Tuning back in to ‘White Noise’

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Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” (Penguin: 336 pp., $16 paper), newly reissued in a 25th anniversary edition with superb jacket art by Michael Cho, is many different types of novel: a campus novel; the soap opera of a hilariously dysfunctional family; a disaster story; a murder story; a meditation on America’s nervousness around (and obsession with) fear and dying; and a satire on trashy cultural values that is nonetheless filled with heart-stopping, and realistically rendered, moments of human radiance and recognition.

Set in a small Midwestern town, “White Noise” is narrated by college professor Jack Gladney, who tells us, “I am chairman of the department of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill. I invented Hitler studies in North America in March of 1968. It was a bright cold day with intermittent winds out of the West. When I suggested to the chancellor that we might build a whole department around Hitler’s life and work, he was quick to see the possibilities. It was an immediate and electrifying success. The chancellor went on to serve as adviser to Nixon, Ford and Carter before his death on a ski lift in Austria.”

How great is that? Gladney, in a neat twist, doesn’t even speak German, a failing that he spends parts of the book unconvincingly trying to rectify. Fully in touch with the doomy, totemic power of the word “Hitler,” he lacks success elsewhere. Divested of the black gown and sunglasses he habitually wears around campus, Gladney seems to lose his drive, maybe even his character. In the aisles of the local supermarkets, he feels “agitation and panic” and looks for colleagues so they can riff about what they see on the shelves.

Even such basic stuff as canned produce is too scary-real for Gladney unless he can transform it into discourse. Indeed, a theme of “White Noise” is how difficult it is to grasp the world or use the mass of information that bombards us. Like Gladney, we are subject to “brain-fade,” and, like him, we fear for those we love. “The family is a fragile unit surrounded by hostile facts,” notes Gladney, who’s been married five times (to four women) and whose numerous children and stepchildren drift throughout the story, causing alarms, wonder and (a favorite DeLillo word) dread. Only Hitler is “fine, solid, dependable,” Gladney says, asking himself: “Where would TV be without Hitler?”

DeLillo, remember, wrote this more than 25 years ago, yet the joke of Jack Gladney’s Nazi-spurred success in the groves of academe is only one of many ways in which “White Noise” seems eerily prescient. The novel’s central section, the spooky driving force of the narrative, is titled “ The Airborne Toxic Event” (this is where the rock band got its name) and concerns a chemical spill, a “feathery plume” that turns into “a dark black breathing thing of smoke,” shifting with the wind and causing the Gladneys, and thousands of others, to flee.

“We made it onto the road as snow began to fall. We had little to say to each other, our minds not yet adjusted to the actuality of things, the absurd fact of evacuation. Mainly we looked at people in other cars, trying to work out from their faces how frightened we should be,” Gladney notes, and the reader in 2010 can’t help but think of Sept. 11, an event this novel somehow foreshadowed.

Soon Gladney sees other terrified people, moving on foot. “Out in the open,” he observes, “keeping their children near, carrying what they could, they seemed to be part of some ancient destiny, connected in doom and ruin to a whole history of people trekking across wasted landscapes.”

Exposed to the swirl of vaporized poison, Gladney knows that his own death is growing inside him. His terror mounts. But he’s still a clever, self-ironizing fellow, and when he encounters a rescue worker with a khaki jacket and an armband saying “SIMUVAC” (short for simulated evacuation), he asks: “Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?”

The answer he gets is “yes,” of course, for “White Noise” posits a world, very much our world, in which TV images and a sense of déjà vu replace real events even as they’re happening. “I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters,” Gladney says, a haunting and lovely phrase that, for a few seconds, reclaims his being from anxiety and media saturation.

“White Noise” is almost overstuffed with such moments, with deadpan dialogue and scintillating aphorisms. DeLillo’s biggest kick comes not from satire, or the evocation of the mystery and magic that course through our lives, but from making language pop and fizz.

“Californians invented the concept of lifestyle. This alone warrants their doom”; “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”; “Brilliant people never think of the lives they smash, being brilliant”; “Terrifying data is now an industry in itself”; “What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation.”

DeLillo’s previous novel, published in 1982, was “The Names” -- a book similarly concerned with linguistic texture, except that its sentences are quiet and almost hypnotic, the product of several years the author spent living in Greece. The more frantic “White Noise” resulted from a homecoming, and there are sections where DeLillo seems to look at his country’s crazy and dangerous poetry with a traveler’s pop-eyed gaze. “Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks,” he notes. “The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.”

Perhaps DeLillo came back to America and so soaked up the assault of its teeming everyday, its wondrous and paranoid present, that he couldn’t help but enclose the darkness of the future. “White Noise” won the National Book Award in 1985 and quickly became an inspiration and influence. Without it, writers such as David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Martin Amis, Zadie Smith and Richard Powers (who provides an excellent introduction here) don’t happen -- or don’t happen in the same way.

Still, to describe “White Noise” as one of the most important fictions of the last part of the last century is to burden with daunting baggage a book that, on rereading, seems wilder and scarier and funnier, and even more pertinent, than it did the first time around.

Rayner is the author, most recently, of “A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption and L.A.’s Scandalous Coming of Age.” Paperback Writers appears monthly at