Rhys Tranter

Visions of the future

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Rhys Tranter writes the A Piece of Monologue blog. Here is his first collaboration with the Spectator Book Blog.

You might be forgiven for considering Don DeLillo’s White Noise as a survival manual for contemporary life. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the novel’s relevance continues as a philosophical checklist of twenty-first century culture. On its initial release in 1985, DeLillo’s novel stood out for its wry commentary on the ubiquity of commercialism — ‘Mastercard, Visa, American Express’ — and its portrayal of neurotic anxiety at the heart of the Western nuclear family. The novel inaugurated a new phase in the American writer’s career, sparking a series of bold and ambitious books that includes Libra, Mao II and Underworld. But, for me, White Noise remains DeLillo’s signature work.

What strikes most readers about the novel is its unique narrative voice, a tone of ironic detachment that evokes everyday scenes with cutting insight. White Noise is a rare breed, skillfully presenting weighty themes and complex ideas with a playful humour and a lightness of touch: whether in its uncanny portrayal of domestic routine, or for its disquieting revelations of characters’ deep-rooted anxieties.

The narrative of White Noise feels both modern and strangely timeless: Jack Gladney, chairman of the department of Hitler studies at a North-American university, struggles to reconcile himself with the inevitability of his own death. It is one of the eternal dilemmas of Western literature, but cast in terms of cultural obsession and commodification. Gladney’s philosophical struggle (or cold and simple fear, however you want to look at it) is contextualized by trips to supermarkets, airports and motels. The novel seems to encompass everything, from tabloid sensationalism, to chemical disaster, to the ethics of searching someone’s garbage. The commonplace is invested with a sense of the surreal and the absurd, as Gladney attempts to justify his life and establish a meaning, or truth, to his existence.

White Noise is fascinated by the literal and metaphysical infrastructures of Western society - its architectural ground-plan, and its psychological effects. From the ubiquity of the ‘universally-pronounceable’ brand name, the mass-produced bumper sticker as a marker of individual expression, or the perverse dream logic of the Hollywood movie. White Noise is drawn to themes of commercialism, media representation, and societal collapse, ‘the dark side of consumer consciousness’. It examines memory and nostalgia with a postmodern twinkle in its eye, perhaps as little more than commodities found on a supermarket shelf. One character asks whether it is possible to feel homesick for a place even when you are there: this is the world White Noise evokes.

Like J. G. Ballard, who saw a death of affect in the press fascination with the Kennedy Assassination, DeLillo critiques our place in a world of increasingly fragmented and unstable media realities. With an ironic nod to news sensationalism, DeLillo adopts apocalyptic motifs to chronicle our everyday: surveying the Western family through a lens of cultural disaster and individual struggle. Twenty-five years since its initial publication, White Noise feels like an important and ongoing philosophical experiment, where, for the first time, the writer imagines what it really means to die in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Panasonic.