I’m one of those people for whom there are no spoilers. I sometimes read the ending of the book and then decide if I want to know how things got to that point. I like to reread and read the book after I’ve seen the movie. So it was with Don DeLillo’s works too, I’ve started with one of his recent novels, Falling Man and I’ve been reading my way back into his earlier works. With his sad chihuahua eyes, I’ve always thought he was a master of nostalgia, of dignified depression (the one you accept and live with, not the messy suicidal type) and that he is essentially one of those serious authors that carry the weight of the world, slightly paranoid and ready to accept that the worst is yet to come, but also that it’s not such a big deal. In White Noise, I’ve discovered that he is all that, but that he is an extremely funny guy too. You have to be funny in order to be able to make people laugh about death. And I surely did.
The apparently sheltered and aseptic life of a university professor and his family (consisting of four kids from different marriages and an apparently ideal and nurturing wife) is in fact haunted by death and by the fear of death. Jack Gladney has built his whole academic career on the weight of the death-inducing Hitler, grounding the field of Hitler studies, his oldest son, Heinrich, spends his time exchanging letters with an imprisoned killer, his wife who seems the natural born peace of mind-inducing homemaker is secretly so tormented by the fear of death that she accepts becoming a guinea pig for an experimental and very dangerous drug meant to treat this essentially human angst, while a “toxic event” drives them out of their home and contaminates their town with an invisibly deadly substance. The whole novel is a postmodern caricature of Western “civilization” and consumer culture and its obsession with the material world that leaves the need for the transcendental completely uncovered and man tormented by the fear of what lies beyond these surfaces on which we glide. It is also a laugh-out loud satire of the academia with Jack Gladney being the embodiment of its benign futility and shallowness: he is the greatest Hitler specialist, ironically tormented by the fact that he has never learned German and working along side the popular culture department made up of a bunch of Europeans dealing with the phenomenology of super-market product labels and the like. The only friend Jack has, is Murray, a Jewish New Yorker who gives a class on car crashes and wants to do with Elvis what Jack did with Hitler. He is fascinated by supermarket products and intelligent women in silk stockings and, not so secretly, by Jack’s wife, Babette, who, he claims, “has important hair” in one of the funniest dialogs in the book.
There’s something heart-wrenchingly beautiful about this surreal family made up of such odd members like Heinrich the precocious teenager with a receding hairline that finds himself in the moment of crisis, Denise, Babette’s daughter who is more aware of her mother’s problems than her husband and Steffie, Jack’s daughter from another marriage with a secret agent, who is enrolled in a disaster relief simulation group and finally the youngest member of the family, who cannot speak and seems to be the only one not aware of the imminence of death and therefore the only source of comfort and reassurance for his tormented parents. The moments of bonding between these odd people brought together under the idea of family and the corresponding routines of shopping, eating and watching TV together seem to be the only, albeit fragile and temporary, antidote against the chaos of civilization and the uncertainty of the postmodern condition.
This surreal world created by DeLillo is surprisingly endearing and it captures some of the main problems of modernity, but I somehow still prefer the more somber paranoid realism of his later works. There’s a lot of Pynchon and Vonnegut in this obviously postmodern novel, but not enough of the DeLillo that I’ve learned to love through his less postmodern works. The plot I didn’t find all that engrossing, it is mostly the characters and the irony that didn’t let me put the book down and maybe that’s why the ending seemed a bit grotesque, strained and not quite memorable.
Coming from a country where Marx and Engels where the household philosophers for about 40 years, I have never been too fond of the two. I still remember my surprise at walking down Karl Marx Allee in Berlin and the rather harsh remark from a German acquaintance that my view of Marx is quite limited and that it’s about time Marx got re-appreciated as a great philosopher. I have Western friends that proudly call themselves Marxists and quote Lenin like he’s their hero. That always makes me wonder about what a German would say if that same person quoted Hitler with such familiarity. They would dismiss the parallel looking at me like I’m a crazy person, but in my opinion they should consider it a bit. And yes, I know Lenin is not Stalin…
At one point I have walked out of a class on Marx somewhere in Germany feeling quite angry. Like my friend argued, Marx was treated like any other philosopher in that class and it is particularly this that struck me as inappropriate. I felt that they should have at least vaguely mentioned the consequences of putting these ideas into practice. Another question that I often ask myself is why is it that so many intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals still take so much pride in calling themselves Marxists and most of them, incidentally, are part of a university system supported through deeply capitalist means. I myself agree most of the times with Terry Eagleton and appreciate that part of Marxist philosophy that influenced Michel Foucault’s ideas about power, but I appreciate even more that it completely departs from its teleology.
