November 19, 2007


michael gorra

I love reading White Noise, love teaching it. But there's one thing about it I've never quite been able to get around, and I wonder if anybody else has the same reaction. Basically it's this: all the evacuation procedures related to the Airborne Toxic Event work--the characters are safe, and I don't see in reading that we should give any special credence to the idea that Jack has in fact been fatally exposed--you trust the guy who tells him?--though I'll admit that he himself believes it. But the fact that the procedures work suggests that DeLillo's world isn't nearly as precarious as his characters believe, or as the book itself seems to suggest. White Noise appeared, however, in more or less the same week as the Bhopal disaster--a real life Airborne Toxic Event in a region with basically no evacuation procedures in place. Many dead, more sick--so that reading the book when it appeared made me think that it had, in essence, been mugged by reality; almost as though the novel itself were no more than the white noise it seemed to describe. Which at that point, faced with such an actual, on-the-ground disaster, seemed unacceptable in a way that might be said to mark the limits of DeLilloish postmodernism; the style itself not an analytic tool but a part of the problem. I tried to write about this in a review at the time, but I was young and botched it and the editor changed and the piece got spiked. I don't think I've yet read any criticism that drew on the conjunction in time between the novel and Bhopal, though doubtless somebody has. Over the years this has dimmed a bit, and I like the novel more than I used to, especially for things like Murray or the supermarket. But clearly the issue has stayed with me, I still argue with the book, and I'm curious about other people's reactions, about whether anyone else has been struck or perturbed by it.

Joshua Ferris

Michael, the Viking Critical Library edition of WN talks about Bhopal in the introduction and includes three stories from Newsweek about the disaster. It does a good job of putting Bhopal in the context of the novel—certainly as much as is necessary.

Prescience has always been one of Delillo’s gifts, prescience for disaster and violence in particular. Gerald Howard’s recent Bookforum article points out that even in his pseudonymous novel “Amazons”—which can only be described as a comic romp calling for very little gravitas—fundamentalist Saudis buy the New York Rangers and impose a strict moral code on the novel’s hockey players. This at a time when, say, Hollywood was still presenting anyone Islamic as nothing more than coke-snorting oil sheiks. This eerie prescience (about Bhopal, about religious terror)—for me, anyway—doesn’t rob his fiction of its power, if only because the world of WN, for instance, is an obvious heightened creation kept down by the ballast of Jack’s earnest (and wonderfully drawn) death fears.

If there is a nagging sense that the stakes aren’t high enough in WN to feel a real endangerment for Jack and his family, I’d argue Delillo does a good job from the beginning to give the Gladney family distance from the actual disaster. They aren’t at ground zero. From the Gladney home Heinrich, and later Jack, can only see the billowing cloud by looking through binoculars. And though Jack is exposed, we know that Nyodene D. is “a whole new generation of toxic waste.” Who’s to say how it works, even at ground zero? There’s not much talk about victims. There’s no death toll offered, no description of the suffering. Which is conspicuous, given Jack’s preoccupation with such details. Perhaps the wholly invented Nyodene D. only works as the SIMULAC man intimates—uncertainly, and over time. The very ambiguity of its death-delivery system mirrors the uncertainty of death itself, and mirrors Dylar as well, with its time-released specificity. There would be, then, no Bhopal-like horror in Blacksmith. There’s enough textual evidence to offer the Airborne Toxic Event as an alternative to the grueling and wide-spread violence of Bhopal.

And as you say, Jack believes in his death—Delillo is very clear on that score—and like another dubious narrator—Humbert Humbert in Lolita—there’s the seductive tendency to get swept up by their keen observations and feints for pathos, perhaps at the expense of a clear-eyed look at the worlds they inhabit.


This piece is very well expressed, but I couldn't agree less. And I'm relieved, because a good friend and I -- not notable novelists like Mr. Ferris, but nonetheless engaged with the literary culture (and occasional worker bees within it) -- are posting a back-and-forth about our mutual dislike of White Noise beginning next week on my blog. Underworld is one of my favorite novels, but I've never made it very far into White Noise, despite repeated tries. (My friend has finished it three times in a perverse attempt to warm up to it, so I'm hoping his rigor makes up for my lack of same in our conversation.) Anyway, I find DeLillo's use of the supermarket as a commentary on the average person's spiritual life to be intellectually lazy, massively condescending, and ultimately unconvincing. Yet I say in all honesty that I'm grateful for Mr. Ferris' post, which I enjoyed. Difference of opinion is what makes horse races, after all.

michael gorra

Thanks, Joshua, for the tip about the Viking edition, and I think too that your words about the distance Jack's famly has from the ATE makes sense. But I still can't shake my own sense that the novel isn't fully grappling with the issues it poses, or appears to pose. I say "appears" because it's true that over time the Nyodene D has started to seem less central to the book as a whole than it did on first release, with Bhopal in the news. Less central, as other things start to seem more--the Hitler rap, and the supermarket, the nuns, etc. Or is it that distance itself is his subject here? For a comparison I'd look to The Names, which seems to me underrated--a novel about temptation, seduction, about being pulled in by system--there that grappling does take place, and the book has always seemed to me briliant and creepy, dangerous in the strongest and best sense.

What White Noise does have, on a scale that none of DeLillo's other books do (unless possibly some of the early ones, which I confess I haven't read, North Dallas 40 aside) is comedy--he has always a sense of the absurd, but here it becomes laughter, and sustained dark laughter at that; again, the nuns. Underworld will have such passages, but they are only moments in its Victorian scale. But this one is comic as Vile Bodies or yes, Lolita, is comic. It's holding up--to me at least it looks stronger than it did in 1984. Right around this time of year, as I remember.

So I suppose my lesson--obvious, always in need of being relearned--is that the book is never just its moment; for me, in this case, that has been hard to remember. I'd still like to read something substantial that works White Noise against Bhopal, and in some richer way than simply treating it as context or background. But I suppose that's what the MLA bibliography is for, unless I want to write it myself.

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