Study Guide

White Noise

By Don DeLillo

White Noise Introduction

One of the hallmarks of a seriously awesomesauce work of literature is that it keeps getting more relevant the longer it hangs around. Instead of being weird and dated, great literature can seem like a spooky premonition of things to come. Think Catch-22 and its ideas about confusion in the military that are still eerily on point. Think 1984, which predicted, in a spine-tingling way, the lack of privacy we experience in the 21st century. And think White Noise.

White Noise is a relic of the 1980s in quite a few ways—there are references to leg warmers as sexy for Pete's sake, and you can almost hear the Irene Cara playing over the supermarket loud speakers—but mainly it's a little too close to current reality for comfort. This novel is preoccupied with the idea that humans are totally obsessed with finding a way to avoid thinking about the fact that they're going to die someday. The main way they distract themselves from this morbid reality is to consume media pretty much constantly. Hmm. Sound familiar at all?

Back in 1985, when Don DeLillo's White Noise hit the bookshelves, the only media available was TV, radio (how antique!), and supermarket magazines. Now, of course, we literally hold the entirety of the internet in the palm of our hands. We wonder if Don DeLillo even has a smartphone, or if he's holed up somewhere with a landline and dial-up internet, thinking lucidly about the fact that he'll someday die.

Certainly if Jack Gladney, the protagonist of White Noise, was around today, he'd be neck-deep in Netflix marathons and continually reading listicles just to keep the idea of death in the back of his mind. Jack Gladney is a professor at a quaint American university who invented an entire department called Hitler Studies. He wanted to study Adolf Hitler, he realizes, because Hitler was so horrific and evil that he gained historical immortality. Yup: Jack Gladney invented a job for himself in order to be closer to someone who seemingly cheated death.

But Jacky boy has to confront the cold hard reality of death when he becomes exposed to a cloud of noxious gas. What ensues? Equal parts hilarity and melancholy, philosophical rants and shooting dudes in motel rooms, domestic drama and pill-popping mayhem: that's what. But throughout all the ups and downs and twists and turns of this National Book Award-winning novel is the ever-present question "How do people confront the fact that one day, relatively soon, they'll kick the bucket?"

White Noise actually was written at the midpoint in DeLillo's writing career, but it's definitely the book that made him mad famous. He's one of the big dogs of late-20th century American Postmodernism, and if you're a fan of David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Lethem, you have to get acquainted with White Noise.

Other reasons you should get acquainted with White Noise are: if you fear death, if you consume media of any kind, if you have a passing interest in Adolf Hitler, if you take pills for anything, or if you shop at supermarkets. Which means that basically, if you're not a hermit living under a rock, you should get to know White Noise.

And we're more than happy to introduce you. We think you'll get along like a house on fire (or, in the case of this novel, a town under threat of a cloud of poisonous gas).

What is White Noise About and Why Should I Care?

Everyone's favorite paunchy ginger, Louis C.K., has a great speech about why people should spend less time with their smartphones.

"Underneath everything in your life there's that thing, that 'forever empty,'" says Louis C.K. "Sometimes when things clear away, and you're not watching anything… you start going Oooh, no. Here it comes: I am alone!"

People responded to this bit like mad. It was called brilliant, and people said he nailed it.

And all the Lit Nerds at Shmoop were like "Yeah, he did nail it, but you know what? Don DeLillo nailed it first in White Noise!"

Before Clueless was Emma. Before Bridget Jones' Diary was Pride and Prejudice. And before Louis C.K. was Don freaking DeLillo.

A huge fear of death in a culture that no longer knows the difference between real and the fake: this is the America that Don DeLillo shows us in White Noise. This thought of dying terrifies us so much that we bombard ourselves with distractions until we're so dizzy we forget about death. These distractions come in the form of buying stuff at stores, watching endless cycles of television shows and commercials, and listening to all the traffic sounds and electronic beeps and buzzes that make up the background white noise (title alert!) of our daily lives.

Sure, abating a fear of death by drowning your sorrows in media isn't the worst thing you could do. You could go out in the middle of the desert and cook meth. But as we see in White Noise, mindless media consumption in order to keep yourself from thinking about the icky parts of life can lead to more dangerous things. Like, in the case of White Noise's protagonist Jack Gladney, shooting a man in a seedy motel just to watch him die.

But don't worry: White Noise ain't a moralizing PSA. They don't give the National Book Award out to dull scare stories. White Noise is a deeply weird book full of conspiracy-theory style clouds of noxious gas, drug addiction, infidelity, creepy adult-acting children, and Don DeLillo's signature biting wit. Up is down in White Noise, and left is right.

You'll finish this book so dizzy from DeLillo's philosophical rants and insane-o humor that you'll probably forget you're going to die someday. And, at least according to DeLillo, it's way better to drown your fear of death in philosophy and hilarity than it is to drown your fear of death with colorful game apps and quizzes that tell you what 90's child star you're most like.

White Noise Resources

Websites

The Don DeLillo Society's Official Website
If you truly love the Don, go ahead and join. Or maybe just poke around the website. Your call. 

Don DeLillo's America
It's not an official page, but some DeLillo lover has put a lot of work into this web gem.

Official Author Page at Simon & Schuster Publishing
If you need up-to-date email alerts about what DeLillo's up to these days, this is the site for you.

Articles and Interviews

"Crowding Out Death"
A sophisticated book review from the New York Times' Jayne Anne Phillips.

Negative Review of White Noise
If you aren't really feeling this book, you might want to check out this review. Or if you are feeling this book and want to get your blood boiling, take a look anyway.

Don DeLillo's Life in Quotes
We're looking at an entire Don DeLillo autobiography told completely through tiny quotes. Now that's convenient.

Video

Trailer for White Noise Movie that Doesn't Exist
Well there's no film version of White Noise. But some folks on the internet definitely think there should be.

Don DeLillo Reading from CIA Memo
Don DeLillo isn't all jokes. He gets totally real in this clip.

Satirical Interpretation of White Noise
What do you think? Spot on, or dead wrong?

Interview with John Humphrys
The title says it all.

Audio

The Slate's Audio Book Club Discusses White Noise
Fair warning: this convo gets a little heated.

Images

Don DeLillo Stares into Your Soul
Yep.

Don DeLillo with a Cat
Because what author doesn't look better with a cat?

DeLillo with White Noise Poster
DeLillo standing beside a really cool image for White Noise.