen of the other."

"But you see it's raining."

"You see the sun moving across the sky. But is the sun moving across the sky or is the earth turning?"

On one hand this is a scene between a very clever, very literal teenager and his father. But on the other it hyperbolizes how we become paralyzed by information. When everything might be right what should we believe? Skepticism ceases - we fear everything, we believe everything, we commit to nothing. I'm about 1/3 of the way through and I'm finding White Noise scathingly satiric, brilliantly observant, prophetic, and laugh-out-loud funny (I hardly ever laugh out loud while reading). I may have to revise my opinion, Sheila.


Sheila O'Malley said...

hahahaha I seriously think Underworld would be a better book if he had cut out, oh, 400 pages. No book needs to be that long - (unless it does, of course - and I don't think Underworld did - there was so much fat on that book - and right now, I can't even remember much of it! I remember the opening sequence (some of the best writing I have ever read) - and the sequence with the planes in the desert - more brilliance ... but to me, it did not add up. After 15,000 pages, I wanted more OOMPH at the end!

White Noise is brilliant, you're right - it's one of my favorites of his. Chilling, prescient - and I love how you're pointing out the humor - I had forgotten how funny it is.

oh - and I just read his Falling Man - have you read it? I had avoided it because of the topic but it was soooo good, and just absolutely captures those terrible days in September, 2001 - for us New Yorkers - in a way that was amazing to me.

Ted said...

Underworld is a lengthy one, isn't it? I was skittish about Falling Man for the same reason. Your recommendations rarely fail for me - I am just crazy about White Noise, I'm reading it when I should be doing loads of other things, so I guess Falling Man goes on the list!