I live in California, and I have lived here since the middle of May. I moved to California after finishing the master’s program at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. At Gallatin, an interdisciplinary college, I mostly studied political philosophy, and, because I could, I took two creative writing courses. Those two courses convinced me that I could one day become a writer. ‘One day’ being, obviously, the immortal last words of all aspiring writers.
California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom. ~ Don DeLillo, White Noise
Writers become writers through a process which can only be described as a sort of grandiose creative metamorphosis. I learned this by trying to write, and failing to write, failing rather consistently, many times over the years. Many times. This past winter, however, I successfully cocooned myself in a cabin in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. That was where I finished my (unpublished, perhaps forever) novel. Mostly.
Side note: it was in Maine that I learned that writers need their space. For me, writing in New York City was a task. I went to NYC to discover myself, and I did, but I also discovered that the city is not a forgiving place for creatives.
He’d once told me that the art of getting ahead in New York was based on learning how to express dissatisfaction in an interesting way. The air was full of rage and complaint. People had no tolerance for your particular hardship unless you knew how to entertain them with it. ~ Don DeLillo, White Noise
Another part of ‘becoming’ a writer, at least for this writer, and only now, as of typing this, have I determined that I am comfortable calling myself a writer, is discovering the type of writer you want to be. There are so many types of writers, and I feel that I have dipped my toes in the waters of many of the types. But the type I am most drawn to is the novelist.
Why the novelist? A few reasons I suppose. The first being that I’m not the most concise writer. And when I’m forced to write concisely I notice that my writing feels incomplete. It takes me time to develop my voice. Novels can be short, they can be concise, and some of my favorite prose might be defined as concise.
Novels are also world building. And within that world building are the foundations necessary for exploring themes, philosophies, ideas, and isms. Novels are methods for challenging power. Novels are the search for our individuality and meaning. Novels are how authors answer questions (typically by not answering questions).
Within the genre of novels, and within the type of writer who is the novelist, there is a sub-genre/sub-type: the American Novel and its equally American novelist. These are unique categories because of the vastness (geographically, religiously, philosophically, politically), impact, especially on the world’s stage, and relative youth of American culture. The American novelist is doubtful, uncertain, transient, often obsessed with change, often materialistic, a consumerist, understanding of his own impermanence, egoist, he repeats himself, and he is sometimes even willfully cruel and detached.
American novelists are also, and perhaps most importantly, a check on power and the powerful. They are depressed. They represent more questions than answers. They leave the answers up to the reader…
And, as Don DeLillo has stated, they are, or should be, bad citizens.
I noticed his hands. Scarred, busted, notched, permanently seamed with grease and mud. He glanced around the room, trying to spot something that needed replacing or repair. Such flaws were mainly an occasion for discourse. It put Vernon at an advantage to talk about gaskets and washers, about grouting, caulking, spackling. There were times when he seemed to attack me with terms like ratchet drill and whipsaw. He saw my shakiness in such matters as a sign of some deeper incompetence or stupidity. These were the things that built the world. Not to know or care about them was a betrayal of fundamental principles, a betrayal of gender, of species. What could be more useless than a man who couldn’t fix a dripping faucet-fundamentally useless, dead to history, to the messages in his genes? I wasn’t sure I disagreed. ~ Don DeLillo, White Noise
DeLillo was brought to my attention towards the end of my first year at NYU. I was beginning to formulate the idea behind my novel. More specifically the politics within my novel, and the scheming within those politics, and it was suggested by one of my instructors that I read “Libra.”
I have an honors degree in History, and was immediately interested in the subject matter which inspired DeLillo’s book (the JFK assassination). And while “Libra” did not contribute greatly to my own writing, outside of the richness of the delicate world within the novel, you’d have to be mad not to be inspired by that, Don DeLillo the author did contribute to my writing. Particularly the part of my writing which was lacking in appropriate motivation.
After reading “Libra” I became fascinated by its scribe. And by extension I became fascinated by the likes of other great American novelists (Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, etc).
