White Noise

This year I re-read my favorite novel — White Noise by Don Delillo. It’s one of the very few novels I’ve read more than once, and I think this was my third or fourth time through. I won’t recommend it to you, because, and for good reason, there are very few other people who enjoy this novel as much as I do. Most people hate it.

However, I’d like to write a bit about why I like the novel so much and what it means to me — the novel is “about” the white-noise in our society. The signals we get from our culture that don’t actually mean anything. Delillo continually goes back to the symbol of a grocery store, a place in our culture that’s both indispensable and dense with the white-noise of advertising and branding so much that it fully saturates the senses.

My favorite part of the novel, the part that has always stuck with me, happens fairly early in the book, and I think it encapsulates best what the book is “about.” Two of the main characters go on a sight-seeing trip to visit the Most Photographed Barn in America. This idea, of visiting the most photographed barn in America, a real Borgesian brain-twister, has always helped me to think about the relationship between the culture we live in and our relationship to it.

For me, this metaphor cranks up the cognitive dissonance feedback loop to a pitch that actually offers clarity — we create the culture through our participation in it, not individually, but collectively. By going to photograph the barn, we maintain its status as the Most Photographed Barn in America. Without us, it’s just a regular barn, and without our collective belief in its importance, there’s nothing to see.

Many years ago I had a phone call with a friend where she told me about her disappointment in visiting Machu Pichu — “it’s just some old ruins”, she told me. “Like, it’s cool to see something so old, but also, I’m not sure why everyone talks about it so much.” And of course, she’s write — the ruins of Machu Pichu, if you strip them of their historical and cultural context, aren’t actually that much to see (of course all ruins are this way — I’m not singling out Machu Pichu in particular)

It’s only through meditating on the passing of time, and our place in history, and how we might be standing on the same spot that another human being was standing on a thousand years ago, and how civilizations, no matter how powerful, may crumble and yield nothing but a pile of less-than-impressive rocks that we can begin to appreciate the power of Machu Pichu, and why so many people find going there such an awe-inspiring experience.

It’s not about the ruins, most people don’t even look that closely at the ruins. The ruins aren’t why you go — you go to participate in the collective cultural experience, both the experience of being a part of the club of people who have been to Machu Pichu, as well as to contemplate the grander truths about history and time and gods and man and how being an individual in the universe feels just so /small/. That the ruins are there to spur us onto these thoughts is nice, but not at all why we go to Machu Pichu.

The key plot point in the book, if it can be called that, is the “airborne toxic event” resulting from an industrial chemical spill that generates an enormous black cloud of toxic chemicals which drives everyone in the town to a joint evacuation center and exposes the main character to an uncertain-but-possibly-lethal dose of “Nyodene Derivative”. Delillo’s depiction of the people’s response to the airborne toxic event is what spurred me to re-read this novel during the times of coronavirus.

Disconcertingly, Delillo anticipates a lot of our collective (and my personal) response to the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, in this reading, what jumped out at me was our collective longing to believe that someone is in charge and handling the situation. In times of crisis, we’ll do pretty much whatever someone in a uniform directs us to do, and we’ll tell ourselves stories in order to believe that the people in charge both know what they’re doing and have our best interests at heart.

For whatever reason, this novel resonates with me in a way that I have a lot of trouble explaining to other people. The fear of death, the longing to both be a part of the collective culture and also rebel against it and assert one’s individuality.

If you do read it, definitely let me know what you think — also if you get a third of the way through the book and you’re not into it, definitely stop reading. It doesn’t get any better.

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By michael