Thursday, November 30, 2017

Weird & Wonderful- White Noise

For the November meeting of City Lit's Weird & Wonderful book club, we discussed White Noise by Don DeLillo.

Described by DeLillo as a comedy about "technology, fear, and death", White Noise follows Jack Gladney, the head of the "Hitler Studies" department at a small university. Along with his fourth wife, Babette, and their gang of children from previous marriages, Jack must unexpectedly flee from an airborne toxic event that threatens their town; the cloud only heightens their vague but powerful fears of death, and even after returning home things are pretty weird.

Pretty weird, variously surreal and comic: we had a good discussion of this, with a big group. Notes and possible spoilers below:

  • We had some critiques that the novel's formlessness became too acute after the airborne toxic event: it just kept going, without really getting a plot structure.
  • Also, given that the whole novel revolves around death, or more properly Jack & others' fear of it, some of us felt like every turn of a page was just bringing us closer to characters dying.
  • Some interesting debate on whether this is really plotless, what to make of that, noting that "when the plot kicks in, reality kicks out".
  • Quite a few of us really loved this on a sentence-by-sentence level, it's just really lovely writing at that level.
  • We did have to admit that it's kind of a showy novel.
  • Dialogue described as Mamet-like.
  • We were pretty thoroughly creeped out by Murray (and wondered why Jack wasn't), but had to admit that the Elvis/Hitler Lecture Duet was a pretty cool scene.
  • We're not sure what to think of how Hitler is used as a figure here. Part of it's just comedy, part of it is about Jack's relationship with death, but that there's zero discussion of the ethics (or even actions) of Hitler & the Nazis strikes us as very weird. The Elvis comparison works precisely because, so far as we can tell, Jack deals with Hitler only as a kind of pop figure, already partly-fictionalized by celebrity.
  • That led us to talk for a bit about the still-surreal and scary way that Nazism is relevant in the world again, as well as alternate histories thinking about America's relationship with those ideas—including Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and Amazon's adaptation of Dick's The Man in the High Castle.
  • Had to warn people off Peter Tieryas's United States of Japan, which Chicago Nerds read last year and did not like.
  • Much discussion of to what extent a "manly" book this is, how male-centered, patriarchal, etc.  Jack certainly is, and most of the novel focuses on men, but we wondered if some elements—the transparently shallow & toxic pop-culture academia one-upsmanship, the way Babette is consistently described as one way by Jack but then reveals herself to have a different inner life & motives—are serving as critiques of that (or if we're just reading the critique in).
  • Noted that it's definitely a different kind of "man book" than, for instance, Altered Carbon, which we read back in the summer.
  • We really liked the kids and the whole family dynamic—one of the strongest parts of the novel.
  • I've been on a Tim Morton reading kick (he's an ecological philosopher who writes some really weird, amazing stuff), and found a lot of the ideas from Dark Ecology and Hyperobjects to be very resonant with White Noise. The idea of the "hyperobject" is that they're things that are real, but exist on scales (of time & space) that are out of the normal range of human perception, so we experience them almost like a haunting—we can never point to something hard in the world and say "that's climate change" or "that's the economy", but it's also hard to say for sure when things are not influenced by those things...they kind of percolate into our awareness and then drop out again. A lot of the themes in White Noise felt like that—death, pop culture, capitalism and its by-products.
  • This discussion led us into a really depressing discussion of cancer, and more generally just our awareness of how so much/all of what we do has hard-to-calculate but negative future consequences, for ourselves or the planet or both.
  • We thought Babette's affair was oddly matter-of-fact, and DeLillo readers noted a similar thing in Underworld. Some mob & cult mentality themes also compared to his Mao II.
  • We loved the nuns at the end. They're the best. We also liked the severe Dylar side-effect of perceiving spoken words as real.
  • We talked quite a bit about the fear of death—to what extent we've felt it, and the phenomena of children going through an extreme period of it. Thanatophobia, friends, is the word. We also talked quite a bit about peripheral and related fears, such as ageing & concern for older relatives.
  • We didn't really get into anything too Freudian with the death-drive and how that's maybe connected to our desire for narrative plots? But that's a hobbyhorse of mine, so I digress.
  • Noted that the structure of White Noise is very interesting: split into 3 sections, with the airborne toxic event taking up the entirety of the middle part, and some really cool pacing/structuring decisions.
  • Noting a theme in our read's connections to indie music? In reference to the band The Airborne Toxic Event who did that "Sometime Around Midnight" song. We've also read Ness's The Crane Wife, referencing The Decemberists, and also Danielewski's House of Leaves, from which Chicago rock band (and podcast music-providers) Pelafina draw their name.
That's a uh, band photo, for sure
Fun book, good discussion!

Decembers book we're actually reading the first Wednesday in January, due to holiday stuff: Dawn, by Octavia Butler. At this last meeting we also picked our 3 spring books, order to be announced after checking on availability. Weird & Wonderful clubs and many other wonderful events can be found on the City Lit Books website.

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