The story, about a university professor who teaches “Hitler studies”, takes aim at modern life: consumerism, paranoia, technology. It’s full of riffs and beats: “California deserves all it gets,” says one. “Californians invented the concept of lifestyle. That alone guarantees their destiny.” It satirizes our reliance on devices and our understated responses: “The fire alarm went off in the upstairs hallway, either to let us know the battery was just dead or because the house was on fire. We finished our lunch in silence”.
In White Noise, people speak in advertising slogans and savor the bad news that saturates the media: “Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else.” But suddenly there’s a local catastrophe in the book: the Airborne Toxic Event, spreading a cloud over the area, leading to mysterious evolving symptoms (“At first they said skin irritation and sweaty palms. But now they say nausea, vomiting and shortness of breath”) and creating bizarre conspiracy theories.
The modality of White Noise – like much of DeLillo’s mature work – is postmodernism: fragmented, subjective, layered with extra-literary elements. The words that come from TV and radio are presented as dialogue, as if those devices were characters, fully paid members of the family. (“TV Said: ‘And Other Trends That Could Dramatically Impact Your Portfolio.'”) permission to use it), makes perfect sense in the 21st century, where our experiences are continually being processed, photographed, commented on, reshaped and shared. It is a world which has seen, as the British writer Gordon Burn wrote in his book Best and Edwards, “the electronic society of the image – the daily bath we all take in the media – replace the real community of the crowd”.
Images, in fact, are central to DeLillo’s writing and exemplify the fourth of his distinct qualities: the coldness of his vision of the world, as seen best of all in Mao II (1991). The novel’s title comes from Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints of Mao Zedong, which flattened and replicated one of the world’s great tyrants into a colorful celebrity image. (It’s very DeLillo-esque that Warhol said of his mechanized approach to art: “The reason I paint like this is that I want to be a machine.”)