White Noise, which won the National Book Award in 1985 for Fiction, fits into the Book Awards Reading Challenge II. It’s about Jack Gladney’s family following a year in their lives from his point of view. It’s in three parts – not a lot happens in part one “Waves and Radiation”, which mainly introduces the characters, Jack the head of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill, his wife Babette, the different children from their various marriages and Murray his colleague. TV programmes seem to be on constantly in the background and Jack and Babette are obsessed by the fear of death, both wanting to die first, as though they have a choice. There is more action in part two, “The Airborne Toxic Event” when Jack and his family evacuate their house following a chemical spill, plunging Jack into pondering the nature of death. Part three focuses yet again on death, the fear of death and the afterlife, mixed up with Jack’s search for “Mr Gray”, the man who supplied Babette with Dylar, the drug that supposedly removes the fear of death.
I alternated in reading between thinking I didn’t want to finish this book and wanting to finish it. After tedious passages when my mind wandered on to what what we were going to have for dinner, and other more interesting topics, it grabbed my attention and I found myself reading to the end, but it’s too long and too rambling for my liking.
I didn’t make many notes whilst reading but those I did jot down related to the seemingly trivial nature of much of the family’s preoccupations, their trips to the supermarket, their reaction to various crises, the insecurity and precarious nature of life, the search for cures, and above all the fear of death.
Jack discusses these subjects with everyone – his wife and children, Murray and Winnie, the eccentric research neurochemist at the College. Winnie thinks
… it’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need? Doesn’t it give a precious texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry of a final line, a border or a limit.
I thought the third part of the book changed the tone again, with Jack’s descent into a kind of madness as he plans to kill “Mr Gray”. For me this was almost a dreamlike, or rather a nightmarish, scene and seemed too contrived. Jack’s evasion of reality and truth runs throughout the book and his conversation with the nun in the final section about belief and the afterlife highlights this – the nuns’ “dedication is a pretense”, because “someone must appear to believe” or the “world would collapse”.
All in all, I was not too engaged with White Noise, although it does contain some interesting ideas and I’m not sure I would read any other books by DeLillo. Maybe postmodern books are just not my cup of tea.