Friday, November 2, 2007

White Noise: An Exchange. Part I

My friend John and I are having a discussion about Don DeLillo's novel White Noise. Here are the first two emails.

John writes:

You know that I've only managed to make it through the first 30 pages
of White Noise, twice. Underworld is one of my favorite novels despite
its flaws, but for some reason the flaws seem much more glaring to me
in this novel, and yet I think it's generally held in higher regard. I
wanted to start by talking about his view of suburbia and consumerism.
On the very first page, the narrator itemizes the loot from a recent
shopping expedition:

"....the junk food still in shopping bags--onion-and-garlic chips,
nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints."

I think some people must find this funny, or insightful, or both. It
just seems silly to me. Maybe in the mid-80s, when the book was
written, just casting one's eye over a panoply of pop-cultural (or in
this case, pop-culinary) items stood as some kind of larger spiritual
commentary. Or is it just DeLillo who thinks noticing those things is
deep in and of itself? He resorts to gimmicks like this often early in
the book, which is one reason I can't bring myself to delve further.
Am I right, or does he back off a little bit as he goes?

Of course, when he tries to connect images like the one above to more
explicit commentary, I get even more agitated. A few pages later, he
goes back to the groceries for inspiration:

"It seemed to me that Babette and I, in the mass and variety of our purchases, in the sheer plenitude those crowded bags suggested, the weight and size and number, the familiar package designs and vivid lettering, the giant sizes, the family bargain packs with Day-Glo sale stickers, in the sense of replenishment we felt, the sense of well-being, the security and contentment these products brought to some snug home in our souls -- it seemed we had achieved a fullness of being that is not known to people who need less, expect less, who plan their lives around lonely walks in the evening."

It's clear that DeLillo is satirizing those who have a "snug home" in
their souls that is satisfied by food purchases. But whenever I read
something like the paragraph above, two thoughts occur: 1. Who are
these people who stake their existential happiness on family bargain
packs? Isn't DeLillo just creating them in order to destroy them? That
seems boring. I feel like people in the 'burbs with the giant,
gleaming grocery stores enter and leave them feeling like anyone else
would: depending on their mood. I frequently shopped at such places in
Texas. Sometimes it was thrilling -- on a good day, or some night at 2
a.m. when I was feeling wistful -- and other times it was deadening
and seemed like too much. DeLillo's stance, that it somehow inherently
reflects a larger soullessness, strikes me as a teenage feeling. 2. Is
it wrong to feel some kind of satisfaction from living a life that
allows you to have what you want/need? Where does DeLillo draw that
line? Put another way, how many groceries are you allowed to be happy
about before you become ridiculous?



So much to say!

The problem I’ve had in responding to your letter is that I agree so completely with everything you’ve said, I don’t know what to add.

On the subject of the supermarket: yes. DeLillo returns here (the supermarket) again and again throughout the book. It’s worth your time to compare the paragraph you cite to the book’s final paragraph, in which the narrator again revisits the supermarket. It would be a useful way for us to consider the book’s overall thematic development (such as it is).

On the subject of lists: yes. There must have been a time—maybe in the 70s—when providing long lists seemed an exciting literary technique. The master of this, in my reading, is Donald Barthelme. He stole the technique from Rabelais (among others) who frequently uses it as a way of undercutting (by overdoing) the gravity of a situation. Here’s Rabelais on the preparation for a siege:

Some from the fields brought into the fortified places their movables, bestial, corn, wine, fruit, victuals, and other necessary provision. Others did fortify and rampire their walls, set up little fortresses, bastions, squared ravelins, digged trenches, cleansed countermines, fenced themselves with gabions, contrived platforms, emptied casemates, barricaded the false brays, erected the cavaliers, repaired the counterscarps, plastered the curtains, lengthened ravelins, stopped parapets, morticed barbicans, assured the portcullises, fastened the herses, sarasinesques, and cataracts, placed their sentries, and doubled their patrol. Everyone did watch and ward, and not one was exempted from carrying the basket. Some polished corselets, varnished backs and breasts, cleaned the headpieces, mail-coats, brigandines, salads, helmets, morions, jacks, gushets, gorgets, hoguines, brassars, and cuissars, corselets, haubergeons, shields, bucklers, targets, greaves, gauntlets, and spurs. Others made ready bows, slings, crossbows, pellets, catapults, migrains or fire-balls, firebrands, balisets, scorpions, and other such warlike engines expugnatory and destructive to the Hellepolides.

This is totally irrelevant to White Noise. But I love Rabelais.

At some point, the newness faded—and that point was long ago. Now the technique has to be judged on its merits which I think, generally, are few. Lists make for uninteresting writing. The heart of any sentence—the engine—is the verb. Take that away, and you get flat, listless (no pun intended) sentences. They smack of laziness: they require the writer only passively record what he sees or imagines, and to dispense with subordination, logical reasoning, and ordering in time—the tools and exigencies of thought. White Noise is stuffed with lists (along with their ugly older brother, fragments). They reflect, I suggest, the essential intellectual laziness that characterizes most of the novel.

* * *

For me, it’s useful to consider the ways a book (as distinct from a poem, or a movie) can provide its reader pleasure. (Because pleasure, in the end, is what counts). If that seems to slight the role of art (shouldn’t they do more than just give us pleasure?) realize that I consider being taught, or made to feel, or—ideally—made to feel and think simultaneously—varieties of pleasure. Pleasure at its most rarefied, and noble.

