On “White Noise” by Noah Baumbach

THE 1985 NOVEL BY DON DELILLO White noise follows protagonist Jack Gladney as he leads his family through a fiery chemical spill on the outskirts of the fictional suburban college town of Blacksmith, memorably referred to as “the airborne toxic event”. Fewer may recall that the event is short and uneventful. The rest of the book turns into comic melodrama about how Jack, as the only man exposed to toxic air, deals with the realization that he is could die in the next some decades.

This punchline hits much harder on re-reading White noise in the era of America’s lifespan collapse, when exposure is such an accepted fact that a mid-1960s death prognosis would be a welcome reassurance. It’s hard to imagine a time before dark clouds of toxic crises gathered on the horizon, when the greatest neurosis of American life came from anxiety that the stability of its suburbs might not last forever. Unfortunately, Noah Baumbach is recent White noise the Netflix adaptation is so sentimental about the Gladneys (Adam Driver as husband/father Jack and Greta Gerwig as wife/mother Babette) that it misses the joke, along with every opportunity to show the novel’s simultaneous statement of the peak of the superficial civilization of the American middle class and subsequent decades of decline.

Baumbach was certainly courageous in his attempt to so faithfully represent high satire deemed “unadaptable”. DeLillo’s free-associating dialogue and revealing monologic rants chew up the corny scenario of Blacksmith shot-for-paragraph. Though these lines often felt like they were first spoken from a cue, Baumbach delivers the book’s best scenes of marital drama, family comedy, and non sequitur soliloquies with all the sincerity of Marriage history (2019) or the slapstick nature of 80s comedies like Lost in America (1985) or National Lampoon Holiday (1983). Particularly pleasing was the digital rendering of the airborne toxic event in all its silence: a thunderous Lovecraftian storm so violent one might think it could suffocate the entire world. But White noise it stands as a classic postmodern novel for its own subversion of the disaster genre, portraying the crisis as a small escape from the less cinematic disasters of everyday life. Baumbach proves he understands this by opening the film with a dizzying lecture from Jack Murray’s colleague Suskind (Don Cheadle) on the allure of car crashes in movies. While we know intellectually that auto accidents involve horrific deaths and dismemberments, their actual effect is one of jovial relief, he tells us, in what sounds like an appeal to audiences to forgive the overall lighthearted tone of the film we’re about to watch.

This opening monologue is extravagantly matched by the film’s ending: a large-scale dance sequence set in a radiant supermarket, a place DeLillo describes in the novel as the vacant Blacksmith’s only public sphere. The credits roll over cheerfully dancing characters with colorful branding placed on the product, or comically blank-labeled generic versions of the same product, in a “we’re all lost in the supermarket” riff that faithfully reflects the novel’s proto-Gen X cynicism on the consumerism, branding, adspeak, suburban routines and a society reduced to traffic jams, shopping queues and television. But the trouble with these extrapolations, faithful as they may be, is that they draw too much from the book’s antiquated caricatures: the professors revered as priests, the doctors too coldly competent, or a wife who cooks a feast too Rockwellian to savor properly before it’s time. to evacuate. Meanwhile, the more ominous contemplations of the future in White noise they are cut.

In the original ending, the family gathers on the side of a highway to watch a sunset that has become more colorful from the airborne toxic event: “Some people are scared of sunsets, others determined to be elated.” […] we don’t know whether it is permanent, a level of experience to which we will gradually adapt, into which our uncertainty will eventually be absorbed, or just some atmospheric quirk, which will soon pass.

Even in the face of easy opportunities, the film rejects allusions to the present. This is very disconcerting when the authorities expertly organize a mass evacuation before the winds blow toxic air over Blacksmith and everyone in the town. dutifully he obeys. Where are they, I couldn’t help but wonder, the conspiracists, militias, evangelicals and other deniers? The city is already deserted when the family finally leaves, arriving belatedly at a tidy mall refugee camp outside the disaster area, where FEMA-like bureaucrats are so over-prepared that they don uniforms supplied for a recent simulation for this exact event – ​​unlike the disasters of the past two decades, where survivors of hurricanes, floods and fires have often been left wondering when FEMA will ever show up. Their plan is so well executed, in fact, that it is only Jack who is exposed, a price paid for his lonely skepticism, against the advice of his family and the authorities, that toxicity could reach him.

