The American Book of the Dead

It has become obvious that the isolation of quarantine provides the perfect conditions for serious, reflective reading. Something about the constant low-level thrum of anxiety, paired with occasional spikes of terror and the gloomy adagio of forced seclusion, creates a powerful literary alloy. We are aching to read about our symptoms. We are on a melancholy search for the language of our condition.

There are many obvious works to turn to: The Decameron, The Plague, and A Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe’s book is wonderful because it achieves the illusion of verisimilitude in that strident, 18th century way, while Camus’ The Plague rises to the seriousness of its subject, plucks the beating heart out of existentialism, and makes itself a stoic morality tale. Boccaccio, on the other hand, gives us an encyclopedic account of human emotions in morsel-sized vignettes.

But none of these books have celebrities, or shopping malls, or obsessive teenagers trying to contemplate the meaning of life and death with only the desiccated language of advertising as their tool. Even The Plague, the most recently-written pandemic book to find popularity among socially-isolated reading groups, struggles to reach us through the language of a society and culture distant in both time and space. Maybe its claims of a universal human condition have merit, but it seems to come to us fragmented, from a forgotten world and in a language only partially translated.

Our condition might be the same, but our context has changed. And the book which gives the clearest voice to all of the contemporary illusions of immortality and failed stratagems to insulate ourselves from the finality of death is Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Of course death is always death, everywhere permanently enunciating silence. But White Noise explores the only pathetic tools our strip-mall culture has given us to articulate what that silence means: celebrity, scientism, and consumerism transmitted, amplified, and distorted through the scrim of mass media.

From the beginning of his career, DeLillo had always explored the various ways in which our (then 20th century) culture fails to prepare us to be fully human. In his first novel, 1971’s Americana, advertising executive David Bell takes to the road to find himself, in an ironic skewering of both Kerouacian visions of authenticity hidden in the sleeping colossus of the continent and the easy commodification of avant-garde art and faux-spirituality. With the book, Joseph Dewey writes in Beyond Grief and Nothing: A Reading of Don DeLillo, that DeLillo:

Introduces the disquieting argument that Western traditions have uncomplicated the self into a commodity, have substituted a surfeit of carnal itches for the soul, and have encouraged faux-interior explorations via clichéd escapes, specifically alcohol and drugs, bad poetry and sports cars.

Leaving aside for the moment that contemporary capitalism is a break from all traditions, we see the inversion of Americana in 1972’s End Zone. Instead of a desperate and ultimately fruitless articulation of personhood, we have star university halfback Gary Harkness’s equally inane quest for self-immolation. Harkness deals with the basic condition of human suffering by trying to retreat from the chaotic beauty of the world into insane systems of control: football playbooks, nuclear exchange scenarios, fasting for no reason other than to exert hard control over the body. Ultimately, these methods seem as paltry as David Bell’s. The tools granted to us by our modern culture are not meant to do the heavy spiritual lifting required of being human. We have needs, apparently, which NCAA football, Sunny Delight, and Mixed Nash Equilibria cannot address.

Americana and End Zone are typical of early DeLillo. They are slapstick genre farces obsessed with the notion of diagnoses without cure. It is necessarily imperfect, but early DeLillo can be compared to early Eliot. There is much gloomy, and often mesmerizing, lamentation, but all with a claustrophobic, dead-end feel. If we are totally doomed, why care? And like Eliot, DeLillo seemed pushed by that question into developing a redemptive sensibility in his work. Or, maybe more accurately, allowing his nihilism to be colonized by grace. For DeLillo, the watershed moment came with 1982’s The Names, a novel in which, Dewey writes, “DeLillo, without intrusive irony or skewing cynicism, invests a fallen world with an abiding sense of meaning through the therapeutic application of language.”

DeLillo rediscovered the mystery of logos with The Names, although calling it “therapeutic” walks the epiphanic joy back towards something a bit more mundane. What DeLillo did was open his language, and his sense of the world, to meaning in excess of the literal. In one of the most powerful scenes of the book, the character James Axton has a moment in the tourist-filled Acropolis which echoes the shape of DeLillo’s own artistic and spiritual growth:

People come through the gateway, people in streams and clusters, in mass assemblies. No one seems to be alone. This is a place to enter into crowds, seek company and talk. Everyone is talking. I move past the scaffolding and walk down the steps, hearing one language after another, rich, harsh, mysterious, strong. This is what we bring to the temple, not prayer or chant or slaughtered rams. Our offering is language.

The Names has as much gruesomeness, as much human ugliness, as DeLillo’s earlier work (the plot centers around a homicidal cult); it just also holds open the possibility of there being more.

