Friday, October 10, 2008

White Noise

I just realized that the reason this didn't go through immediately was almost certainly "Elvishitler." Sheesh.

Consumerism is all around us. See? Here are some random brand names. It shapes and warps our personal lives. Late capitalism! Deeper meaning is lost! Booyah! The past is reduced to dehistoricized simulacra! Don't believe me? Check this out: Hitler. Elvis. Elvishitler! See? Are you taking notes?

Yes, Don, I see--how could I not?--but I'm afraid I'm not taking notes, because this is all Postmodern Theory 101. Everything in here is very basic, and DeLillo just plonks it down in front of us in a big, undigested mass. You might as well just read Fredric Jameson and be done with it. Other writers' works are informed by postmodern concepts; DeLillo's just tells you, right up-front, "look--here are some postmodern concepts," and then apparently expects you to look impressed, even though he doesn't do anything interesting or different with them. How many scenes do we need in shopping centers before we get the picture? A LOT, is apparently how many. Seriously: many times you will think, well, that's probably enough scenes in grocery stores, and then there'll be ANOTHER one. The book ENDS in one. DeLillo is absolutely OBSESSED with these scenes, and what is the sum total of their purpose? I'll tell you: there is consumerism; it has become a sacrament; we use it to hide/cover up death. Honest to god, that is ALL. Nothing deeper than that. And yet he seems to think it's the most profound thing in the world.

Take also the whole "Hitler Studies" conceit. Okay, so this is emblematic of how historicity works, or fails to work, in a postmodern environment. It's also how the main character tries to escape his fear of death. Fine. I'm tentatively interested. So tell us more: what exactly goes on in these classes? What leads students to major in this field? What further implications does it have for a postmodern world? Don't bother asking these questions, because you won't get an answer. DeLillo seems to believe that the basic germ of an idea is enough. But it's not. Barring any further development, it's just unbearably trite.

I suspect all of this would be a lot less bothersome if it weren't all so...unadorned. You needn't be a super-deep, probing, original thinker to write a successful novel in the postmodern idiom. It helps, of course, but even if your ideas themselves aren't all that clever, you can make them engaging by placing them in an interesting context or putting an unusual spin on them. DeLillo sad to say, is simply not interested in doing anything of the kind. I honestly started to feel a kind of rage every time another random product name was inserted into the narrative: you think that's good enough? You think that's all you have to do? You actually, no joke, think you're being CLEVER? JAYSUS, but you are one smug, self-satisfied little git.

Does he make up for this by populating the novel with interesting people? No. DeLillo's characters never have conversations; they just endlessly circle around each other. Okay okay, they live in a world in which communication has broken down. Point taken. I do not see, however, how this justifies the fact that they all--from small children to highly educated professors--talk in exactly the same elliptical pseudo-profundities. Other writers are able to present this same sense of disconnection without making all the characters into sockpuppets for their oh-so-clever (but they AREN'T particularly clever!) ideas. One really gets the impression that DeLillo is using this idea of disconnection as an excuse to hide the fact that he's just lousy at writing character.

Does he make up for this with interesting plotting? Again, I hate to sound negative, but no. The book gets marginally less irritating after the first hundred pages, when things actually start HAPPENING, but the first section, which almost literally consists of nothing more than a LOT of "look at all this postmodernism! See? Isn't it postmodern? Here's some more! Postmodernism!" is pretty rough going. And even when it gets less bad, still I don't know that I'd quite call it "good." The narrative remains pretty enervating throughout. The climactic act of violence at the end is certainly the most vivid part of the book; the only time it breaks out of its self-satisfied inertness and feels at all human. Honestly, though, given the tone set by the rest of the novel, it seems more jarring and out-of-place than anything.

People allege that DeLillo is funny. I beg to differ. He has a few amusing lines here and there ("he regarded me with the grimly superior air of a combat veteran. Obviously he didn't think much of people whose complacent and overprotected lives did not allow for encounters with brain-dead rats"), but the large bulk of the "humor" in this book is pretty impoverished. The gruesomely precious, oh-so-clever-clever family conversations in particular are just about more than a man can bear.

