Monday, April 12, 2010

Book Review: White Noise

Don DeLillo is one of those authors whose name I kept seeing but didn't know much about.  But I'd seen my favorite author, David Foster Wallace, compared to him so I was intrigued.  From reading the book jacket of White Noise (I found the version that was the 1985 entry on the Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century) it was clear that Foster Wallace must have been influenced by this book.

The book is about a professor of "Hitler studies" at a small college.  Not much happens in the book, except in a few powerful bursts.  The main one is the "Airborne Toxic Event" which consists of a black cloud of highly toxic gas released after a railroad car accident.  The end of the book has a somewhat gruesome scene too that I won't spoil.  The book it very funny, very biting, sometimes scary, sometimes sad.  I enjoyed it immensely and it makes me wish I knew how to write like this.  How does one fill 310 pages with, for the most part, small nonevents (a trip to the grocery store, say) and nothing but internal monologue and conversations.  Moreover, how does one do that in a way that is gripping and keeps the reader interested?  Where do you learn to write a novel that says something about life as it's lived today without anything much happening to otherwise uninteresting people?  I don't know but DeLillo does.  And for a book written in 1985 its seems very prescient to me.  His observations about modern culture may have seemed exaggerated then but have only become truer since.  But the best way to convince someone to read the book (or not to) is with the following passage which I loved.  If it speaks to you then so will the book, I think.  It occurs as the protagonist professor is getting attended to at a shelter during the Airborne Toxic Event:

"That's quite an armband you've got there.  What does SIMUVAC mean?  Sounds important."
"Short for simulated evacuation.  A new state program they’re still battling over funds for."
"But this evacuation isn't simulated.  It's real."
"We know that.  But we thought we could use it as a model."
"A form of practice?  Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?"
"We took it right into the streets."
"How is it going?"  I said.
"The insertion curve isn't as smooth as we would like.  There's a probability excess.  Plus which we don't have our victims laid out where we'd want them if this was an actual simulation.  In other words we’re forced to take our victims as we find them.  We didn't get a jump on computer traffic.  Suddenly it just spilled out, three-dimensionally, all over the landscape.  You have to make allowances for the fact that everything we see tonight is real.  There's a lot of polishing we still have to do.  But that's what this exercise is all about."

No comments: