Brief Biography of Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo was born to an Italian-American family in the Bronx in 1936, the eldest of eleven children. The family lived in close quarters and spoke a mixture of Italian and English, often combining the two. A child content with playing for hours in the streets, it wasn’t until DeLillo was in his late teens that he began writing, and even then he was not particularly serious about the craft. Nonetheless, he slowly became a voracious reader, a habit that consumed him throughout his 20s and into his 30s. Unable to find a job in publishing, he worked as a copywriter at an advertising agency in Midtown, a position he eventually left because he no longer found it interesting. At this point, he began writing novels, and although his first efforts won him praise in the literary community, it was only after the publication of White Noise that his books began to reach wider audiences. He has now published 17 novels, numerous short stories and essays, five plays, and one screenplay.
Historical Context of White Noise
Although White Noise predominantly avoids making direct references to actual historical events, its concern with contamination and toxic chemicals embodies the growing awareness and paranoia in the 1980s surrounding the dangers of manmade materials. Published just one year before the infamous nuclear accident in Chernobyl—which had terrible lingering effects that plagued the health of many people living nearby—White Noise’s deft conception of deadly airborne contaminants is hauntingly prescient and indicative of the decade’s concern. In the 1960s, nuclear power—originally stumbled upon during the construction of devastating bombs in World War II—was being used commercially to create efficient energy. As such, deadly materials were put to use as everyday resources, essentially forcing Americans to come to terms with the idea of harmful agents coursing just beneath the surface of domestic life. By the 1980s, though, Americans had witnessed or heard about enough toxic disasters—spills, explosions, contaminations—that it was difficult to ignore the deadliness of the chemicals surrounding them. This unease sets the stage for White Noise, a book that dwells in the paranoia of quotidian life.
Other Books Related to White Noise
Whereas DeLillo’s previous books were all either highly literary and conceptual or (in one case) straightforwardly commercial, White Noise marks the author’s first success in writing an accessible yet substantial novel. With its hyper-attention to consumer consciousness, its wide-ranging and episodic plot structure, and its capacity to satirize itself, White Noise is typically hailed as postmodern, putting DeLillo and his novel in a canon both widely praised and heavily criticized. The literary critic James Wood, for instance, placed DeLillo alongside authors like Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace in an attempt to illustrate what Wood refers to as “hysterical realism,” or the postmodern novelistic tendency to overinflate plots with references, subplots, and other absurdities standing in the way of conveying true human feeling. And to be fair, White Noise certainly does follow in the tradition of a postmodern book like, to name just one example, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, which similarly parodies modern American culture while following a bizarre and unresolved plotline. At the same time, it would be reductive to speak of this novel only in terms of other pieces of literature. In fact, White Noise takes many cues from the non-literary commodities of consumer culture and marketing, like, for example, Coca-Cola’s 1980 slogan “Coke is it,” which appears directly in the text. The greatest influence on White Noise, then, is not postmodernism or other pieces of literature, but the rampant commercialism of the 1980s.
Key Facts about White Noise
Full Title: White Noise
When Published: January 21, 1985
Literary Period: Postmodernism
Genre: Postmodernism, realism
Setting: American suburbia
Climax: Having finally tracked down the man who slept with his wife and gave her experimental medication, Jack shoots Willie Mink twice in the stomach and, in turn, is shot in the wrist.
Antagonist: Willie Mink, the creator of Dylar, is the most straightforwardly sinister character in White Noise, but even more antagonistic are the various ominous forces that work to destabilize Jack throughout the novel. As such, consumerism and the fear of death emerge as the primary forms of antagonism.
Point of View: First-person from Jack Gladney’s point of view.
Extra Credit for White Noise