And this lack of humor is really what it boils down to. I enjoy postmodern fiction because, even at its most reactionary (see Williams Gass and Gaddis), there's a sense of exhilaration to it: we've lost our historical narratives, meaning has been flattened, and we're all disconnected, but hey, we're also liberated! We can do whatever we want! Let's party in the ruins! DeLillo is the big exception to this. There is nothing exhilarating about White Noise. It's just a series of numbingly banal ideas, repeated over and over, with no engaging story or characters to support them.

One might argue: White Noise was written in 1985. "The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" had just been published the previous year. Perhaps all of the novel's ideas didn't seem as self-evident then as they are now. I think it's the best argument you could make, but the fact remains, there are any number of writers more or less of DeLillo's generation--Pynchon, Barth, Coover, Doctorow, Reed, Bartheleme, and on and on and on--who, at this time and well before, were writing books that are smarter, more thought-provoking, and just plain more enjoyable than White Noise. In light of that, there's just no excuse for this kind of plodding mediocrity.

I'm sorry if this review seems insufferable, but I think an alternate viewpoint on DeLillo is sorely needed. I'm a postmodernist. I love the attendant literature. I have no instinctive revulsion here; quite the opposite, in fact: I WANT to like DeLillo, and I know some very smart people who do. But while I'd be all ears If someone could give me a cogent reason why I should join them, I haven't heard it yet. In the meantime, if you have to read him, I would recommend the opening section of Underworld (you can safely skip the rest of the novel unless you're a serious glutton for punishment). It's surprisingly good, and suggests that the man isn't as talent-deficient as he seems, even if that talent doesn't translate very well into novels. Otherwise, I recommend the Psychedelic Furs song "Soap Commercial." It pretty much does what White Noise does, only much more succinctly. And it's a rockin' tune.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

It may also be that you exceeded the word limit. They used to cap it at 1,000 words, don't know if they still do.

SK

4:59 PM  
Blogger GeoX pontificated to the effect that...

You may be right, which would be very disappointing to me. I'm very happy about this one; I think I articulated what I wanted to say better than ever before, and I really don't want to cut it. ARTISTIC VISION BLARGH@@#$@$!!!

Still, if that was the case you'd think they'd alert you to the fact when you tried to submit.

6:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Well, give it a couple days -- if they don't post it, then edit it and try again. It may be just because of "Elvishitler" (it sounds hilarious when you say it with the "sh" sound).

SK

11:55 PM  
Blogger GeoX pontificated to the effect that...

Yeah. Elvishitler is way worse than regular Hitler, for obvious reasons.

12:45 PM  
Blogger GeoX pontificated to the effect that...

Evlishitler becomes Hitlerelvis, and we are go.

6:41 PM  
Blogger Kaitlyn pontificated to the effect that...

NO FUCKING WAY.

If you read The Handmaid's Tale next, I will be convinced that you are actually my English professor, gender be damned!

I'm not going to read this post until we get to that book, but damn.

If you cover Beka Lamb, I shall die.

You know what this means, right? I'll be pestering you once we get around to White Noise, just like I planned with Infinite Jest.

1:24 PM  
Blogger GeoX pontificated to the effect that...

Go for it.

For the record, I read The Handmaid's Tale for English class my senior year of high school. I wasn't a big fan--sure, theocrats are nutty and dangerous, but the idea that they would be able to take over as they do in the novel seemed wildly implausible, and the whole thing struck me as overly dour and heavy-handed. I'd have to read it again to make a fair judgment, however. And, in the manner of five-year-olds everywhere, I doan wanna.

2:14 PM  
Blogger Kaitlyn pontificated to the effect that...

Well, I hafta read it.

Such is the horrid life of a student.

10:05 PM  
Blogger GeoX pontificated to the effect that...

Well, feel free to let me know what you think. A lot of people like it.

12:55 AM  

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