DeLillo says, “It’s about fear, death, and technology. A comedy, of course.” A 1985 National Book Award winner, White Noise is told by Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies at a small Midwestern liberal arts college. Jack, his wife Babette, and their children from previous marriages are happy until Babette’s addiction to an experimental drug and a deadly toxic accident begin to make Jack question everything. Gladney’s voice is “is one of the most ironic, intelligent, grimly funny voices yet to comment on life in present-day America,” says The New York Times.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Jack “J.A.K.” Gladney (51)
Mary Alice (19 with Dana Breedlove, Jack’s 1st marriage
Heinrich (14—with Janet Savory, Jack’s 2nd marriage)
Bee (12—with Tweedy Bonner, Jack’s 3rd marriage)
Steffie (7—with Dana Breedlove, Jack’s 4th marriage)
Babette “Baba” (Jack’s 4th wife, but 5th marriage)
Denise (11—with Bob Pardee)
Eugene (8) share unnamed father with whom Eugene
Wilder (3) is living in Western Australia this year
Heinrich, Denise, Steffie and Wilder live with Jack and Babette
Bee comes for a visit
MaryAnn and Eugene are mentioned
Vernon Dickey—Babette’s Father
Murray J. Siskind—Visiting lecturer
Alphonse Stampanato—Chairman of the American Environments Department
Dimitrios Cotsakis—Murray’s Elvis Studies rival
Howard Dunlop—German Tutor
Mr. Grey/Willie Mink—Dylar project manager
Old Man Treadwell—blind man to whom Babette
Gladys Treadwell—sister of Old Man Treadwell
Adele T.—psychic who assists police in search for the Treadwell siblings
Orest Mercator (19)—Heinrich’s friend
Tommy Rae Foster—Heinrich’s prison chess partner
Sister Hermann Marie
Sundar Chakravarty—Jack’s doctor
Booklist Review: The chairperson of the department of Nazi studies at a Midwestern college aches to escape the inevitable path of decline and death; a "toxic event" that releases a dangerous cloud of pollution gives him the chance to break free in previously uncontemplated ways. The appeal of this novel lies not in its narrative strength--which in truth wastes away like the professor's own progressive disintegration--but in the individual moments in which DeLillo captures the restless essence of modern lives: sibling terrorism and counterintelligence; academic one-upmanship among the researchers of popular culture; the careers of former spouses that have blossomed in unexpected but thoroughly predictable ways; the supermarket as a reassuring microcosm of American culture; the enforced tedium of mandatory family television viewing; and the lure of an experiment that promises not freedom from death, only freedom from the fear of dying. ((Reviewed November 1, 1984))
Magill Book Review: Jack Gladney, the protagonist of WHITE NOISE, is a history professor who has pioneered the development of "Hitler studies" as an academic discipline but who is insecure about his weak command of the German language. His wife, Babette, is experimenting with a drug that she hopes will be effective against the anxiety attacks triggered by her fear of death. As Jack attempts to understand Babette's problem and help with it, their lives are complicated by a toxic waste leak that forces a mass evacuation.
DeLillo's novels always present several characters who are considerably offbeat but extremely amiable. In WHITE NOISE, Jack has a friend who is a pop-culture scholar addicted to reading a journal called AMERICAN TRANSVESTITE: he also occupies his time thinking up stunts, such as hiring a prostitute on whom he wants to perform the Heimlich maneuver. His zaniness is complemented by that of Orest Mercator, a teenager who is in training (carbohydrate loading) for setting the world's record for the longest time spent in a cage full of black mambas.
The characters in this loosely plotted but engaging novel follow out their preoccupations against a background of persistent noise. The supermarket is "awash in noise"; TV sends out "coded messages and endless repetitions, like chants, like mantras"; a hardware store emits "a great echoing din, as of the extinction of a species of beast"; the shopping mall is warm with "the human buzz of some vivid and happy transaction." At one point, the Gladneys' son falls into an exhausting fit of crying that goes on for nearly seven hours. It is the most distressing of the many sounds that penetrate the novel.
WHITE NOISE is representative of DeLillo's fiction in many ways besides its several zany characters. It sparkles with the bright language that DeLillo's inventions always exhibit, and it displays the concern with modern American culture evinced in several of his earlier novels such as AMERICANA, END ZONE, and GREAT JONES STREET. In its evocation of the fear of death, WHITE NOISE reaches into the human consciousness in ways that make it a very serious novel.
Publishers Weekly Review: Chairman of the department of Hitler studies at a Midwestern college, Jack Gladney is accidently exposed to a cloud of noxious chemicals, part of a world of the future that is doomed because of misused technology, artifical products and foods, and overpopulation. PW appreciated DeLillo's "bleak, ironic" vision, calling it "not so much a tragic view of history as a macabre one." (Publishers Weekly, January 1985)
Kirkus Reviews /* Starred Review */ DeLillo, whose recent taste for fashionable conspiracy and political/philosophical statement has detracted from his eloquent gifts, is back in top form here: sections of this new novel harken back to his best, early, most generous work--and also extend themselves further into regions of dark domestic poetry and fearful pity. The family of Jack Gladney, an insecure academic chairing the Department of Hitler Studies at a small college, is made up of the progeny of both Jack's and wife Babette's previous marriages. In this step-family, then, Jack is happy: "Heat, noise, lights, looks, words, gestures, personalities, appliances. A colloquial density that makes family life the one medium of sense knowledge in which astonishment of heart is routinely contained." True, Jack's professional life is kitschy, in a college that also has a whole department of "American environments"--staffed by fast-talking exiles from New York City, focusing on Elvis, car crashes, UFOs, and generic foods. But his private life with Babette is blissful--clouded only by their mutual fear of it ending: who'll be the first to die, to interrupt the happiness? Then, however, about halfway through the book, there's a catastrophe, an "airborne toxic event," a chemical spill that necessitates evacuation of the college town; during the exodus Jack is momentarily exposed to the noxious air when he gets out to re-fuel the family car, an exposure which will later doom him to a premature death. And though the chemical cloud disperses, the now-strengthened fear of death--the title's "white noise"--continues to paralyze Jack and Babette both: she goes so far as to submit to sexual blackmail, to guinea-pig herself in experiments for an anti-death-anxiety drug called Dylar; Jack takes jealous revenge upon the mad scientist pushing the pills. . . while yearning desperately for the pills at the same time. True, the novel goes wrong here--opting for flashy paranoia and sci-fi, relinquishing the naturalness of the family scenes, the evocation of loneliness before death, the apocalyptic clarities of the evacuation after the spill. In the main, though, DeLillo's most human instincts prevail in this book, resulting in a wealth of lyrical, touching, and terrifying scenes: the family eating fried chicken together in their car; a visit by Babette's broken-down father; and, most indelibly, the descriptions of the "black billowing cloud, the airborne toxic event, lighted by the clear beams of seven army helicopters. They were tracking its windborne movement, keeping it in view"--to the awe of those below in cars and on foot. DeLillo turns a TV-movie disaster scenario into a new Book of Revelations in these pages: a very disturbing, very impressive achievement.
(Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1984)
"It is in documenting such epidemic evasiveness and apprehension, such lack of connection to the natural world and to technology, such bewilderment, that White Noise succeeds so brilliantly....White Noise offers no answers, but it poses inescapable questions with consummate skill." Jayne Anne Phillips, The New York Times Book Review
"The most adventurous and original fiction in recent times." Chicago Tribune
"One of Delillo's funniest novels to date....Eerie, brilliant, and touching." The New York Times