Don DeLillo is a funny guy

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.

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