Jack Gladney is obsessed with death. As a professor of Hitler Studies, a field he pioneered, death plays a large part in his career. But he’s also obsessed with his own death. He and his fourth wife Babette frequently discuss which of them will be the first to die. Their conversations about death, and all other matters really, are circular and esoteric. They continue to be so even after an ecological disaster (very similar to recent real-life events in Ohio) makes the prospect of death somewhat less theoretical.
These esoteric conversations are the hallmark of White Noise. Jack’s children and step-children are all preternaturally precocious in various ways, and none of them seem capable of providing a straight answer when Jack asks them a question. The worst is eldest son Heinrich, who refuses to concede that it is raining even as the drops fall on his head.
Jack’s colleagues at the college are hardly any better. His friend Murray Jay Siskind doesn’t so much speak as he issues proclamation on the state of the world today. In contrast, the rest of the history faculty sit in the lunchroom together and talk about old movies and the way things used to be when they were children.
White Noise is written in a sort of arch, absurdist tone that frankly, never appeals to me. Ostensibly, the novel is taking on themes of consumerism and the rot in American culture and society, but it really doesn’t have much to say about these things beyond a general noting of the problem. Once DeLillo’s humor started wearing on me, there wasn’t enough left to sustain my interest. DeLillo might very well be a genius, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that White Noise was just him showing off his repertoire. I didn’t find much in it that felt real.