Friday, December 07, 2007

White Noise: An Exchange (Part Two)

The long-awaited second installment below. To refresh your memory, the first can be found here. The third will likely be up late next week, and it might even include a bit of disagreement. In the meantime:



I want to make a very brief comment at the top here to address a potential criticism. I understand what bad practice it is to critique a novel having admitted to reading only the first 30 pages of it, so in the time since our last exchange, I've finished the book. I'm glad I did, not least because I think I found a few things that I can usefully contrast to DeLillo's Underworld, a novel I liked a great deal, despite its flaws. But more on that next time.

You say you're getting ahead of yourself when you write about the mostly ominous tones on DeLillo's palette. (To quote you: "In the midst of banality lie great dangers. But we humans are blind! We don't pay attention! We're distracted by all our objects, by the machines and products which fill our empty days!") Luckily, this is a conversation, and you're not getting ahead of me. In fact, you're reading my mind. The first thing I wanted to mention in my second salvo is this passage, while the family is gathered in the kitchen:
The smoke alarm went off in the hallway upstairs, either to let us know the battery had just died or because the house was on fire. We finished our lunch in silence.
This is ridiculous for several reasons, some of which even contradict each other. I'll label them until I get bored or run out of letters: A) First and foremost, it makes an obvious point in the (non-)guise of a bad image. It's even followed by a section break, meaning its profundity is expected to not only register, but to linger. Instead, this pause only serves to emphasize the ridiculousness. B) It's not practically meaningful. Smoke alarms go off all the time without fires around. Especially in the afternoon, with everyone awake and aware, they shouldn't be panicked about it. It's like saying people should react to every blaring car alarm as if a vehicle is being hotwired. C) Speaking of practicality, forget about checking for fire; not one member of the family goes up to just rip the damn thing off the ceiling to stop the noise? Really? They finish their lunch in silence? (Of course, it wouldn't even be silence, with the soundtrack of the alarm.)

See, it's hard to start unpacking moments like that one, because it's like addressing suitcases fresh off a month's vacation overseas -- you could waste the better part of a day doing it. What's important is that, as a reader, you register all those complaints internally and instantaneously. This makes for a bumpy and frustrating ride.

But at least the smoke-alarm variety of menace attaches itself to an actual object. At least as often, the sense of something momentous is left not vaguely defined but undefined:
Why do these possessions carry such sorrowful weight? There is a darkness attached to them, a foreboding. They make me wary not of personal failure and defeat but of something more general, something large in scope and content.
That's pretty general, all right. It's what Myers referred to as "the safe, catchall vagueness of astrologists and palm readers," though I'd say even that description is generous.

Since you brought up Myers, I went back and looked at that essay, which I read when it was published in summer 2001. And now I'm feeling a bit bad that we're having this conversation, since he pointed out many of the same things, though we've yet to truly lapse into plagiarism. (Myers is back at it in this month's Atlantic, putting his full nelson on Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke. I haven't read Smoke, but I thought Johnson's Angels and Jesus' Son were both terrific -- particularly the former. I don't know -- at his best, I think Myers is a needed corrective to a culture of book reviewing that increasingly doesn't discuss books on the level of their prose. But at his worst, I think he's someone who magnifies a sentence or two from a 700-page novel in order to make points that may be too fine. On balance, I think he's a less histrionic version of Dale Peck, and I do think there's room for someone like that.)

(By the way, apropos of nothing, my spell-check inquired about not one, not two, but 22 of the words in the Rabelais passage you included last time. Spell-check needs to brush up on its 16th century something fierce.)

OK, I'll leave a couple of other brief points for my next (last?) missive. Feel free to broaden the scope of this discussion, now that Myers has been introduced. Or not. Blog free or die.




I love this; your points are both funny and true. Why doesn't anybody turn off the fire alarm? I'd never thought of that! I want to linger on this passage, actually, because it provides me a convenient entry to discuss what I believe to be the book's central problem. And that problem is this: it has a thesis. (Roughly: the endless, inescapable presence of data in American life alienates us both from each other and from ourselves. The result is that we inhabit an empty and sterile world, in which our only relief from fear and suffering is unthinking consumption.)

Many people (like Joshua Ferris, on whom more in my next post) seem to think this thesis constitutes a powerful insight into American culture, and of course those are the people who most admire the book. I think a very interesting discussion could be had on the thesis itself. (Perhaps you could address that in your response?) However, I'd like to make another argument, which is that a work of fiction should not have a thesis.

I'm not saying novels should not contain ideas. I'm saying they should contain many ideas. Because, if it aims to show the world as it is -- to represent reality -- art must make an effort to show that the world is a multifaceted, and often contradictory place, certainly not one that can be reduced to some simple ideology. I think you could make a strong argument, in fact, that the very purpose of art is to provide structure in which these sorts of competing and contradictory ideas can coexist. (And in so doing, offer some kind possible hope for existing in a pluralistic democratic society.)

I think that the effect of a thesis on the reader and the writer is to create a book like White Noise -- one in which every single human interaction exists in part to prove the book's central idea. So, to return to your fire alarm scene, the reason his characters don't turn off the fire alarm is not because that's the kind of people they are, or because they have some psychological or exterior reason not to -- it's because Don DeLillo doesn't want them to, because he's trying to make a point. And that justifies 90% of what happens in the novel. No one in White Noise speaks as a person in the world would speak or acts as a person in the world would act. I understand that novels aren't reality and that artists have to distort things for effect, but while reading White Noise with any degree of attention, you constantly say to yourself: This is totally wrong. This wouldn't happen. This is not the way the world is. People don't talk like this. Etc. etc. To which I think DeLillo would say: but I'm trying to prove a point. To which I would say: but the fact that your point forces you to distort reality so gravely only proves how empty it is.

I looked for scenes where this distortion occurs, but it was hard to choose. There's one on almost every page. People think in lists, or in vapid and portentous banalities (the passage you quote about the "sorrowful weight" of possession is a perfect illustration). They don't speak, they lecture, and their argument is always part and parcel of the theme:
"This is the new austerity," he said. "Flavorless packaging. It appeals to me. I feel I'm not only saving money but contributing to some kind of spiritual consensus. It's like World War III. Everything is white. They'll take our bright colors away and use them in the war effort."
"We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies?"
"What is there?"
"Heavy molecules. The whole point of space is to give molecules a chance to cool down after they come shooting off the surface of giant stars."
"If there's no hot or cold, how can molecules cool down?"
"Hot and cold are words. Think of them as words. We have to use words. We can't just grunt."
"It's called the sun's corolla," Denise said to Steffie in a separate discussion. "We saw it the other night on the weather network."
"I thought Corolla was a car," Steffie said.
"Everything's a car," Heinrich said.
It's one reason I don't think you really needed to read past page 30; the book is just the same idea over and over and over again. There are no additional pleasures; the language is workmanlike, the characters are flat, the dialogue is preposterous. As Myers notes, many people say it's a very funny book, but almost none of them ever actually bother to point to what in it makes them laugh.

I want to briefly describe why White Noise, more than almost any other book of the last twenty years, excites such an intense response in me, but I'm going to wait for a later email. Hopefully I'll also have mustered up some thoughts about B.R. Myers, a critic I very much admire. In the meantime, I'm curious what you have to say about this idea of art that has a thesis. Can you think of any successful art that's animated first and foremost by a single all-encompassing idea? And what do you think of White Noise's thesis? Is it true? Is it powerful?



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