How did the novel that Don DeLillo originally titled “Panasonic” become the phenomenon that was, and still is, White Noise? Canonized at birth by rhapsodic critics and instantly ubiquitous on college syllabi, the novel won the National Book Award and journalists hailed its publicity-shy author as a prophet.
But White Noise was not different in kind from Don DeLillo’s previous seven novels. He had been writing about the same paranoiac themes for 15 years: nuclear age anomie, the tyranny and mind control of American commercial excess, the dread of mass terror and the perverse longing for it, the aphasic cacophony of mass information, and even Hitler obsession. In those earlier novels DeLillo had written in the same clipped, oracular prose, borrowing sardonically from bureaucratic officialese, scientific jargon, and tabloid headlines. Some of White Noise’s main insights—“All plots tend to move deathward,” declares the narrator, Jack Gladney—were recycled from the earlier novels, too. White Noise was more conventionally plotted than End Zone, Great Jones Street, or Players, and the characters more conflicted, more human. But something else had changed.
“The greater the scientific advance,” says Jack Gladney, “the more primitive the fear.” White Noise is bathed in the glare and hum of personal computers and refrigerators and color televisions. Like bulletins from the subconscious, the text is intermittently interrupted by litanies of brand names designed to be pronounceable in a hundred languages: Tegrin, Denorex, Selsun Blue. At one point Jack observes his daughter talking in her sleep, uttering the words Toyota Celica. “It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform. It made me feel that something hovered.”
Something is hovering all right. In the first third of the novel, “Waves and Radiation,” an unidentified toxin forces the evacuation of the grade school attended by Jack’s children. A teacher rolls on the floor and speaks foreign languages; children taste metal in their mouths and develop eye irritations:
“No one knew what was wrong. Investigators said it could be the ventilating system, the paint or varnish, the foam insulation, the electrical insulation, the cafeteria food, the rays emitted by microcomputers, the asbestos fireproofing, the adhesive on shipping containers, the fumes from the chlorinated pool, or perhaps something deeper, finer-grained, more closely woven into the basic state of things.”
But this is just preparation for the Airborne Toxic Event, a billowing cloud of black gas released by an accident at the local train yard, which hovers menacingly at the edge of the college town where Gladney and his family live. The cloud is composed of a chemical called Nyodene D, which is vaguely defined as “a whole bunch of things thrown together that are byproducts of the manufacture of insecticide.” Gladney inhales big gulps of it when, escaping from town, he leaves the safety of his car in order to fill up on gas.
In the novel’s final crucible, Jack discovers that his wife, Babette, has been secretly taking an experimental new drug called Dylar, intended to defeat one’s fear of death. The saucer-shaped pills are a feat of pharmaceutical engineering but totally ineffective. They also have crippling side effects: “outright death, brain death, left brain death, partial paralysis, other cruel and bizarre conditions of the body and mind.” Jack is desperate to steal his wife’s cache.
For all the discussion of artificial hearts, advanced plastics, and high-voltage power lines, the incantations of “the language of waves and radiation,” DeLillo is really concerned with more primitive terrors, particularly the fear of death. White Noise is haunted by death. Jack sees death in odd numbers and pixels and sunsets. He seeks protection in “Hitler studies” because the Führer is the one world historical figure who seems “larger than death.” He argues with Babette over which of them will die soonest. Each claims to want to go first, but neither can be certain the other is telling the truth. “I’m afraid all the time,” says Babette. “I’ve been afraid for more than half my life,” counters Jack.
There are also other personal anxieties, particularly concerning the survival of their marriage, after Babette has an affair in order to obtain her Dylar pills, and the safety of their children, who keep stumbling into narrow brushes with oblivion. The greater the noise, the more Jack turns inward, toward his most intimate problems.
This turning inward was happening across America in 1985. Exhausted by the paranoia of Watergate era, and the panic of the oil embargo and the Iran hostage crisis, the nation sought the comforts of old-fashioned Hollywood movies, delivered by an old-fashioned Hollywood actor. White Noise was published two months after Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration, which followed the most effective marketing campaign in American political history, sounding visceral notes of hope (“It’s morning again in America”) and terror (“There is a bear in the woods”). In “Supermarket”, the narrator asks Americans to judge the state of the country by the contents of their local supermarket—a tactic, incidentally, followed by DeLillo, who ends White Noise with a nightmarish scene inside of one. Walter Mondale, who had tried to make the election about the budget deficit and interest rates, soon realized his mistake, releasing ads with horror-movie music and images of nuclear warheads, but it was too late.
The greater the scientific advance, the more primitive the fear. In White Noise’s climactic scene, Jack discusses the afterlife with a nun. He is shocked to discover that she doesn’t believe in heaven or angels. “Why are you a nun anyway?” he asks.
“If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse.”
“Of course pretend. Do you think we are stupid? Get out from here.”
It’s enough to know that somebody, anybody, still believes in higher powers. Even nonbelievers can find solace in the comforts of litanies, rituals, and catechisms. These can take the form of a hymn or even an advertising jingle. In 1985, as the world accelerated toward an unrecognizable automated future and nuclear dread had become normalized, even the words Toyota Celica sounded like a prayer.
Other notable novels published in 1985:
City of Glass by Paul AusterLess Than Zero by Bret Easton EllisCarpenter’s Gothic by William GaddisThe Cider House Rules by John IrvingBlood Meridian by Cormac McCarthyLonesome Dove by Larry McMurtryThe Accidental Tourist by Anne TylerGalápagos by Kurt Vonnegut
Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie
National Book Award:
White Noise by Don DeLillo
Best-selling novel of the year:
The Mammoth Hunters by Jean M. Auel
About this series:
This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2020. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.—Nathaniel Rich
1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon 1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson 1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis 1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell 1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell 1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey 1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin 1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux 1992—Clockers by Richard Price 2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain 1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London 1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather 1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton 1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West 1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles 1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs 1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy 1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman 1983—Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright 1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle 2003—The Known World by Edward P. Jones 2013—Equilateral by Ken Kalfus 1904—The Golden Bowl by Henry James 1914—Penrod by Booth Tarkington 1924—So Big by Edna Ferber 1934—Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara 1944—Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith 1954—The Bad Seed by William March 1964—Herzog by Saul Bellow1974—Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig1984—Neuromancer by William Gibson1994—The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields2004—The Plot Against America by Philip Roth2014—The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez1905—The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton1915—Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman1925—Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos1935—Pylon by William Faulkner1945—If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes1955—Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov1965—The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick1975—The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey