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White noise.

White Noise is as funny and as dramatically satisfying as a collection of the year's best New Yorker cartoons. It is a rum-soaked fruitcake packed with comic monologues, one-liners and shticks, all delivered in the same droller-than-life tone of mock-intellectual aphorizing. This uniform style of dialogue becomes as characteristic and signatory as the cartooning style of Charles Addams, Roz Chast or George Booth.

Here, as a proof of the pudding, is one of the passages that moved me past the snort and the chuckle stages of enjoyment to full lung-participatory laughter:

"I hate my face," a woman [on a call-in radio show] said. "This is an ongoing problem with me for years. Of all the faces you could have given me, lookswise, this one has got to be the worst. But how can I not look? Even if you took all my mirrors away, I would still find a way to look. How can I not look on the one hand? But I hate it on the other. In other words I still look. Because whose face is it, obviously? What do I do, forget it's there, pretend it's someone else's? Mel, is find other people who have a problem accepting their face. Here are some questions to get us started. What did you look like before you were born? What will you look like in the afterlife, regardless of race or color?"

The media are a pervasive presence in White Noise, and may indeed be its true subject (rather than death and the apocalyptic imagination, its ostensible subject). DeLillo shrewdly delineates the way the modern mind adjusts to a daily infusion of bad news, from the death of God to the slow metamorphosis of the nation into one big Love Canal. Comedy this black can always be accused of callousness, and history has underscored this for DeLillo by producing, simultaneously with his book, an "airborne toxic event" in India that will inevitably shape readers' responses to DeLillo's depiction of a similar crisis in an American suburb.

DeLillo's "airborne toxic event," which is presented as the centerpiece of his novel, is witnessed from the perspective of a suburban family fleeing a black cloud of Nyodene D., a chemical whose toxic properties change with each new newscast on the radio. It causes sweaty palms, "urgent lumps" and episodes of deja vu. The scenes of suburbia in turmoil are plausible and amusing; then the cloud of Nyodene D. is dispersed and the novel resumes its course. It is hard not to contrast this chimerical crisis to events in Bhopal. That DeLillo's cartooned catastrophe survives the comparison as well as it does is due to his insistence on showing the sense in which all public events are merely a branch of show business--until one's own eggs are scrambled. And event then . . . But DeLillo is always his own best explainer. Here is his view of the matter, as delivered by Alfonse Stompanato, the chairman of the department of American environments at an imaginary university (Stompanato has been asked why "decent, well-meaning and responsible people find themselves intrigued by catastrophe when they see it on television"):

Because we're suffering from brain fade. We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information. . . .

The flow is constant. . . . Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom. . . .

Japan is pretty good for disaster footage. . . . India remains largely untapped. They have tremendous potential with their famines, monsoons, religious strife, train wrecks, boat sinkings, et cetera. But their disasters tend to go unrecorded. Three lines in the newspaper. No film footage, no satellite hookup. This is why California is so important.

In the category of oft-thought-but-ne'er-so-cruelly-expressed, White Noise offers literally hundreds of passages as quotable as the foregoing, and if you have enjoyed this sampling, you'll surely enjoy the book. But don't expect a story. By relegating pain and death to the category of media events, DeLillo has painted himself into a dramaturgical corner that inhibits all large gestures. In a comic showdown with a villain who has remained an offstage presence until the penultimate chapter, DeLillo strives for the kind of black farce patented by Nabokov, but the scene is a fiasco. DeLillo is an excellent ventriloquist, but when he tries to operate a puppet theater he gets tangled in the strings.

A worse blemish, because it is not confined to a single chapter, is the narator's expressed (but not communicated) fear of death, a fear that becomes the prevailing metaphor of the last half of the book. Death, however, has lost most of its sting in DeLillo's postmodern cartoon landscape, where no character could say "Timor mortis conturbat me" without feeling obliged to follow up with a wisecrack. Basically, DeLillo has too hearty an appetite for the junk food of modern life for death to be a serious bother to him. He would seem to believe, with Roosevelt, that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, a very cheering and American sentiment which he has expressed in a cheering and very American book.
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Author:Disch, Thomas M.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 2, 1985
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