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“White Noise” by DeLillo Review Essay

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Updated: Oct 1st, 2021

“White Noise” was the eighth novel of Don DeLillo and was highly acclaimed for its timely and pertinent themes. The novel has been read from various angles, and that’s how any good book would be read, but it is largely agreed that the book is a commentary on pop culture, consumerism, and globalization.

Consumerism is an important theme in the book. The narrator, Jack Gladney, is concerned with the material things and feels that others are also governed by the things they own. The novel opens with an observation by Gladney, who is watching the students coming to the Midwestern college where he teaches Hitler studies: “This assembly of station wagons… more than formal liturgies or laws, tells the parents they are a collection of the like-minded and the spiritually akin, a people, a nation” (3-4).

Consumerism does not only concern an obsession with material, it has other effects as well. When the obsession with material things begins, it causes a collapse of religious and spiritual worlds. This leads to moral and spiritual decay that makes people too concerned with the present world and less so with death and what happens after that. This kind of consumerism has made Americans numb. They are not sensitive to death anymore and have lost their spirituality which is partly due to media proliferation. That’s what we see in the novel.

Gladney is also a consumerist. He cannot see the world in terms of the people that live in it. Instead, he is mainly concerned with the things that they own. There is a clear lack of humane perspective in the novel, and this is due to the narrator’s lack of concern with people. Both he and his wife Babette are people who lack spirituality so much so that they have developed a serious fear of death.

To control this fear, they start using the drug Dylar. It is here that we see consumerism at its best. The excess of consumerism leads to spiritual decay, and that leads to increased dependence on drugs. In the case of Gladney, too, their fear of death is so pronounced that they have to depend on Dylar. Instead of tackling the core cause of their fear and trusting God, they turn to medicines. It is important to understand that fears and problems that are caused psychologically can be cured with faith and strong willpower. However, in the pit of their dead spiritual worlds, Americans have become so numb that they cannot connect with God and instead depend on drugs. The use of Dylar was symbolic of the lack of faith in God, and this was closely pointing to the proliferation of depression drugs like Prozac and Xanax that had become a staple medicine in the 1990s.

While such medicine promised peace and serenity to those needing it, the fact remains that they do little to cure the causes and only allay the symptoms to some extent. Increased dependence on these can affect a person’s faith in God because he continues to treat the symptoms and never tries to address the real causes. It is when a person has faith that he looks inside of him and connects with God to allay his paranoia and unfounded fears. Dylar similarly promised to “interact with a distant part of the human cortex” (189) to minimize fear of death. The use of drugs can also affect a person’s own strength that can often effectively cure psychological problems. Babette and Gladney complain: “I wake up sweating.’ [… ] I seize up.’ [… ] I’m too weak to move. I lack all sense of resolve, determination.’ [… ] I lapse into terrible reveries’” (198).

This is what the book deals with, consumerism and the spiritual decay resulting from it. The ability of man to communicate with people around the world may have shrunk the world and brought it closer, but it has done little to increase a man’s spiritual values and to improve his faith in God. This lack of faith causes moral collapse that only makes people even more spiritually decadent.

In the white noise, we notice that the professor and his wife are immensely materialistic people. This is clear not only from the fear of death, which is actually a good sign of someone without faith, but it is also clear from Gladney’s focus on describing people’s gadgets and cars and not the people themselves.

This observation should be kept in mind. We must see that when on the opening page, Gladney is describing the cars that have just entered his college, he doesn’t discuss the people at all. Kavadlo argues: “People, more than merely identified or understood by their possessions, are, for Gladney, at the service of their things, items all referred to by the definite article that leaves no doubt that these belongings, unambiguously, define them.” (p. 13).

He definitely develops a connection between people’s possessions and their psyche but fails to comment on them in a humane way. This is brought to our attention in passing when his wife tells him that she doesn’t want to know about things, but about the people: ““it’s not the station wagons I wanted to see. What are the people like?’” (p. 5).

The inability of any person to focus on the emotions and sentiments of others shows a clear lack of empathy. This is what we find in the consumerist America where you may know what TV brand your friend has but might know little about his family life or its impact on him and his grades.

White Noise shifts our attention to the issue of materialism as it plagues America. Another interlinked theme is that of globalization. A materialistic America in a globalized world? What is the significance of this theme? Well, if we study closely, we might be able to see the link between consumerism and globalization. If every person in the world is capable of buying the same things as Americans, it means consumerism is beginning to spread its wings. If consumerism is not limited to a territory, there is a good chance that moral decay would also be going beyond borders. Gladney’s colleague Murray Siskind makes this connection when he notes how it has become to get goods “from twenty countries. It’s like being at some crossroads of the ancient world, a Persian bazaar or boomtown on the Tigris” (169).

White Noise turns our attention to these thought-provoking issues in the form of materialism and fear of death. A person is so fearful of death; he starts taking drugs to allay his fear. Instead of tackling the fear with the help of spiritual therapy and faith, he relies on drugs. This is an attack on the popular culture that has resulted in an increased dependence on antidepressants and tranquilizers.

Reference

Don DeLillo, White Noise. New York: Viking, 1985.

Jesse Kavadlo, Don Delillo: Balance at the Edge of Belief (New York: Peter Lang, 2004).

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