Exploring the art of prose


Realistic Absurdity in DeLillo’s WHITE NOISE

By Christina Ward-Niven

There is so much to admire, craft-wise, in Don DeLillo’s classic novel White Noise: compelling, empathetic characterization; sharp dialogue; handling of theme through plot and subtext; a tone that consistently weaves wryness with heart. In this essay, however, I’m going to focus specifically on one aspect of the book I find most intriguing, as a writer: White Noise’s unique, slightly askew form of realism—which is not quite realistic, but also not wholly unrealistic or surreal. How does the author pull this off?

My copy of the novel features a blurb from Lev Grossman of Time that reads, in part: “Though it’s pitched at a level of absurdity slightly above that of real life, White Noise captures the quality of daily existence in media-saturated, hyper-capitalistic postmodern America so precisely …” I agree, and I’ll use this quote as a jumping-off point. Before I examine the “how,” I’ll consider the “why”—why might an author aim for this quality of slight absurdity? How does it serve the narrative? Why not write in straight realism? One reason may be that slight strangeness adds consistent interest to a narrative that is, in part, simply about the mundane—the dailyness of family life in modern America (supermarkets, TV commercials, tabloids, kitchen conversations)—a topic that by its very nature is at risk of being overly quotidian, if not outright boring. White Noise also centers on a quirk-filled but caring, functional family, featuring spouses Jack (the book’s first-person narrator) and Babette who openly, deeply love each other (even Babette’s eventual infidelity is rooted in spousal love!) and love their children—a subject choice that also risks boredom and/or sentimentality. Yet the light weirdness of the characters, their interactions, and their reactions, make this loving family both familiar and excitingly unpredictable.

Now to the “how”: How does DeLillo achieve this “level of absurdity slightly above that of real life”? One way is his handling of plot. The events that transpire in White Noise are just barely implausible. In other words, they could happen in real life, but we know they won’t, or at least not to the extremes described in the novel. The implausibility lies mostly in the details. The most obvious example of this is the airborne toxic event. Could a “black billowing cloud” of a toxic substance really come out of a punctured rail car and float over a town, causing evacuations, widespread panic, and rumors of exposure implications? Sure, we can imagine something like this actually happening (Chernobyl meets Hurricane Katrina meets Flint, MI, water contamination). But does a chemical called Nyodene Derivative really exist? No. Would a side effect of chemical exposure ever really be déjà vu? Probably not. And as a family evacuates by car amid heavy traffic, would they really witness the following scene?

Slowly we approached an overpass, seeing people on foot up there. They carried boxes and suitcases, objects in blankets, a long line of people leaning into the blowing snow. People cradling pets and small children, an old man wearing a blanket over his pajamas, two women shouldering a rolled-up rug. There were people on bicycles, children being pulled on sleds and in wagons. People with supermarket carts, people clad in every kind of bulky outfit, peering out from deep hoods. There was a family wrapped completely in plastic, a single large sheet of transparent polyethylene. They walked beneath their shield in lock step, the man and woman each at one end, three kids between, all of them secondarily wrapped in shimmering rainwear.

It’s technically possible that one might encounter such a scene after a local disaster—certainly frightened residents might choose to evacuate on foot due to standstill traffic—but the uncanny particulars take it into low-level absurdity territory: the women carrying a rolled-up rug, the multiple grocery carts, the family wrapped in plastic and rainwear and walking in unison. Not impossible, just distinctly implausible.

Also not totally impossible is the plot thread involving Babette and her secret consumption of an anxiety medication. Certainly, a common treatment for anxiety is medication, and sure, a person might have reason to take such medicine in secret. But—in White Noise, the medicine is the nonexistent-in-real-life Dylar, which is specifically designed to treat “fear of death,” and which has been invented by a secret research group working out of an unmarked building. The details become increasingly bizarre (and funny): for example, a side effect of Dylar is confusing words with actual things. After Babette sleeps with a researcher to get access to the drug (plausible), and a jealous Jack eventually decides to track down the researcher and shoot him (extreme but plausible), we move into the weird zone: Jack decides to drag the shot man into the nearest clinic, which just happens to be filled with German nuns, who let him practice his newly acquired German language skills, which he has been covertly working on with a recluse who lives in a local boarding house.

The core plot of White Noise is rooted in realism, but smaller plot happenings take the narrative into the realm of the creatively absurd.

Characterization also plays into the novel’s slightly strange tone. All of the characters in White Noise feel real, distinct, human; they also have mannerisms that are funny, odd, and believable but unlikely. These mannerisms, rather than turning the cast into part of a satirical/cartoonish take on family and academia, serve to draw us in. They also add to the novel’s absurd pitch. A prime example is Murray Jay Siskind, a guest lecturer at the college who becomes good friends with Jack, who also teaches at the school. Murray is from the city and is fascinated by small-town life. He frequently wanders the supermarket, studying the aisles and products with an intense curiosity. “His basket held generic food and drink, nonbrand items in plain white packages with simple labeling. … ‘This is the new austerity,’ he said. ‘Flavorless packaging. It appeals to me. … This is the last avant-garde. Bold new forms. The power to shock.’”

Murray’s love of unbranded packaging, and his reasons why, help flesh out this charmingly odd character for the reader. He later reaches into Jack and Babette’s basket: “He picked up our bottle of extra-strength pain reliever and sniffed along the rim of the child-proof cap. He smelled our honeydew melons, our bottles of club soda and ginger ale.” Murray is a man fascinated by grocery stores, a man so intrigued by a family’s unremarkable purchases that he sniffs each of them. Realistic or unrealistic, these mannerisms distinguish Murray as a character and are not so bizarre to be utterly unbelievable.

