“The tabloid future, with its mechanism of a hopeful twist to apocalyptic events, was perhaps not so very remote from our own immediate experience.”
High-tech America finally reached a critical mass of runaway consumerism, media saturation, novelty intellectualism, conspiracy theories, the disintegration of societal bonds — and evidently, that was three decades ago.
All the themes of the hour are contained in Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, White Noise. It’s remarkable that a 30-year-old work can feel so simultaneously current, futuristic, and nostalgic.
White Noise was published the same year as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, another visionary novel by a writer with whom DeLillo shares the subjective title of “Greatest Living American Author” along with the likes of Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and perhaps a few additional nominees.
As a McCarthy fan, it always stood out to me that the renowned literary critic, Harold Bloom, listed works by DeLillo, Pynchon, and Roth as ‘runners-up’ to Blood Meridian for the distinction being of “the greatest fiction written by human beings alive and among us”. Of the four, it was DeLillo with whom I was the least familiar. This past year I read a few of DeLillo’s novels to see if he could really measure up to this claim of greatness. I started with End Zone, then read his most celebrated work, Underworld, and most recently finished White Noise, which has proved to be my favorite of the bunch.
DeLillo does indeed measure up to McCarthy in greatness, and the comparison between Blood Meridian and White Noise makes for an interesting juxtaposition. If Blood Meridian is a retrospective on human nature, White Noise is a prospective on modern society, technology, culture, and systems — one that remains remarkably accurate in hindsight. A comparison is apt given that the two books are both “great works” by “great authors,” written in the same year. The comparison is all the more interesting because they look in opposite directions to uncover human universals. Both books can be called postmodern. Both are superbly written. Both are unsettling, yet undeniable capsules of truth in the way that great literature should be.
The staying power of White Noise reinforces DeLillo’s greatness as an author but also underscores that even in an era of rapid technological change there really is nothing new under the sun (if you know what to focus on). Perhaps the internet has not abruptly remapped the basic trajectory of modern society in the way that some imagine. We were already on our way.
White Noise won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. It doesn’t need my validation, but it is worth highlighting the book for an audience who may not have it on their radar.
At the moment, I will not bother with a review or analysis — I don’t entirely know what to make of the book yet myself — but I will relay some of my favorite quotes that showcase DeLillo’s penetrating vision of human nature, elite command of the English language, and impressively clear vision of contemporary American culture from 30+ years ago.
Pick up White Noise if you like great prose and are not deterred by an unsettlingly accurate, darkly comedic illustration of the modern, technology-mediated condition.
Quotes from White Noise by Don DeLillo
Here we don’t die, we shop. But the difference is less marked than you think.
She was transcribing names and phone numbers from an old book to a new one. There were no addresses. Her friends had phone numbers only, a race of people with seven-bit analog consciousness.
In the morning I walked to the bank. I went to the automated teller machine to check my balance. I inserted my card, entered my security code, tapped out my request. The figure on the screen roughly corresponded to my independent estimate, feebly arrived at after long searches through documents, tormented arithmetic. Waves of gratitude and relief flowed over me. The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval. The system hardware, the mainframe sitting in a locked room in some distant city. What a pleasing interaction. I sensed that something of deep personal value, but not money, not that at all had been authenticated and confirmed. A deranged person was escorted from the bank by two armed guards. They system was invisible which made it all the more impressive all the more disquieting to deal with. Be we were in accord, at least for now. The networks, the streams, the harmonies.
The phone rang and I picked it up. A woman’s voice delivered a high-performance hello.
This is the society of kids. I tell my students they’re already too old to figure importantly into the making of society. Minute by minute they’re beginning to diverge from each other. ‘Even as we sit here,’ I tell them, ‘you are spinning out from the core, becoming less recognizable as a group, less targetable by advertisers and mass producers of culture. Kids are a true universal.
