Don Delillo: The poet of paranoia. The sultan of suspicion. The troubadour of trepidation.
I didn't get much out of White Noise. Maybe it’s because I read Douglas Coupland first, though Coupland probably copied Delillo and not the other way around. But both authors seem to embrace the same sorts of anxieties about the modern age: one, the media is this all-encompassing force that affects us in ways we can’t control. The characters simultaneously fear, mock, yet participate in consumerism. Two, the end of the world is upon us. Though it doesn’t always happen in Coupland books (then again, sometimes it does), and it doesn’t happen in White Noise, the obsession with death and disasters keeps the idea just below the surface, ready to pop up from time to time.
Both Coupland and Delillo suggest that the dystopia is here, upon us, now. What’s scary is that we’re caught up in it. All of the technology of the modern age is starting to backfire on us. Stories about white noise affecting children’s ability to learn are in the same spirit as White Noise. The fact that there’s this inaudible noise all around us, affecting us in ways we can’t fathom, scares us. To me the book has aged little. People still have that sense that everything around us is dangerous, causes cancer, has side effects we won’t hear about until it’s much, much too late.
This reminds me of a movie I saw called Safe, starring Julianne Moore. It’s about this woman who suddenly becomes sick, and gets nosebleeds and faints all the time, and the doctors aren’t sure what’s wrong with her. The whole movie is filmed in these muted tones, almost silvery (which is especially weird because it's set in an upper-class Southern Californian suburb; perpetually sunny and gaudy), and the camera leaves all this space around her, so she looks tiny and surrounded by an eerily silent environment, like it’s ready to engulf her. She’s much like Jack’s character in the second half of the book, always apprehensive and seemingly on the verge of self-destruction or death or something. She sees an ad on a bulletin board in the hospital for a meeting for people with unexplained sicknesses, and how it’s related to airplane fumes and other pollutants. She ends up going to this new age camp/retreat place (very California-esque) for other people who are allergic to everything and they live in these bomb shelter type houses in complete fear, all the time trying to escape from the chemicals that are killing them. The fear eats them up and the woman becomes insane and hysterical in the end. (It’s a depressing movie.)
White Noise reminded me of Safe because of its paranoia that everything around us is turning out to be deadly in some way. Like, when Denise keeps harassing Babette about smoking and/or chewing sugarless gum and Babette protests that everything is harmful nowadays. Also, everyone is constantly preparing for these “disasters,” but if somebody just told you about SimuVac, you’d probably think they were preparing earthquakes and hurricanes, which would be good. But instead they prepare for bad smells and such things. With the modern age come modern disasters.
Ubiquitous advertising and media occupies Delillo more, though. People fear disaster more because they’re being constantly bombarded with it on TV and in movies. It’s happening to everyone else, so they’re only waiting for their time to come, to be part of the whole thing. After the airborne toxic event, as Babette mentions, they are disappointed that there isn’t more media coverage. They feel they deserve what they’ve been shown on TV should happen to them: they should be hounded relentlessly by TV cameras and reporters. There should be full coverage. The whole thing becomes meta-meta-meta into infinity. Even the idea of the ruthless media following you around has been perpetuated by the media.
I like the phrase “cultural detritus” an awful lot. It all ties in nicely with the idea of a present dystopia. It ties in with Delillo's discussion in the novel about the creation of new words and its connection with consumerism. When Steffie is murmuring “Toyota Celica” in her sleep, Jack comments about “supranational names, computer-generated, more or less universally pronounceable. Part of every child’s brain noise…” It’s interesting because of its context within the anti-globalization movement (emphasis on the fact that the names are supranational) and because of the comment that it’s part of “brain noise.” The interjections of name brands aren’t just Jack’s fascination with new words, but also a manifestation of this cultural detritus floating around in our heads. A never-ending flow of useless information, all of which we can’t possibly retain, so there are these remainders, scraps and bits of things that float to the surface at random or because something reminds us of it. The scene is metafictional too, in that Jack imagines that Steffie is saying something profound, and he builds up all this suspense and becomes obsessed with hearing whatever it was. We skim ahead, too, hoping for profundity, but it’s the name of a car. But in a sense that is profound because it addresses these “substatic regions too deep to probe” in the brain. Full of white noise.
The scene with Willie Mink deals with cultural detritus too. He’s taken so much Dylar that all of these subliminal pieces of leftover information have overtaken his brain. It’s almost like Tourette’s syndrome – he involuntarily and even unconsciously utters random bits of advertising. He interjects with, “the pet under stress may need a prescription diet,” and, “containing iron, niacin and riboflavin.” Everything becomes blurry in this scene, too. It’s as though everything except Mink is becoming white noise, and it’s eating him from the inside, too.
The Poet of Paranoia. I’d say it was aptly put. That’s one of the main differences I found between Douglas Coupland and Don Delillo. Delillo is ten times more bleak. At least many of Coupland’s characters exist within anti-status quo subcultures and can actually look at things from the outside. Coupland’s characters survive, but Delillo’s deteriorate. There is no solution for them.