Monday, May 19, 2008

White Noise

White Noise won the National Book Award in 1985 and helped establish author Don DeLillo as an icon in contemporary literature; it's a blue-chip read for my recent attempt to become familiar with American fiction. Set in a small college town, this story follows the everyday events of the quirky and likable Gladney family. The Gladneys are a quintessential modern American family: the parents have previous divorces, the children have all the answers, and they all are constantly getting either in or out of their station wagon. We experience White Noise through the eyes of Jack Gadney, the father. He is an overweight college professor with an endearing sense of humor that provides him with a comic outlet for his increasing sense of disconnect with the Technology age. His attempt to find meaning--or at least dignity--in contemporary life is what guides the novel.

Jack Gadney's world is eerie, funny, and, ultimately, familiar. Microwaves, garbage disposals, televisions, highways, and medicine are as prominent as the people with whom he shares his life. The supermarket in particular takes center stage as a metaphor for the artificiality of contemporary living. The simple and natural act of eating has transformed into brightly lit aisles featuring plastic-wrapped meats and boxed meals. One of my favorite lines is when DeLillo subtly mentions a character eating a "winter apple" without elaborating on how out of touch with nature it is to eat fruit in the wrong season. And,what's more, that we aren't even aware of the disconnect.

Mr. Gadney has a broad enough perspective to see his life and his town for what it is. In fact, it is this intellectual distance from his own life that grows to haunt him. The result is a disconcerting numbness to serious events. Serious events that have lost their power because: One, they are submerged in suburban antics; Two, what is important or real has become blurred by an increasing dependence on technology and authority. Imagine Camus' protagonist from The Stranger, Meursault, as a central character in Malcolm in the Middle.

When researching (I use that term lightly) the history behind the NY Times' survey of the Best American Fiction, I noticed the opinion that many nominations were chosen more for being representative of "America" than for literary excellence. I think that observation fits here; White Noise does an excellent job placing a mirror in front of the American life, but the story isn't compelling. Then again, perhaps that is part of the genius: the stories of our lives aren't that interesting.


TBlaze said...

Correction - it is a winter peach not a winter apple. I am reading the book now. Very funny.

TBlaze said...
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