One of the most wonderful things about Literature is the fact that when you really start to read seriously, you begin to find all these marvelous snaking paths between authors and genres, titles and ideas that allows you to access a sort of hidden history of the written wor(l)d. Lovecraft leads to Clark Ashton Smith and Algernon Blackwood, leads to Robert E. Howard, leads to August Derleth, leads to Ramsey Campbell leads Alan Moore, leads to so many other things, movies and essays and nonfiction and…
You get the picture. It is exhausting. But it’s the good type of exhausting, the type that puts a gleam in your eye and a further understanding of the world we don’t see everyday here in the meager beginnings of the twenty-first century. I recently opened a new corridor in this, the secret vaults of the modern world, when I picked up Don DeLillo’s White Noise a few weeks ago.
“Maybe our generation has found its Don DeLillo” – this is a quote from Bret Easton Ellis referenced on the first page inside the original paperback edition of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Survivor. I read Survivor for the first time about six months ago and since opening the book to that first page that quote has haunted me – DeLillo was someone I’d not experienced yet and to see an author I respected so much reference him in championing another author I very much respect made me take immediate note. However, time goes by, the pile of books that clogs my house grows on a weekly basis and I’m always reading something even while acquiring something else. My mantra when this becomes overwhelming is “I will get to everything in its own time” and brother, I just got to Don DeLillo and his modern-day masterpiece White Noise and let me tell you – don’t wait as long as I did if you haven’t read it.
White Noise is so obviously an influence on Mr. Palahniuk; there is a similar juxtaposition DeLillo’s characters portray to the world of ads and shopping center that surrounds them – both authors deal with the ideas and ramifications of late twentieth century media and humanity’s rabid desire to over-exposure its brains to as many forms of information as possible, some good, most worthless. Advertising, technology, science, education, and the way in which the marketing gods of the new millenium so conveniently tie it all together in an attempt to enslave us to our ids, collectively speaking and individually as well. DeLillo’s a bit more wordy with his exposition (not a bad thing at all, just a distinction I’d like to get out of the way) and not as reliant on repetition and rhythm as Palahniuk, but reading White Noise you can see where part of the iconic author of Fight Club and Choke made up his mind to write. And that is wonderful.
But what else is wonderful is White Noise’s inconvenient narrative structure – again, not a bad thing. Divided into basically three ‘acts’ that cross pollinate but don’t necessarily flow from one to another in a traditional narrative structure.
Part 1: You get to know the narrator, a 60-something year old college professor who is more or less renowned for constructing his University’s popular ‘Hitler studies’ program and his family; you see their quarks, their friends, their dinners and their television viewing habits and how it ties their lives together.
Part 2: The Airbourne Toxic Event, as it is titled in the book, wherein a chemical by-product of some experimental pesticides and who knows what else is accidentally released into the region’s immediate atmosphere and a panic-evacuation ends up emptying the town and putting at least one of our characters at serious if not immediate risk.
Part 3: In which as fallout from Part 2 we learn of several characters’ almost paralyzing fear of death, what they are trying to do about it and how it all ends up just complicating everyone’s lives further.
DeLillo’s White Noise is deadly serious at times, but also funny as all hell. “Just say ‘Cochlea’ to somebody, they look at you like, ‘Who’s this guy?’…” is one of the funniest sentences I’ve ever come across in a novel and it’s sandwiched between cancer-inducing (or worse) carcinogen evacuation debacles and super-secret prescription drugs meant to help you chemically overcome fear of death.
Now that’s great literature!!!