"It's about fear, death, and technology. A comedy, of course." DeLillo, 1984.
When Don DeLillo's 1984 novel White Noise won the National Book Award I bought and read it. Thirty years later I bought a copy in a library sale and have read it a second time. (The first copy was sacrificed at one of our dozen moves.)
Thirty years ago I was barely 30 and was not yet a mother. I had taken a course on Black Humor at Adrian College. So I am sure I understood the clever dark humor of the book, but little of the nuances of family life and parenting. And certainly I did not resonate to the fear of death that pervades the characters in the novel.
The numerous references to American culture places the novel in a specific time, which thirty years later is a real time travel experience. Sansabelt slacks? Princess phones? Kids being driven to college in station wagons loaded with phonograph players and records? 1984 was an age of shopping malls and consumerism. Just this week a Detroit Free Press article covered the demise of the shopping malls. This was another time for sure. A time when the Middle Class was in it's hey-day, spending to create the American Dream.
It was also a time when people worried about the Cold War and Nuclear Winter, the end of the world as we know it.
I was compelled to turn pages even when nothing really was happening, plot wise at least. The first section Waves and Radiation introduces the family. The husband, Professor Jack Gladney, has created a Hitler Center at the university, but agonizes over not being able to read German. His attractive third--or fourth wife depending if you label marrying the same woman twice one or two marriages--Babette reads tabloids to the blind and teaches the elderly proper posture. Kids of all ages, from previous and current marriages, perplex their folks as kids are wont to do. They are your typical American family.
The second section The Airborne Toxic Event finds the family in crisis. An accident releases an airborne toxin into the air and the community is evacuated for nine days. Part Three, Dylarama, shows us how far Babette will go to escape her fear of dying. When Jack finds out her secret he waffles between wanting to follow her lead or turn to violence and vengeance.
The writing abounds with memorable lines.
"..the irony of human existence, that we are the highest form of life on earth and yet ineffably sad because we know what no other animal knows, that we must die."
"We have these deep and terribly lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink. We manage to function."
Which recalled to mind Emily Dickinson's poem "I tie my hat....to keep my senses on" with its final lines "Therefore--we do life's labor--Though life's Reward--Be Done-- With Scrupulous exactness--to hold our senses-- on--"
Jack is asked, "Isn't death the boundary we need? Doesn't it give a precious texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry of a final line, a border or limit."
And his friend Murray tells him "That's what it all comes down to in the end...A person spends his life saying good-bye to other people How does he say good-bye to himself?"
All this death talk, so Woody Allen-ish, would become tedious and heavy if it were not for the comic insights that also abound.
After the Airborne Toxic Event the community goes through drills to prepare for another such event. Just after a drill for an airborne toxic event people notice a strange irritating order, a copper taste on the tongue. But the authorities are silent and the people avoid thinking or talking about what they experience. Finally it goes away. All that preparedness, and yet no one responds! This kind of irony pervades the novel
But wait, that just happened to me. We were celebrating our anniversary at a nice restaurant when the fire alarm went off. The diners all sat in their seats, sniffing the air and looking at the staff for orders. Everyone was placid, there was no sense of danger. The staff stood confused and silent. After a minute or so the owner came and told the staff to lead everyone outside. Some patrons left with wine glasses in their hands. We filed out in an orderly style and at a slow pace, and stood just outside the doorway eager to return to our meals. After some minutes we were told there was a water leak that set off the alarm. The fire department decided it was safe and everyone pushed back in to their meals.
We did not get a discount or even a freebie.
I can only think that the lack of smoke or smoky odor kept us from taking the alarm seriously. Remember the fire drills held in school days? We did not learn a thing.
Towards the end of the novel Jack Gladney ends up in a hospital staffed by nuns. The nun attending him becomes irritated that he expects her to embody the faith that he himself lacks. She chides him.
''Your dedication is a pretense?''[Jack asked]
''Our presence is a dedication,'' she responds. ''As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe . . . Nuns in black. . . . Fools, children. We surrender our lives to make your non-belief possible."
At least America in 1984.
And what was going on in 1984?
President Reagen called it "Morning in America," referring to the rise of optimism American were feeling, especially in regards to financial security.
Early in December toxic gas released in Bhopol, India killed 2,000 and injured 150,000 people.
Crack hit the LA streets.
Mackintosh Apple computers were introduced.
The USSR, U.S., China, and even France were conducting nuclear tests. Lots of tests.
Saddam Hussein of Iraq of used poison gas against Iran and the Kurds.
The AIDS virus was identified.
The IRA bombed a British Hotel where Margaret Thatcher was staying.
Jet hijackings were going on.
The U.S. Embassy in Beirut was bombed.
The Space Shuttle was making flights.
Indira Ghandi was assassinated.
Exercise was a fad with its own fashions.
Stonewashed jeans were introduced. And Big Hair was big. So where the shoulder pads.
Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen was released.
Ghostbusters and Sixteen Candles were released.
A heady mix of pervasive dread tempered by a healthy dose of feel good consumer delights. We got the novel we deserved.