Existentialism! At The Grocery Store
Don DeLillo’s White Noise is a prescient postmodern classic
This newsletter contains very light plot spoilers for the 1985 novel White Noise. These spoilers are from the first half of the novel and are used to provide key context; I do not think they will take away from your enjoyment of either the book or its film adaptation. Besides, it’s been out for nearly 40 years. Enjoy!
I thought I was only going to read ten pages of White Noise before giving up. I’ve been burned by Acclaimed Lit Dude writers many times before. I’ve started reading books by Charles Bukowski, Raymond Carver and Karl Ove Knausgard only to shut them a third of the way through, never to return. I was fully expecting Don DeLillo to be the same. To my surprise, he wasn’t.
Originally published in 1985, White Noise is the eighth novel by the American writer. It was a commercial and critical breakthrough, allowing DeLillo to finally reach mainstream success after writing novels for nearly twenty years.
While not lauded his very best work—that would be 1997’s Underworld, an 800-page novel about the Cold War—White Noise is considered to be a postmodern classic. From its philosophical musings to its intelligent dialogue, the novel’s influence is felt in the work of David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith.
White Noise is told from the perspective of Jack Gladney, a middle-aged professor of Hitler Studies at a college in the town of Blacksmith. He’s married to Babette, his fifth wife; their blended family contains several children from both of their previous marriages.
The novel is many things: a domestic drama, an academic satire and a critique of consumer culture. However, it’s mostly a 300-page existential examination of death. Jack and Babette share an intense fear of dying with the most frequent topic of conversation between them being, “Who is going to die first?”
Despite these weighty subjects, the novel’s three-part structure and strong sense of characterization make it extremely readable. The first section, “Waves and Radiation,” introduces the reader to the Gladneys and their life. In ultra-short chapters, we learn about Jack and Babette’s current and former marriages, as well as the children they presently live with.
In these small bursts of daily life, Jack and Babette’s marriage feels real and the pair seem to truly love each other. Despite how often Jack plunges his face into Babette’s breasts (or perhaps because of it), I was stunned at how well DeLillo wrote a Wife Guy. They also really love their children, with both of them caring for their stepchildren just as strongly as they do their own.
In the second section, the reader is shocked out of the minutiae of the Gladneys’ lives, just as the characters are. “The Airborne Toxic Event” is a single, long chapter where the family is forced to evacuate their home after a noxious chemical spill falls over their town.
After the incident, Jack and Babette’s fear of death is only heightened further. While the third section, “Dylarama,” returns to the short chapters, life doesn’t quite go back to normal. The freak event doesn’t allow Jack or Babette to be grateful that they’re still alive; on the other hand, it reminds them that their mortality is more fleeting than ever.
Reading White Noise in 2023 lent an obvious contemporary parallel with the COVID-19 pandemic. The novel’s structure even corresponds to our own recent reality: there was The Before, then there was The Pandemic, and now we are in The After. Although, not really; as co-host of the podcast ICYMI Rachelle Hampton said on a recent episode, “We’re post-pandemic in the same way we’re post-racial.”
The disaster lends an odd prescience to the text for modern readers. The way the characters react to the disaster feels eerily familiar. While Jack and Babette initially downplay the chemical spill, Jack’s 14-year-old son Heinrich suddenly becomes an expert on “Nyodene D,” listing all the symptoms one can expect after exposure.
The novel’s academic satire also remains more true than ever. While Jack established Hitler Studies as a field of scholarship, his colleague Murray wants to do the same with Elvis. The frequent conversations between the two poke fun at the over-analyzing of the academy, theorizing that’s often nothing more than an intellectual ruse designed to maintain power.
For example, Jack is deeply afraid his colleagues will learn he doesn’t speak German. He goes to great lengths to maintain this charade, eventually giving a disjointed speech at a conference using words that are the same in both English and German, like “jazz, beer and baseball.” While this doesn’t sound very funny on paper, anyone who has spent long periods of time around liberal arts students will be delighted by DeLillo’s sardonic humour.
On the other hand, the consumer critique presented in White Noise feels disjointed. While DeLillo presents valid criticisms of capitalism, they come across as a bit corny to the modern reader in a Fight Club kind of way. DeLillo never presents a nuanced argument against consumerism. Rather, he rails against it as a one-dimensional fashion that doesn’t take into account any factors of class, race, gender or globalization.
This critique is no more empty (or annoying) than in a repeated literary device where DeLillo randomly cuts in trios of product names after important, character-revealing passages. After the death of one of their neighbours, Jack and Babette are once again discussing their ultimate fear. Jack states:
“Who will die first? She says she wants to die first because she would feel unbearably lonely and sad without me, especially if the children were grown and living elsewhere. She is adamant about this. She sincerely wants to precede me… She sounds almost eager. She is afraid I will die unexpectedly, sneakily, slipping away in the night. It isn’t that she doesn’t cherish life; it’s being left alone that frightens her. The emptiness, the sense of cosmic darkness.
Mastercard, Visa, American Express.”
Another place where the consumer culture critique is explored is in the grocery store. Along with the Gladneys’ home, it’s the primary setting of the novel. However, in these sequences, DeLillo’s critique expands into something more interesting.
While there’s an occasional condescending tone surrounding the mindless sheeple buying tabloids at the check-out, there’s also a galaxy-brain reading of these passages as a reinforcement of life against death. For a novel interested in what it means to be mortal, the repetition of the grocery store scenes is a key example of the mundane nature of being alive. As long as you are living, you will have errands to run.
In this way, the novel once again reminded me of the pandemic. At the height of COVID, the grocery store was the only business I entered. Leaving the house once a week to go buy onions and chicken thighs reminded me that I was still alive, despite the fear I felt going inside, surrounded by the white noise of the virus.
White Noise isn’t a novel for everyone. The dialogue is purposefully over-intellectual and unrealistic. It suddenly gains a plot when it doesn’t really need to. The word “Panasonic” is dropped at the end of paragraphs way more than it needs to be. And if you’re afraid of death, this is probably the worst thing you could read.
Yet, I couldn’t go a page without thinking, “Fuck! Shit! Wow!” On a sentence level, DeLillo is batting 100 in White Noise. The novel is extremely funny, thoughtful and real. After prioritizing contemporary fiction for the past few years, it was really rewarding to read a book published nearly 40 years ago that felt so forward-thinking.
Even though small parts of it feel slightly dated, it stunned me how relevant the questions White Noises asks about the chaos of everyday life remain. While some are depressed by reading about such weighty topics, I’m invigorated by them. To me, it’s another proof that I’m still alive, and that I need to go to the grocery store.
Thanks for reading! Speaking of the supermarket, check out this recent Grocery Diary I wrote for The Kitchn and this older newsletter about the reboot of Supermarket Sweep.
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