White Noise by Don DeLillo

White noise

Published: 1984 by Viking Penguin Inc.
My copy: from the secondhand swap shop at work

Memorable quote: “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.”

Definitely one of the funniest novels about death I’ve ever read! This is the story of Jack Gladney, an academic – the head of ‘Hitler studies’ at an US college (although he cannot speak German) – and his life with his wife Babette and their rather dysfunctional assortment of children from previous marriages. More specifically the novel is about Jack and Babette’s fear of death. Each contemplates the question, “who will die first?” And whose fear is greater? It sounds like a grim premise, and I guess it is but DeLillo has also written a book that is laugh out loud funny in some places and bitingly satiric almost everywhere else. White Noise also satirises academia (with cutting insight), family life, consumerism, the emergency services, conspiracy theorists and just about every other aspect of modern life.

The central plot aspect is a toxic disaster that threatens Jack’s town and it is in the exciting middle section that deals with the immediate aftermath that the overall theme of death is most apparent. But really the little details carry this book such as the scenes in the supermarket and where Jack’s family argue over what to watch on the TV. The final section is just a barrage of ideas some credible, some extreme, all thought provoking. This is a very self-conscious book and I can imagine it’s not to everyone’s taste (the Amazon ratings are revealingly polarised) but if you enjoy black humour then give this a try. I think it’s a postmodern classic.

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