In the mid-1980s, I fled Ronald Reagan’s America for the jungles of Costa Rica. Before leaving–forever, I thought–I shipped two boxes of paperbacks to the tropics. I would soon read every book from those boxes plus anything else I could grab in hopes of explaining a world gone mad.
It was 1985, the beginning of what Paul Simon called “the days of miracle and wonder.” Week after week bombs went off in airplanes, offices, and city streets. Each month brought another serial killer, another daycare sex scandal, another disaster with “details at 11.” And each night, on a growing number of TV channels, I learned that Coke had a new formula and that Elvis had been sighted, somewhere.
Fleeing the madness, I sat in my small hovel in the tropics, reading, reading. In the abundant free time given to Peace Corps volunteers, I plowed through Plato and Dante, Chaucer and War and Peace. I polished most of Thomas Hardy and all of Proust. But I remained in despair; no one else understood the madness. Then one day in the Peace Corps office, someone handed me a new novel, White Noise.
The opening scene described a college campus, parents dropping off students. It seemed pedestrian until I read that the narrator chaired the Department of Hitler Studies. I was hooked. A few days later, I contemplated sending Don DeLillo a letter saying simply, “Thank you for White Noise.”
This darkly funny book is set in a college town but its domain is the new media landscape, a rapidly expanding wasteland of cable TV, tabloid truth, and what DeLillo calls “the cults of the famous and the dead.” In DeLillo’s America, fear is common currency. “Terrifying data is now an industry in itself,” he notes. “Different firms compete to see how badly they can scare us.” Shopping is the national pastime. Simulation jousts with reality, and the “Info Age” clutters the American mind with drivel. Meanwhile, in the background, the TV spews.
“The TV said: ‘Until Florida surgeons attached an artificial flipper.’”
Reading on in my tropical library, I marveled at this merciless send-up of the land I’d left behind. Fulfilling Ezra Pound’s dictum, “the artist is the antenna of the race,” DeLillo saw how the glut of information was changing everything. Even language was awash in nonsense and non-sequiturs which his narrative inserts at random: Dacron, Orlon, Lycra Spandex.
After two years in the tropics, I returned to Reagan’s America. The end of my exile had less to do with a book than with another Peace Corps volunteer to whom I’m still married. Back home, I gave White Noise to everyone I knew, but no one seemed to get it. Too dark. Too cynical. Too depressing.
Over the years, I began to think of White Noise as a period piece. Then last month, I re-read it. Twenty-seven years after it won the National Book Award, White Noise remains a full frontal assault on the way we live now.
The book’s centerpiece, a huge toxic cloud that forces a mass evacuation, could have been the Deepwater Horizon spill. Like that catastrophe, DeLillo’s nightmare unfolds daily, adding fresh menace. Rumors trump hard news, experts pontificate while others warn of Armageddon. Angry people look in vain to the government, while the media soon labels the disaster “The Airborne Toxic Event.” Viewed through DeLillo’s dark glasses, the disaster and its media coverage define contemporary anxiety and denial better than any op-ed piece ever could.
DeLillo’s take on television seemed exaggerated in 1985, but the steady stream of trivia and endless replays of the latest disaster or shooting are standard fare now. For most people, DeLillo notes, “there are only two places in the world, where they live and their TV set.” White Noise’s surreal landscape, so much like our own, proves equally prescient in lampooning our fascination with guns, our fear of death, and the pills we pop to soothe our cluttered minds.
In the early 1980s, the American media took a quantum leap in power and proliferation. Amid the cacophony of voices, alarm became the best way to get attention, and so the bells began their incessant tolling. They are tolling still.
As if nothing had changed, other American novelists continued to spin tales of romance or family dysfunction. But one singular book captured the cultural climate as few novels ever have. Read in exile, White Noise soothed me. I was not alone. This madness was real. A generation later, our mediascape has only grown more manic, more fear-mongering. More than ever, America embodies White Noise’s closing scene–a small child madly pedaling his tricycle through traffic on an expressway. “The American mystery deepens.” DeLillo wrote. And twenty-seven years later, I can still say, “Thank you for White Noise.”