Reading Bertrand Russell’s essay Why I’m Not a Communist started this whole train of thought. I was surprised to bump into this clear-headed rebuttal of Communism published in 1956 when so many Western intellectuals were completely enamored with it. Russell himself fell slightly under its spell, but a visit into the heart of the new Soviet Republic cured him. Here’s what he says:
“In relation to any political doctrine there are two questions to be asked: (1) Are its theoretical tenets true? (2) Is its practical policy likely to increase human happiness? For my part, I think the theoretical tenets of Communism are false, and I think its practical maxims are such as to produce an immeasurable increase of human misery. ”
It was surprisingly hard to convince people to go see this movie with me at the cinema. Some objected to the old gay guy story (I had no idea cinematographic homophobia was so widely spread among menfolk), others to the talking dog, although the poor guy actually only talks through subtitles, others had no clue who Christopher Plummer was and had never seen The Sound of Music (they have obviously not grown up in Romania).With all this pressure coming from the expectations of my companions, I couldn’t quite enjoy the film because I was so self conscious about it as if I had written the script myself. Still, it’s not bad for a sappy movie. It has beautiful photography and the kind of feel good for the non-believers thing about it, like the less brilliant love child of Amelie and Michel Gondry.
There is a lot “feel-good” manipulation but also truth involved in the main idea of the film that we never stop being beginners, that there’s always something new to uncover in ourselves and in the world around us, even as we get older or old. There is also an interesting parallel between how two different generations perceive love and relationships and the revelation that the unparalleled freedom my generation enjoys with regard to relationships is not necessarily free of limitations, but that it is precisely this freedom that becomes one. But if you are looking for a deep portrayal of human emotions and complex relationships, this is not the right movie. The characters are and remain sketchy and the relations between them are superficial to say the least, but who cares about that when you have a dog talking through subtitles (they should have used him more).
Anyway, one of my friends was definitely right in predicting that the best part of the movie is probably the trailer:
I’ve been to New York many times before actually going there. I’ve seen it through Bartleby’s nihilist eyes, from Patrick Bateman’s grotesque point of view, or in a jazz and drug infused frenzy with the Beat writers, through Woody Allen’s paranoid hipster glasses, Gatsby’s love sick eyes and from the deck of the immigrant ship coming to the New World, the big cliche entrance. After having walked up and down that island for real though, I now have it all mapped out in my mind, so reading Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem allowed me to navigate the streets of his imaginary New York and connect it to the real one. A giant tiger is loose in the city roaming its underground tunnels and causing buildings to collapse; a dense fog is permanently looming over the financial district and the New York Times has a separate “war-free” version. These are some of the elements of magic-realism in the novel, but they paradoxically work to make this imaginary version of the city even closer to the real, expressing the violence and beauty with which things become out-dated and replaced there, the very strange sense that one is completely isolated from world conflicts and somehow at their core, making veiled references to the city being cleaned up and “smoke free”, or to 9/11. I remember reading about the famous Washington Square Park as being the hang-out place for junkies and the like in the 70s. Standing as one example of the city’s transformation, the place is completely sanitized and baby-walking proof nowadays.
A funny and extremely clever, although at times annoyingly geeky, male bonding story, the novel centers on a group of friends, a former child star living out of his long gone glory, a former self hating rock critic and artist without an oeuvre and a former squatter now turned square and working for the mayor. There’s a set of remarkable, though secondary, female characters and one of them is my favorite: Janice Trumbull, an astronaut stranded out in space with a bunch of Russian cosmonauts, who writes lovely letters to her sitcom actor flame. The plot is too complicated and weird to bother summarizing it and it is probably the great weakness of the novel that keeps some pretty obvious revelations to the end, which are cheap and unnecessary. Its strength however, lies in the characters, who are odd, but relatively lovable, particularly Perkus Tooth, the self hating rock critic that is to me the embodiment of the former glory of New York, versed in popular culture, avant-garde, weird and most of all untied by power-structures. In a way, the story is that of the death of Perkus Tooth and of New York as it once was (counter-cultural, paranoid, hip) and its gradual co-option by the square power-structure.
It was very strange to read a book that brings to mind the postmodern generation, there’s something pynchonesque about it, the whole cultural paranoia, the sense of humor and the pace of the plot, the fable-like character names and their almost cardboard personalities. There’s also a bit of DeLillo and Coupland, but other than that it’s mostly its own thing. There’s so much beauty in it, but there’s also too much stuff that is unnecessary. Its nostalgia for the hipness of former New York(s) struck me as a bit childish and it might so be that the avant-garde no longer has its home there, in the now sanitized, smoke-free avenues. But only time will tell. The avant-garde is sneaky that way, it has kept being pronounced dead, only to reappear again. For that matter, I didn’t think a novel so “late 20th century” as this one could still captivate me, but, well, it did…
And an excerpt from the novel, from the time of Perkus Tooth’s demise, when he is left homeless by a tiger attack and forced to take refuge in an apartment building, literally, for dogs.