Apparently, would-be right-wing rebels followed instructions too, for the next morning, as a blaring announcement announces that the wind has changed and the toxic air is closing in on the camp, Jack hopes to cut traffic by following a Land Rover with a bumper sticker, painstakingly reprinted from the book, that reads “GUN CONTROL IS MIND CONTROL.” This is one of many scenes in which Baumbach must have been tempted to offer some connection to today, perhaps with a more contemporary conservative slogan or a glimpse of a Proud Boy in the driver’s seat, heightening the irony of a liberal professor who secretly believes that fascists have a deeper understanding of how to survive.Baumbach instead visually recites the bumper sticker verbatim as an easily forgettable generic detail before Jack loses the Land Rover in the woods and drives his family into a Suddenly, the film cuts to, the car floats harmlessly for an extended period of time, and Driver in the driver’s seat shrugs apologetically at the camera as they drift downstream, as if to say: What do you want? This happens in the book.

Then there is Hitler. From DeLillo White noise, Jack Gladney is a professor of “Hitler studies” who does not know German or apparently much else about the political history of National Socialism. His fascination with Hitler is more reverent than academic, nostalgically imagining Hitler as the central figure of a time before the wheels of history stopped. Baumbach sprinkles a few references to Hitler and Nazis throughout the film, but there’s never the sense implied in the book that reducing fascism to a bizarre cultural study obscures its nonstop recurrence on the fringes of middle-class life. Now that this delightfully edgy depoliticized restructuring has allowed the alt-right to reenact Hitler through the Overton window, it is impossible to imagine a professor delivering Jack Gladney’s theatrically exuberant lecture on Hitler without being “cancelled” or called out for a Fox News I wait. Still, the students listen with unquestioning admiration, as if the Holocaust were no different than one of Suskind’s Roger Corman-esque car crashes.

So, I was disappointed with the movie White noise, perhaps all the more for having waited long enough to see it in theaters weeks before its streaming premiere. From the moment Netflix’s N hit the big screen, I couldn’t help but imagine how much happier I’d be in my own home, where I could tone down Baumbach’s messes by complaining in real time on Twitter or stopping after 37 minutes. to see how much more I could take before I gave up watching Seinfeld. But having suffered through the whole thing was also a bit of a relief. I came away feeling superior: a better reader of DeLillo than Baumbach, and even imagining my millennial generation 20 years wiser than his.

But then, like a smug DeLillo protagonist, I began to descend into a neurosis of the total phenomenon I’d just partaken in. First, I feared that by making the film so similar to the book, Baumbach might have ruined it for those who didn’t read it. Those who might try now, prompted by the cliché it assures the book is much betterhe’d quickly recognize all the annoying and boring elements played out in the film and drop the once-interesting book after a few pages with an exhausted “okay, boomer.”

And then deeper concerns followed: What if Baumbach, despite not making the film I would have liked, basically got it right? What if there is little more to Don DeLillo than a stylistic adaptation of critical theory ersatz pop literature that Baumbach is simply translating into film, from author to author? What if the purpose of the adaptation was to sell Netflix subscriptions, just like my 2009 Penguin edition of the 1985 book was designed to appeal to me by looking like an alternative Charles Burns comic? What if somewhere my data compiled into rows converging at a labeled point DeLillo-Baumbach? What if the Wall Street Alamo Drafthouse had used the same metrics to determine that a prestream limited release of White noise could fill their theater for a few days, and by the end, did all my fantasies about a Marxist DeLillo really boil down to just a bad family comedy, a plate of vegan buffalo wings, and a bitter IPA made with the Bronx microbrewery?

But then I remembered Cosmopolis: DeLillo’s 2003 novel, in which billionaire brother Eric Packer contemplates his death and the death of capitalism as he rides through class war-torn Manhattan in a limousine. David Cronenberg’s film adaptation came out 10 years later, with the book’s anti-globalization black-blockers updated to Occupy Wall Street’s snake-marchers attempting to make their way into Packer’s (Robert Pattinson) mobile bunker while grimly quoting Marx and Bakunin, half hoping and half wondering whether, in choosing a life as an agent of capitalism, he had dug his own grave. That Pattinson seems infinitely more convincing delivering these lines than Gerwig and Driver is perhaps because Cronenberg is a better director than Baumbach, or at least better at the deadpan weirdness DeLillo’s dialogue demands. But I prefer to imagine it, for now Cosmopolis was released, DeLillo had developed the Jack Gladney character into a late capitalism avatar on purpose, to up the ante in step with the story. And while we don’t know if Packer’s fate catches up with him at the end of Cosmopolishe certainly seems to have far less time left than Jack Gladney.

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AM Gittlitz is the author of I want to believe: posadism, UFOs and apocalypse communismand co-host of the podcast The Antifada.

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