White Noise, published in 1985 and DeLillo’s first novel after The Names, carried the working title of “The American Book of the Dead.” And more so than any other of his previous novels, it explicitly interrogates all the ways in which our confrontation with oblivion is obstructed or waylaid. As Mark Osteen writes in the introduction to the Viking Critical Library edition of the novel,

White Noise brings together many of DeLillo’s obsessions: the deleterious effects of capitalism, the power of electronic images, the tyrannical authority and dangerous byproducts of science, the unholy alliance of consumerism and violence, and the quest for sacredness in a secularized world. Like all of his fiction, it displays his virtuoso command of language and, particularly, his ventriloquistic capacity to mimic the argots of various cultural forms. In it he amplifies the noises around us and permits us to hear again how these sounds shape our own voices and beliefs.

White Noise, in tone, channels a surreal family sitcom and mixes it with a college campus farce. The plot is sometimes slapstick but easy to follow. Jack Gladney is a Hitler Studies professor (a field he pioneered himself) at a generic Midwestern school called The-College-on-the-Hill. He does not speak German. Gladney lives in a raucous house full of children from the various marriages of himself and his current wife. Both spouses are almost psychologically paralyzed by a fear of death. These fears materialize in the second part of the novel when a chemical spill from a derailed train car releases a black cloud (a “toxic airborne event,” as the novel calls it) over the town, which Gladney is inadvertently exposed to while pumping gas. The rest of the novel deals with Gladney’s mortal fears spinning out of control and the failures of the rest of the community to articulate their own shared desire and terror. No spoilers.

The most obvious way that White Noise is the relevant pandemic (or toxic event) novel is the way that information is filtered through mass media. Characters frenetically track the latest lists of symptoms to look out for, with information changing minute to minute. One of Gladney’s daughters misses the updates and is slow to adjust her symptoms accordingly. “If Steffie had learned about deja vu on the radio but then missed the subsequent upgrading to more deadly conditions, it could mean that she was tricked by her own apparatus of suggestibility,” DeLillo writes. “She and Denise had been lagging all evening. They were late with sweaty palms, late with nausea, late again with deja vu. What did it all mean? . . . Is it possible to have a false perception of an illusion?”

Media, particularly visual media, inures us to direct contact with the ecstatic real. It allows us to fantasize about an illusion while it muffles the shock of the existent. Think of all the people who consider COVID-19 a hoax, or a weapon made in a lab, or even those who fantasize symptoms. First we were told that masks did nothing to stop the spread of the virus. Then we were told to wear masks. There are a score of narratives about when self-isolation will end, each competing for our deepest attention. The news simultaneously catastrophizes the mundane and makes the catastrophic seem generic. It pulls us in two opposite directions in order to maintain a monopoly on our awareness.

And, no matter the shrill or serious tone, it turns death into a commodified spectacle. Dewey again, writes,

Denied our privacy or dignity, death on the air becomes performance; looped endlessly, it becomes . . . entertainment, an aesthetic anesthetic, rendering us insensitive, even indifferent to the complicated and often gruesome reality of what we are viewing (consider the horrific events recorded—and then endlessly replayed—from the Zapruder film to the Challenger explosion to the World Trade Center attacks).

I remember, weeks ago, watching footage of Italian military trucks filling with the corpses of COVID victims. I closed the tab and in its place appeared a Youtube video about the making of the film Dazed and Confused. How can these things exist side by side? What does it mean that they do?

We have trouble encountering death through the gauze of the news because mass media speaks the language of consumption, not the language of life and death. The characters in White Noise are each in their own ways rummaging through the garbage of a failed consumerist utopia in search of a cure for the anxieties of being human. Gladney, after learning that a pill that promises to cure the fear of death has been disposed of in a trash compacter, goes literally rummaging. The passage is worth quoting at length:

I unfolded the bag cuffs, released the latch and lifted out the bag. The full stench hit me with shocking force. Was this ours? Did it belong to us? Had we created it? I took the bag out to the garbage and emptied it. The compressed bulk sat there like an ironic modern sculpture, massive, squat, mocking. I jabbed at it with the butt end of a rake and then spread the material over the concrete floor. I picked through it item by item, mass by shapeless mass, wondering why I felt guilty, a violator of privacy, uncovering intimate and perhaps shameful secrets. It was hard not to be distracted by some of the things they’d chosen to submit to the Juggernaut appliance. But why did I feel like a household spy? Is garbage so private? Does it glow at the core with personal heat, with signs of one’s deepest nature, clues to secret yearnings, humiliating flaws? What habits, fetishes, addictions, inclinations? What solitary acts, behavioral ruts? I found crayon drawings of a figure with full breasts and male genitals. There was a long piece of twine that contained a series of knots and loops. It seemed at first a random construction. Looking more closely I thought I detected a complex relationship between the size of the loops, the degree of the knots (single or double) and the intervals between knots with loops and freestanding knots. Some kind of occult geometry or symbolic festoon of obsessions. I found a banana skin with a tampon inside. Was this the dark underside of consumer consciousness?”