As a character, Murray hovers on the edge of absurdity throughout the novel. Later in the narrative, when the town is evacuated to a Boy Scout camp, Jack encounters Murray speaking to a car full of prostitutes in the parking lot.

The car window opened a crack. One of the women said to Murray, “All right, I’ll do it for twenty-five.” …

“It’s none of my business,” I said, “but what is it she’s willing to do with you for twenty-five dollars?”

“The Heimlich maneuver.”

I studied the part of his face that lay between the touring cap and the beard. He seemed deep in thought, gazing at the car. The windows were fogged, the women’s heads capped in cigarette smoke.

“Of course we’d have to find a vertical space,” he said absently.

“You don’t really expect her to lodge a chunk of food in her windpipe.”

He looked at me, half startled. “What? No, no, that won’t be necessary. As long as she makes gagging and choking sounds. As long as she sighs deeply when I jolt the pelvis. As long as she collapses helplessly backward into my life-saving embrace.”

By this point in the novel, we are not wholly surprised to discover that this character is turned on by employing the Heimlich manuever; it’s fitting for Murray. Is it funny and weird and unexpected? Yes. Is it totally impossible? No.

Other characters have similarly quirky traits—including nine-year-old Steffie’s habit of burning toast simply for the comforting smell; adolescent Heinrich’s ongoing chess game with a convicted killer and his befriending of a boy who is in training to sit in a poisonous snake cage; Babette’s reading of the tabloids to the blind; Jack’s expertise in Hitler Studies and his deep dependence on watching his children sleep; tall Winnie Richards’ “evasive tactics” as she lopes around campus—and they all add to the distinct originality of the book.

Lastly, I’ll consider the way dialogue casts a strangeness over the whole of White Noise. People converse a lot in this novel—for me, these witty, zig-zagging conversations are one of the great pleasures of the book. The characters speak to each other in a way that is familiar and almost true-to-life, but not quite. For one, there is the use of monologues. Murray, in particular, is prone to giving mini-speeches to Jack, during which Jack contributes only a line or two, as Murray spouts off paragraphs of streaming thoughts. In the interest of space, I won’t copy out entire pages of back and forth between the two, but examples begin early in the novel, when the character of Murray is introduced. Jack asks Murray straightforward questions, and he responds elaborately:

“Where are you living, Murray?”

“In a rooming house. I’m totally captivated and intrigued. It’s a gorgeous old crumbling house near the insane asylum. Seven or eight boarders, more or less permanent except for me. A woman who harbors a terrible secret. A man with a haunted look. A man who never comes out of his room. A man who stands by the letter box for hours, waiting for something that never seems to arrive. A man with no past. A woman with a past. There is a smell about the place of unhappy lives in the movies that I really respond to.”

In reality, if a person regularly responded to questions with speech-like monologues (that often comprise lists), it would be tedious, annoying. But in White Noise it fits right in with the odd conversational patterns of the novel.

Another unique aspect of the dialogue is the way the children of the family take on the role of the wise elders when speaking to their oft-baffled parents. It’s not obnoxious or disrespectful; while the kids are often cynical, they are also loving. They care about their parents; they worry about them. There’s something both unfamiliar and familiar about this role reversal, much like many of the unlikelihoods in White Noise. The child-parent dynamic speaks to a kind of contemporary generation gap we have in American society now (more than 30 years after the book’s publication), with children who are growing up tech-savvy and device-adapted, and parents who are trying (or not trying) to keep up (e.g., my own adolescent daughters frequently inform me of the shortcuts I could/should be using on my iPhone).

In the following example, 11-year-old Denise is watching her mother unwrap a stick of gum.

She waited a long moment, then said evenly, “That stuff causes cancer in laboratory animals in case you didn’t know.”

“You wanted me to chew sugarless gum, Denise. It was your idea.”

“There was no warning on the pack then. They put a warning, which I would have a hard time believing you didn’t see.” …

“I’m happy to do it either way,” Babette said. “It’s totally up to you. Either I chew gum with sugar and artificial coloring or I chew sugarless and colorless gum that’s harmful to rats.”

…“Don’t chew at all,” [Steffie] said. “Did you ever think of that?”

“A little gum can’t possibly hurt,” Babette said.

“I guess you’re right. Never mind. Just a warning on the pack,” [said Denise].

Steffie hung up [the phone]. “Just hazardous to your health,” she said.

“Just rats,” Denise said. “I guess you’re right. Never mind.”

“Maybe she thinks they died in their sleep.”

“Just useless rodents, so what’s the difference?”

“What’s the difference, what’s the fuss?” Steffie said.

“Plus I’d like to believe she chews only two pieces a day, the way she forgets things.”

“What do I forget?” Babette said.

“It’s all right,” Denise said. “Never mind.”

“What do I forget?”

“Go ahead and chew. Never mind the warning. I don’t care.”

Would an 11-year-old and 9-year-old jointly lecture their mother about her exposure to artificial sweeteners? Maybe, maybe not. All of the conversations with children throughout White Noise share this kind of unlikely-yet-somehow-accurate tone. The adults are anxiety-prone and confused; the children often have a better grip on things. In all cases, they openly care about each other, which to my mind is a distinct accomplishment: a literary novel about a loving family that is also surprising, suspenseful, serious, and funny.

For those of us interested in examining everyday American life and family life in our fiction, DeLillo’s brand of low-level absurdity may be a useful tool to consider.

CHRISTINA WARD-NIVEN lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her work has appeared recently in Virginia Quarterly Review and Fiction Writers Review. She won second place in American Short Fiction’s 2016 short-story contest. Christina holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College’s Program for Writers.