My nephew is about to graduate from university. He is about to find out that a lot of his ideals and training are going to crash with the realm of the ‘real world.’ So how do you prepare somebody for that? Lord knows the miles of suggestions and advice that I was given to when I was that age sure didn’t work for me. So how about a great piece of literature?. There is one book that I wished I had read when I was younger and had taken to heart. At least it would have prepared me for the complex insanity of the ‘real world.’ And that book is Don DeLillo’s White Noise.
That night, a Friday, we ordered Chinese food and watched television together. the six of us. Babette had made it a rule. She seemed to think that if kids watched television one night a week with parents or stepparents, the effect would be to de-glamorize the medium in their eyes, make it wholesome domestic sport. Its narcotic undertow and eerie diseased brain-sucking power would be gradually reduced. I vaguely slighted by this reasoning. The evening in fact was a subtle form of punishment for us all. Heinrich sat silent over his egg rolls. Steffie became upset every time something shameful or humiliating seemed about to happen to someone on the screen. She had a vast capacity for being embarrassed on other people’s behalf. Often she would leave the room until Denise signaled to her that the scene was over Denise used these occasions to council the younger girl on toughness, the need to be mean in the world, thick-skinned.
It was my own formal custom on Fridays, after an evening in front of the TV set, to read deeply in Hitler well into the night.
‘White noise’ is the sound that accompanies static from our electronic devices. And even more so now than in 1984, when DeLillo wrote this book, our electronic devices seem to be spewing more noise at us causing people to do foolish things. Or has humanity always been doomed to follow false reason and act in selfish and fatalistic manners? Readers certainly must ponder that thought as they follow protagonist Jack Gladney through his life. Gladney worked through a series of marriages and must deal with a pack of children and step-children. He works at a liberal-arts college in a mid-size town, which provides him ample opportunities to observe humanity at both its finest and more often its worst. And he teaches ‘Hitler Studies’ which gives him insights on the motivations of the past.
I woke in the grip of a death sweat. Defenseless against my own racking fears. A pause at the center of my being. I lacked the will and physical strength to get out of bed and move through the dark house, clutching walls and stair rails. To feel my way, re-inhabit my body, re-enter the world. Sweat trickled down my ribs. The digital reading on the clock-radio was 3:51. Always odd numbers at times like this. What does it mean? Is death odd-numbered? Are there life-enhancing numbers, other numbers charged with menace? Babette murmured in her sleep and I moved close, breathing her heat.
Finally I slept, to be awakened by the smell of burning toast. That would be Steffie. She burns toast often, at any hour, intentionally. She loves the smell, she is addicted; it’s her treasured scent. It satisfies her in ways wood smoke cannot, or snuffed candles, or the odor of explosive powder drifting down the street from firecrackers set off on the Fourth. She has evolved orders of preference. Burnt rye, burnt white, so on.
I put on my robe and went downstairs. I was always putting on a bathrobe and going somewhere to talk seriously to a child. Babette was with her in the kitchen. It startled me. I thought she was still in bed.
“Want some toast?” Steffie said.
“I’ll be fifty-one next week.”
“That’s not old, is it?
“I’ve felt the same for twenty-five years.”
“Bad. How old is my mother?”
She’s still young. She was only twenty when we were married the first time.”
“Is she younger than Baba?”
I have had many copies of this book on my shelf which I have handed out to family and friends. And it has been the topic of many conversations and online chats. It isn’t a book that is going to provide answers or profoundly correct the ills of the world. Its narrative is simply a brilliant reflection off our time. And when crisis and silliness occurs in our lives, it is something to reflect back upon and compare our lives too. And find some comfort that we are not alone with our frustrations and fears. And maybe we should just brush ourselves off and try again.
The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers. They walk in a fragmented trance, stop and go, clusters of well-dressed figures frozen in the aisles, trying to figure out the pattern, discern the underlying logic, trying to remember where they’d seen the Cream of Wheat. They see no reason for it, find no sense in it. The scouring pads are with the hand soap now, the condiments are scattered. The older the man or woman, the more carefully dressed and groomed. Men in Sansabelt slacks and bright knit shirts. Women with a powdered and fussy look, a self-conscious air, prepared for some anxious event. They turn into the wrong aisle, peer along the shelves, sometimes stop abruptly, causing other carts to run into them. Only the generic food is where it was, white packages plainly labeled. The men consult lists, the women do not. There is a sense of wandering now, an aimless and haunted mood, sweet-tempered people taken to the edge. They scrutinize the small print on packages, wary of a second level of betrayal. The men scan for stamped dates, the women for ingredients. Many have trouble making out the words. Smeared print, ghost images. In the altered shelves, the ambient roar, in the plain and heartless fact of their decline, they try to work their way through confusion. But in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. this is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, fiving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.
I am not sure how my nephew is going to react to White Noise by Don Delillo. He might gain profound wisdom from it. He might shake his he in frustration over it. He might just place it unread as a replacement leg for his old couch. In any case, it is a book that I consider one of the most profound reflections of our era, and I give it to him for at least to share a bit of wisdom.