Jack Gladney is professor of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-hill. His colleague, Murray, runs a seminar on car crashes. Together, they discuss modern life with cinematic scope, everything from Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Hitler to supermarkets and death. But it is 1980’s America, consumerism is in overdrive and technology sings lullabies to convince us of its protection, all the while threatening to destroy everything. And when an airborne toxic event hits the town, the very present reality of death becomes startlingly obvious. It is a false alarm, but that doesn’t make it any less shocking. And as they Jack and his wife, Babette, try and get their lives back on track, they begin to reveal their deepest fear – which of them will die first. Soon they are going to extreme lengths to cheat death, to escape that great inevitable which looms large and totally empty and eternal. So used to life being filled with waves and currents and white noise, the void of emptiness that is death terrifies them.
This is an astonishingly powerful, yet tender and funny novel in which Delillo turns his characteristically sparse style to the questions which rack all of us on those nights when we cannot sleep. There are few books which get so intimately, acerbically, surrounded by the static-like interference of modern life. In a funny and powerful manner, Delillo brings the nightmare in the closet out into the open, where we can all laugh aloud at death. Because, like the monster under the bed, it is all a whole lot less terrifying when you see it stood there, clothed in pathetic human flesh, before you.
The sanitisation of modern life, the crackle of static from the TV, bland labels in mind-numbing supermarkets, the spectre of nuclear destruction. Life, death, the universe. It is all here, in between the words, invisible as airborne particles, silent as electricity, flickering and clicking in a deafening swell of white noise all around us. If there were awards for reflecting subject matter in the style and atmosphere of a book, then White Noise would be up there with J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace to claim the very highest prize.
8 out of 10