In order to save something for the next letter, I’m only going to talk here about two ways of the numerous ways a novel can provide pleasure.

1) Humor, Laughter, Wit.

Many great writers are funny (perhaps all? Humorlessness a trait of all mediocre artists?). Some, I would submit, are great ONLY because they’re funny. The works of P.G. Wodehouse, for example, offer no great psychological penetration into the human soul. They don’t force us to examine our world, or to delve more deeply into its hidden mysteries. But they’re funny—sometimes very funny—and that’s enough.

Many who admire White Noise seem to think it’s funny (my edition features a glowing blurb from the New Republic that cites its devastating wit). I’ve read it three times, and at no point in any of those readings did I so much as crack a smile. Of course I can’t prove that it’s not funny—a negative can never be proven. But I would invite anyone who disagrees to provide examples of passage they find funny.

One of my favorite critical essay of the last few years was R.B Meyer’s, “A Reader’s Manifesto.” In it, he has this to say about DeLillo’s sense of humor:

Throughout DeLillo's career critics have called his work funny: "absurdly comic ... laugh-out-loud funny" (Michiko Kakutani), "grimly funny" (Phillips). And most seem to agree with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt that White Noise is "one of Don DeLillo's funniest." At the same time, they refuse to furnish examples of what they find so amusing. I have a notion it's things like "Are the men in hacking jackets? What's a hacking jacket?" but it would be unfair to assert this without evidence. Luckily for our purposes, Mark Osteen, in an introduction to a recent edition of the novel, singles out the following conversation as one of the best bits of "sparkling dialogue" in this "very funny" book. It is telling that the same cultural elite that never quite "got" the British comic novel should split its sides at this.

"I will read," she said. "But I don't want you to choose anything that has men inside women, quote-quote, or men entering women. 'I entered her.' 'He entered me.' We're not lobbies or elevators. 'I wanted him inside me,' as if he could crawl completely in, sign the register, sleep, eat, so forth. Can we agree on that? I don't care what these people do as long as they don't enter or get entered."

"'I entered her and began to thrust.'"
"I'm in total agreement," I said.
"'Enter me, enter me, yes, yes.'"
"Silly usage, absolutely."
"'Insert yourself, Rex. I want you inside me, entering hard ...'"

And so on. Osteen would probably have groaned at that exchange if it had turned up on Sex and the City. The fuss he makes over it in this context is a good example of how pathetically grateful readers can be when they discover—lo and behold!—that a "literary" author is actually trying to entertain them for a change.

2) Linguistic/Stylistic Beauty.

By “beauty” I don’t mean “complexity.” Updike and Nabokov are both fantastic prose stylists. So—in his quiet way—is Graham Greene. So is Denis Johnson. So is Raymond Carver. DeLillo, in my reading, is not. His prose isn’t awful; it’s not embarrassing. But neither is it special. Here’s a selection, chosen completely at random (it’s at the start of Chapter 21, page 107 in the Penguin Great Books edition):

After a night of dream-lit snows the air turned clear and still. There was a taut blue quality in the January light, a hardness and confidence. The sound of boots on packed snow, the contrails streaked cleanly in the high sky. Weather was very much the point, although I didn’t know it at first.

What can we say about this? There is a taut blue quality in (not “to”) the January light. Ok. I don’t think that’s a meaningful change. I think it’s supposed to be profound and ominous; I find it a little self-conscious. The third sentence (“The sound of boots...”) is a fragment, a favorite DeLillo technique. I think it works fine here; this is probably my favorite sentence in the paragraph. Stylistically, there’s nothing much here to praise or censure.

By the way, the paragraph’s ominous conclusion (“although I didn’t know it at first”) perfectly captures the book’s mood. In the midst of banality lie great dangers. But we humans are blind! We don’t pay attention! We’re distracted by all our objects, by the machines and products which fill our empty days!

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It’s not much relevant to a discussion of White Noise, but I want to include a selection from Couples, Updike’s semi-notorious chronicle of infidelity among the leisured elite. It’s a novel whose characters repelled me and whose story didn’t really interest me. But I could not put it down, because of writing like this:

Piet was by profession a builder, in love with snug, right-angled things, and he had grown to love this house, its rectangular low rooms, its baseboards and chair rails molded and beaded by hand, the slender mullions of the windows whose older panes were flecked with oblong bubbles and tinged with lavender, the swept worn brick of the fireplace hearths like entryways into a sooty upward core of time, the attic he had lined with silver insulation paper so it seemed now a vaulted jewel box or an Aladdin’s cave, the solid freshly poured basement that had been a cellar floored with dirt when they had moved in five years ago.

I can ignore and forgive any issues I have with Updike because the prose affords me so much pleasure. White Noise does not.

1 comment:

Seb said...

I'm keen to see the rest of this discourse. White Noise is consistently recommended to me by college friends; reading what you and John have to say, my curiosity about the work, never very high, is tapering off.

As I mentioned to you earlier, Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, also consistently recommended to me though by a much less reputable crowd,* is treating me very well indeed.

*Yes, Massey, you great mumping villain; this includes you.