“TV is a problem only if you’ve forgotten how to look and listen,” Murray said. “My students and I discuss this all the time. They’re beginning to feel they ought to turn against the medium, exactly as an earlier generation turned against their parents and their country. I tell them they have to learn to look as children again. Root out content. Find the codes and messages…”
“You have to learn how to look. You have to open yourself up to the data. TV offers incredible amounts of psychic data. It opens ancient memories of world birth, it welcomes us into the grid, the network of little buzzing dots that make up the picture pattern. There is light, there is sound. I ask my students, ‘What more do you want?’ Look at the wealth of data concealed in the grid, in the bright packaging, the jingles, the slice of life commercials, the products hurtling out of the darkness, the coded messages and endless repetitions, like chants, like mantras. ‘Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it.’ The medium practically overwhelms with sacred formulas if we can remember how to respond innocently and get past our irritation, weariness, and disgust.
It was important for him to believe that he’d spent his life among people who kept missing the point.
His hair was expensively cut and layered, a certain amount of color combed in, a certain amount of technology brought to bear, but it seemed to need a more dynamic head.
…the art of getting ahead in New York was based on learning how to express dissatisfaction in an interesting way. The air was full of rage and complaint. People had no tolerance for your particular hardship unless you knew how to entertain them with it.
Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphs, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in. Mudslides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.
Did his mother know that Elvis would die young? She talked about assassins. She talked about the life. The life of a star of this type and magnitude. Isn’t the life structured to cut you down early? This is the point, isn’t it? There are rules, guidelines. If you don’t have the grace and wit to die early, you are forced to vanish, to hide as if in shame and apology.
To become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from a crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone. Crowds came for this reason above all others. They were there to be a crowd.
…we are fragile creature surrounded by a world of hostile facts. Facts threaten our happiness and security. The deeper we delve into the nature of things, the looser our structure may seem to become. The family process works toward sealing off the world. Small errors grow heads, fictions proliferate…Magic and superstition become entrenched as the powerful orthodoxy of the clan. The family is strongest where objective reality is most likely to be misinterpreted.
It is the nature and pleasure of townspeople to distrust the city. All the guiding principles that might flow from a center of ideas and cultural energies are regarded as corrupt, one or another kind of pornography. This is how it is with towns.
There was a sense of Protestant despair about her, a collapsed aura in which her body struggled to survive.
The power of the dead is that we think they see us all the time. The dead have a presence. They are also in the ground, of course, asleep and crumbling. Perhaps we are what they dream. / May the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to a plan.
I sensed his support for my little mission. Even his hopeful conviction and considered judgment to his pure observations. This is a parent’s task, after all.
Heat, noise, lights, looks, words, gestures, personalities, appliances. A colloquial destiny that makes family life the one medium of sense knowledge in which astonishment of heart is routinely contained.
It seems that danger assigns to public voices the responsibility of a rhythm, as if in metrical units there is a coherence we can use to balance whatever senseless and furious event is about to come rushing around our heads.
In a crisis the true facts are whatever other people say they are. No one’s knowledge is less secure than your own.
I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters.
It is surely possible to be awed by a thing that threatens your life, to see it as a cosmic force, so much larger than yourself, more powerful, created by elemental and wilful rhythms.
Remarks existed in a state of permanent flotation. No one thing was either more or less plausible than any other thing. As people jolted out of reality, we were released from the need to distinguish.
All the flashiness of Armageddon is in the rotting.
Stark upheavals bring out every sort of quaint aberration by the very suddenness of their coming.
The genius of the primitive mind is that it can render human helplessness in noble and beautiful ways.
…you are the total sum of your data. No man escapes that.
It is when death is rendered graphically, is televised so to speak, that you sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself. A network of symbols has been introduced, an entire awesome technology wrested from the gods. It makes you feel like a stranger in your own dying.
The tabloid future, with its mechanism of a hopeful twist to apocalyptic events, was perhaps not so very remote from our own immediate experience.
What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. It changes and grows every second of every day. But nobody actually knows anything.