I began to research DeLillo in the summer of 2017 after finishing “Libra.” As I said, I was fascinated by the author, probably even more so than the novel. I found that he was writing with particular goals in mind. This might sound obvious to most writers, to have a goal in mind before you begin to write, but to me that was new. I had always written instinctively, free form stream of consciousness type stuff, trying to break through the static in my mind, trying to focus on the writing alone, the process of typing each key individually to form the words that were barely in my brain at all; attempting to force the story to breath its own life, bargaining with my own creative soul. It was difficult. Impossible.
The power of the dead is that we think they see us all the time. The dead have a presence. Is there a level of energy composed solely of the dead? They are also in the ground, of course, asleep and crumbling. Perhaps we are what they dream. ~ Don DeLillo, White Noise
The research into DeLillo eventually ended, and I was left having learned a great deal about him, but not very much about what that research meant for my own writing. In fact, I think I wasted the majority of the summer of 2017 obsessing over the greatness of writers who either already knew that they were great… or, almost certainly more true, didn’t give a shit whether or not I, or anyone else, but especially themselves, thought that they were great.
If I can put into words what I was trying to do that summer it would be that I was attempting to become a writer vicariously through the success and reputation of established greats. Perhaps I had convinced myself that if I learned enough about the masters, but especially DeLillo, figuring out their habits, thoughts, routines, beliefs, philosophies, views, politics, and religion, that I might trigger the catalyst for my own success.
Of course, success doesn’t work that way. You cannot absorb a person’s talent by googling them.
The nonbelievers need the believers. They are desperate to have someone believe. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe…Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. ~ Don DeLillo, White Noise
So perhaps ‘review’ isn’t the right word for what I wanted to communicate to you about Don DeLillo’s masterpiece, “White Noise.” It would be a monumental task for me to write a proper and worthy review of this novel. So much has already been said about the book: here, here, here, and here are good places to start.
These reviews/examinations, to say nothing of the academic body of work inspired by the novel (search google scholar if you’re interested… but I’d caution you to stay far, far, far, away from that rabbit hole), are mostly fine. They touch on the obvious themes and influences of the book. They speak to the quality of the scribe and the frequency of his great prose. They speak to his darkly rich humor. They speak of the tricycle. But I think largely these reviews miss the point.
DeLillo’s work is about fear and emotion, life and death, freedom and slavery, challenging the status quo, and questioning the very nature of existence.
He is examining himself within the world and hoping beyond hope that we can empathize with him. “White Noise” tells a story about American life through the satirical examination of a bloated higher education industry, an industry which continues to bloat today. It tells a story about the reliance of Americans on self-medication as a way of coping with fear and insecurity. It tells a story of an oil spill which literally takes place in the air (the Airborne Toxic Event). And of the often quiet fear of death each of us harbors, typically hidden in the deep recesses of our soul.
These themes are intricately woven threads, each of which brings us closer to DeLillo himself. Each thread pointing to something far more broad, less obvious, exquisitely subtle.
I posit that the true purpose of “White Noise,” and perhaps the true purpose of all writers, is the need to understand meaning. The need to answer why. Yes, that is a big question. But for what other reason could he possibly have to explore so many interrelated topics? Why would DeLillo obsess over opposites as much as he does? Why stick to the theme of death throughout? Why set-up the children as so much more capable than the adults? WHY?
Perhaps because in doing so he gets closer to realizing the original title of his book, “Panasonic.” A company which proudly advertises the slogan: “A Better Life, A Better World.”
Perhaps because children are, or should be, better than their parents. And because the author isn’t yet capable of answering his own questions, or understanding his own purpose, then he is hopeful that children can.
Perhaps DeLillo hopes that future generations will read his book having successfully navigated through all of the static he outlines, the noise, the dangerous and insidious distractions of the modern world, distractions which have only intensified since he published “White Noise” thirty-three years ago.
Perhaps “White Noise” was born out of a Sunday morning read of the New York Times obituaries. Maybe it was born out of DeLillo’s melancholy after having discovered the passing of a dear friend. And now I, gratefully, have him to thank for my own.
When I read obituaries I always note the age of the deceased. Automatically I relate this figure to my own age. Four years to go, I think. Nine more years. Two years and I’m dead. The power of numbers is never more evident than when we use them to speculate on the time of our dying. ~ Don DeLillo, White Noise
But, I suppose, even melancholy has its purpose.