Writing as catharsis

Book review: White Noise by Don DeLillo

Posted in Book review by Lachlan R. Dale on April 22, 2013
White Noise by Don Delillo

White Noise by Don DeLillo

White Noise is my first experience with Don DeLillo’s work. Over the past 12 months I’d heard his name uttered many times – usually coupled with some recognition that he is one of the most important fiction authors in recent decades.

From the moment I began reading White Noise it was apparent that DeLillo is a supremely gifted author; his metaphors are sublime, his prose smooth and easy to read. His most commendable skill seems to be his ability to perfectly capture human frailty in simple, everyday scenes. In White Noise the narrator supplies a seemingly endless supply of observations on human behaviour; how shallow appearances and subtle symbols instill confidence in social institutions; how a family looks to each other for emotional reassurance in a million trivial games of power and dominance; how cultural identity and meaning are maintained every day through our most insignificant gestures.

As an illustration I’ll outline on passage I found particularly memorable. In this scene the narrator Jack and fellow lecturer Murray take a tourist trip to see ‘the most photographed barn in America’. The significance of this barn appears to be entirely circular; it is famous because it is so often photographed, and it is photographed because it is famous. This absurd passage follows:

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more. People with camera left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.

“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They’re taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

There are dozens of moments like this in White Noise, where post-modern / Foucauldian concepts are bound with anthropological observation and presented in a humorous deadpan style that often reminds me of Bret Easton Ellis (it would appear as though Ellis is indebted to DeLillo’s style). Unfortunately a novel is not built on keen observation and creative metaphor alone. White Noise is divided into three parts; I almost abandoned the book towards the end of the first part, simply because nothing seemed to happen. In fact nothing of consequence seems to happen in the first 150 or so pages; we are merely subjected to a continuous stream of miniscule observations; of beautiful insights into human intimacy; of the slow and steady development of characters (DeLillo’s ability to give life to his characters is also excellent) — but there is seemingly no overarching “plot” at such.

Things certainly “happen” in the second and third parts, but at the book’s conclusion I still did not feel I had completed a novel. DeLillo’s writing stalks along at the same steady pace for over 300 pages, drawing a smile or a chuckle with regularity, but seemingly refusing to deliver a major story arc or significant plot development. The cute-ness of his style seemingly prevents any moments of heightened drama. I finished White Noise lacking a sense of closure, and with mixed feelings.

As a commentary on human frailty – particularly fear of death – this was a pleasure to read – but as a fiction novel I felt a little deflated and left wanting more. Perhaps this was DeLillo’s intention (skimming summaries of his other work certainly seems to indicate he is a man who throws off the standard convention of a linear novel), but I am left undecided and lukewarm.

DeLillo possesses piercing insight but I am still undecided as to his status as a novelist. There is a reasonable chance that I will return to more of his work in the future; perhaps that will put me in a position to better comment on his intentions and approach.

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