“This is the true nature of death,” Murray said. “It has a life independent of us. It is growing in prestige and dimension. It has a sweep it never had before. We study it objectively. We can predict its appearance, trace its paths in the body. We can take cross-sectional pictures of it, tape its tremors and waves. We’ve never been so close to it, so familiar with its habits and attitudes. We know it intimately. But it continues to grow, to acquire breadth and scope, new outlets, new passages and means. The more we learn, the more it grows. Is this some law of physics? Every advance in knowledge and technique is matched by a new kind of death, a new strain. Death adapts, like a viral agent.”
Most of us have probably seen our own death but haven’t known how to make the material surface. Maybe when we die, the first thing we’ll say is, ‘I know this feeling. I was here before.’
The toxic event had released a spirit of imagination. People spun tales, other listened spellbound. There was a growing respect for the vivid rumor, the most chilling tale… We began to marvel at our own ability to manufacture awe.
The world is more complicated for adults than it is for children. We didn’t grow up with all these shifting facts and attitudes.
It occurred to me that eating is the only form of professionalism that most people ever attain.
Terrifying data is now an industry in itself. Different firms compete to see how badly they can scare us.
I tell myself that I have reached an age of unreliable menace. The world is full of abandoned meanings. In the commonplace I find unexpected themes and intensities.
How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn’t they paralyze us? How is it that we can survive them, at least for a while? We drive the car, we teach a class. How is it that no one sees how deeply afraid we were last night, this morning? Is it something we all hide from each other, by mutual consent? Or do we share the same secret without knowing it? Wear the same disguise.”
She has a history of being devout in her victimhood.
Self-pity is something that children are very good at, which must mean it is natural and important. Imagining yourself dead is the cheapest, sleaziest, most satisfying form of self-pity.
…I think it’ 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 any beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry a final line, a border or limit.
Fear is self-awareness raised to a higher level… If death can be seen as less strange and unreferenced, your sense of self in relation to death will diminish, and so will your fear.
Brilliant people never think of the lives they smash, being brilliant.
Evidently fathers and sons seek fellowship and such events. Fires help draw them closer, provide a conversational wedge. There is equipment to appraise, the technique of the firemen to discuss and criticize. The manliness of firefighting — the virility of fires, one might say — suits the kind of laconic dialogue that fathers and sons can undertake without awkwardness of embarrassment.
My own plain and, crosshatched and whorled in a mesh of expressive lines a life terrain, might itself be the object of a person’s study and wonder for years. A cosmology against the void.
You can get whatever you want in the recesses of the American home. These are the times we live in, for better or for worse. Wives will do things. They want to do things. You don’t have to drop little looks. It used to be that the only thing available in the American home was the basic natural act. Now you get options too. The action is thick, let me tell you.
I resumed staring at the gun. It occurred to me that this was the ultimate device for determining one’s competence in the world.
Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It’s a settling of grievances between the past and the present. The more powerful the nostalgia, the closer you come to violence. War is the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country.
Is this what athletes do, occupy the self more fully? It’s possible we envy them for a prowess that has little to do with sport. In building toward a danger, they escape it in some deeper sense, the dwell in some angelic scan, able to leap free of everyday dying.
Technology is lust removed from nature.
Helpless and fearful people are drawn to magical figures, mythic figures, epic men who intimidate and darkly loom.
He smelled a packet of dehydrated soap. The data was strong today.
The killer, in theory, attempts to defeat his own death by killing others. He buys time, he buys life.
To enter a room is to agree to a certain kind of behavior… No one should enter a room not knowing the point.
Is it better to commit evil and attempt to balance it with an exalted act than to live a resolutely neutral life?
It hadn’t occurred to me that a man’s attempts to redeem himself might prolong the elation he felt when he committed the crime he now sought to make up for.
The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers. They walk in a fragmented trance, stop and go, clusters of well-dressed figures frozen in aisles, trying to figure out the pattern, discern the underlying logic, trying to remember where they’d see the cream of wheat. They see no reason for it, no sense in it… in the plain and heartless fact of their decline, they try to work their way through their confusion. But in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners that decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of our age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, he cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.
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