It is the garbage, the cultural bric-a-brac, we sift through in our search for meaning. It is physical pollution which echoes the mental pollution, the eponymous white noise, of our mental space. In desperation, ineffable messages are projected onto the banal. Cheap consumer goods endure their own lifespans and their corpses are sifted through for some hint at transcendence. There is a correlative in this overloading of junk with meaning to reducing other humans to kitsch.

Often, at the bottom of the refuse-pile of capitalism we find, if not a pill to mute our fear of death, then a celebrity. Gadney systematizes, reduces, and mythologizes Hitler into a celebrity in his program. He calls Hitler “larger than death,” hinting at the ironic distance he has put between the person and his crimes and the detached study of his status as a cult figure (at one point Gladney even compares him to Elvis). The Hitler Studies Program exists within something called The American Environments department, taught alongside courses on toilets, groceries, and car crashes.

I am reminded again of the Italian corpses and the YouTube video. If White Noise is rich with irony, and it is hilariously so, then that irony is there to serve the purposes of reminding us not to buy wholesale into the contextless and amoral mishmash of contemporary culture. Irony put to these ends serves as an antidote to giving oneself over wholesale to the cheapness of the age. But most antidotes are composed at least partially of the poison they protect us from.

Through the irony, strong as it is, White Noise also suggests an openness towards the possibility of redemption. DeLillo is often read as a “systems novelist,” in the vein of Pynchon and Gaddis. There is some value in that, but I think DeLillo, particularly mid-career and later, can be seen as working in the opposite direction as typical postmodern work. Instead of authenticity, or the real, being obliterated by irony, irony and detachment are taken as default and then complicated, compromised even, by transcendence.

If postmodern secular novels use irony to colonize the experience of God, DeLillo allows a raw metaphysical sensibility to colonize knee-jerk ironic posturing. There are moments that ache for epiphany in White Noise, such as when Gadney’s daughter Steffie begins muttering in her sleep while the family is temporarily isolated in an evacuation site. Gadney leans in, hoping to hear “intimations of odd comfort”. She whispers the words “Toyota Celica” after this:

A long moment passed before I realized that this was the name of an automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform. It made me feel that something hovered. But how could this be? A simple brand name, an ordinary car. How could these near-nonsense words, murmured in a child’s restless sleep, make me sense a meaning, a presence? . . . Whatever its source, the utterance struck me with the impact of a moment of splendid transcendence.

Paul Maltby writes in the essay “The Romantic Metaphysics of Don DeLillo,” which appeared in the journal Contemporary Literature, argues that DeLillo is not diluting a moment of possibility with irony in having Steffie invoke the name of a consumer object, but that he is actually continuing the work he started in The Names, illustrating how humans will use anything at their disposal as a medium for experiencing the metaphysical heft of the universe.

This is most often done with language, with “what we bring to the temple”. Maltby writes that “While ‘Toyota Celica’ may be a brand name, Gladney perceives it as having an elemental, incantatory power that conveys, at a deeper level, another order of meaning.” Dewey agrees, arguing that throughout the variety of DeLillo’s work, “what has unified its trajectory is [his] restless curiosity about the implications of human complexity, and his refusal to accept the easy discontent of living in an age so impressed by surfaces and imitations, his refusal to abdicate the responsibility of wonder.”

This “responsibility of wonder” really cuts to the heart of why White Noise is the book for our pandemic. It is not so much that human truths have changed since Camus or Defoe, but that human fictions have. White Noise is not simply a more accurate account of how we experience calamity in the modern world, but a much more useful description of all the obstacles preventing us from fully inhabiting our own lives: Fox News, Twitter, Tom Hanks, TikTok. We live out our disaster through various fictions, waiting to hear the words that will join us with a more profound reality.

Featured Image: Gorup de BesanezMuseum of Modern Art, MOMA, 28 May 2008; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0


Scott Beauchamp

Scott Beauchamp’s writing has appeared in The Paris Review, American Affairs, and Bookforum, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books.

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