23 July 2012

White Noise

Middle-aged white men are not the only ones who feel sad.

Let that sink in for a second.

Now think about the books we hold up as 'best' and 'classics'. I don't want to rail against dead white men. I'm not about to attempt a dismantling of an ivory tower. But the majority of books are about middle-aged white men who have ennui.

I've been reading White Noise by Don DeLillo. It is the second book of his that I have tried to read. I picked through 20 pages of Underworld in 2005 and put it down with it leaving no real impression. I came to White Noise with few expectations. It was a book on my shelf that was unread.

DeLillo reminds me of Philip Roth. They both trade in a sort of suburban distopia full of bored men and women that is meant to equate to depth of story. The main difference is that I don't find DeLillo as preachy and in some ways he even seems aware of the absolute obnoxiousness of his characters.

White Noise centers around the fear of death. There is even a pill presented that is meant to defeat this fear. Is this the only remaining fear middle-class America has? That is takes 300 pages to explore the idea and manages to say little on it is telling.

The book is full of beauty. I don't want it to be thought that DeLillo is a bad writer. He and Roth have moments of sheer brilliance. DeLillo manages to come up with insane non sequiturs that hang together like a beaded curtain and make the plot of his novel. That the majority of the actions in the novel are designed to keep the characters in stasis belies the use of plot as a description.

A group of professors talking at lunch about where they were when famous deaths occurred. A speech about how both Elvis and Hitler were mama's boys. A young child riding a tricycle across four lanes of traffic while elderly women watch in horror. The noxious cloud of black that chases out protagonist to the point of driving his family in their station wagon off-road and across a stream at full speed.

That you cannot glean a plot from any of those moments is my point exactly.

These are vignettes masquerading as novel. They are partially related moments that feel like an author coming up with 'cool' things that should go into a book. Then they are hung onto a message of melancholia and death in the mid-west, in a man-made environmental disaster, in popping pills and cheating on spouses.

This is the problem with these books about middle-aged white ennui. They are loose arrangements of things that sort of make up a story. We hold them up and call them great because they reflect us so clearly yet do little more.

Ulysses, Portnoy's Complaint, White Noise, In Search Of Lost Time, Love in the Time of Cholera, A Farewell to Arms, The Great Gatsby. I would argue that all are about wealthy or well-off white ennui. Even Marquez, who manages to fall headlong into this trap. Just read Memories of My Melancholy Whores for proof.

It's all over other film as well. Look at A Single Man or A Serious Man...both men are the same really. A Serious Man, a Coen Brothers film, is at its heart an adaptation of White Noise. They are both about the mid-west. About college professors. About unhappy marriages and nostalgia for the past. Both seep in unfocused sadness while giving their characters undefined terminal health problems. Both have a disaster at their core. One in the middle, and one at the end.

Neither manages to clarify anything. Both have moments of brilliance bracketed by yawning expanses of 'why am I paying attention to these sad terrible people'.

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