White Noise by Don Dellilo – Review


“Mainly we looked at people in other cars, trying to work out from their faces how frightened we should be.”

White Noise, the 1980s television obsessed fever-dream of a novel by Don Dellilo, is a confusing read. It has a lot in common with other books from this era — a fixation with pop-culture, for one — but is an original and satisfying read thanks to both its great writing and pointed satire.

In a lot of postmodern novels, a quick way to sum-up the protagonist would be to say that they’re incapable of truly loving someone. That they can’t escape their own head, their own narcissism. Jack, the protagonist of White Noise, isn’t like that. At least, not entirely. That’s part of why this book is much more affecting than other novels which try for a similar tone. Jack’s a caring father and husband; emotionally stunted, yes, with a brain warped by the deeply confusing consumer-obsessed society around him, but we still feel for him because he’s clearly a very confused man who means well. We pity him, too, because like everyone else in this novel he’s searching for meaning, and like everyone else in this novel he’s unlikely to find it.

I found Delillo through a biography of David Foster Wallace, where he was named as one of Wallace’s major influences (overshadowing even Pynchon). That was true; you can see echoes of Wallace’s distaste for television, along with the educated characters who try to communicate with others only to end up talking nonsense.  What I found fascinating, though, was how well this book has aged — it’s over thirty years old, and the absurd plot-lines, characters and humour are still fresh. This can probably be attributed to its ridiculously well-crafted sentences, which make reading even well-trod ideas a treat.

It gave me the feeling that gears were turning inside my own head, whirring and pondering new plot-lines and parables. This confusion was intentional on Dellilo’s part: the reader is trying to to make sense out of senselessness, trying to find music in noise. But there’s nothing there; it’s just static. It’s worth pointing out that White Noise is also hilarious, though. If it doesn’t sound like a comedy, that’s because it’s just funny like Louis CK’s show Louie is funny: it points out absurdities and pointlessness in society and makes you laugh despite yourself. In other words, it’s a black, black comedy.

I kept jotting notes while reading White Noise; it was like a compulsion. Every chapter raised new questions but never handed out answers, and that’s something that I’ve found tiresome and trite in other novels. Dellilo is funny enough that the book never stops being enjoyable, and smart enough that you come away with a lot of interesting ideas, even if it may take a while to piece them all together.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”

This is an extreme novel. Everything is heightened: language, characters, events, emotions. The beginning feels like the start of a light-hearted adventure in the vein of Robinson Crusoe, with wacky characters, funny misunderstandings, and a protagonist in search of excitement. You only hear whispers about the strange captain who will be manning the Pequod, the ship our protaganist will be leaving on, and hints of madness. As the book goes on, though, the stakes get higher and higher as Ahab and his mad pursuit of the famous white whale dominates the narrative. Our narrator barely even mentions himself in the last half of the book. The danger and insanity gleaming in the captain’s eye is both intriguing and clearly going to lead to disaster, but he’s all the more fascinating for it, arrogantly casting himself as a worthy opponent of not just the white whale but the world itself:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. […] Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

The ornate, beautiful language — “the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude” — is great to read, and references to the Bible, ancient Greece, Rome, Shakespeare, and others feel purposeful rather than solely as something meant to be impressively ‘learned’, as they make small events feel like they’re part of something large and important. These influences, combined with how difficult life on the seas was in this period, mean you almost believe Ahab when he speaks as though they’re hunting Gods rather than leviathans. All of this, combined with the sheer length of this thing, make the book almost as epic in scale as the whales it’s so fixated on.

The middle was why this was not an easy read, though, specifically absolute pain-staking detail in the sections where Ishmael puts the stories’ momentum on hold to talk to us about whale biology. Some of these help you better grasp the bravery and difficulties in the life of whale hunter, not to mention the the dangers posed by the white whale Moby Dick himself, but others drag the pacing to a grinding halt. These aren’t weaved very carefully with the narrative, mind, or explained by characters; they’re just detailed, over and over again, as though you’re reading an encyclopaedia.

Still, taken as a whole ‘Moby Dick’ is an obviously great novel. The beginning and ending 200 pages were some of the best prose I’ve ever read (Melville has earned his reputation), and there was even a surprising amount of action. The characters are engaging, too. If you’re a patient reader, don’t let this book’s reputation fool you. With a great sense of humour tempering the more serious moments, it’s more fun to go through than you might expect.

I never want to read about cetology again, though.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

“O God, make me good, but not yet.”

I began to write this review of Brideshead Revisited almost immediately after I put the book down. That’s rare. Normally I take a day or two to mull things over, and let my reaction settle, but the ending here made me dissapointed and I wanted to vent. That’s rare, too. I like books a lot more often than I dislike them. Vonnegut was probably an influence on the way I approach reading, although I’m not quite as forgiving as he is:

“As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.”

This is true to a degree. Unless an author is knowingly, maliciously wasting my time or looking to be deliberately condescending or irritating – and I’d like to give most published authors the benefit of the doubt on this front, as (outside of maybe Ellis) writers tend to have bigger aims than expressing their own misanthropy – I will set the book down, realize that it probably just wasn’t for me, and move on.

Brideshead Revisited’s ending made me annoyed because it deflated a novel which I had been enjoying tremendously. It’s a very, very well written book with acutely drawn characters, and is a great evocation of a lost time. It also has one of the most unsatisfying few pages that I’ve ever read, a conclusion that undercuts what I had previously enjoyed about the story and themes.

Waugh is at his best when he’s rolling in moral decay. At the start, I thought this novel was a direct descendant of The Great Gatsby, due to both its intricate and beautiful language and the acute representations of the upper class as hedonistic and morally bankrupt. Unfortunately, while the drama and writing – which are surface level elements of all stories, despite how much I love them both – maintain the high level reached earlier in the novel, the simple (yet, in hindsight, inevitable) way the problems addressed are dealt with left me unsatisfied. Theology is an interesting subject, but it felt both hamfisted and a unsatisfying here as I thought the characters’ religious beliefs were only one of many issues that should have been addressed.

What Brideshead is best at is conjuring a longing, an affection close to nostalgia, for a place you’ve never been. The language is, as mentioned, intricately put together and at times beautiful. It can also be pompous to the point of ridiculousness, which was fine when I thought Waugh was in on the joke and Ryder’s gushing was to show that he had been suckered in by this obvious mess of a family. But the reader is the one that had been suckered in. He wants you to worship these tortured, vaguely pathetic souls too. It all just comes across as overwrought when you realise Waugh’s being total and utterly sincere in his worship of the “elites”.

Brideshead Revisited isn’t, as it appeared from its first two-thirds, an examination of the indulgences of this upper-class. It’s a celebration of them. It’s a mournful wail at a world which let a world of manor-houses, beautiful dining, and charm die.

One of the clearest examples of this misguided fawning was when Ryder reflects on how unfair it was that many in the noble upper-classes had died to maintain modern England: “These men must die to make a world for Hooper; they were the aborigines, vermin by right of law, to be shot off at leisure so that things might be safe for the travelling salesman.” 12% of the British army’s ordinary soldiers were killed during the war according to the BBC, compared with 17% of its officers. Mildly disproportionate, yes. But the utter dismissal of the struggles and deaths of those who didn’t have mansions during this era isn’t just snobbery, it’s disgusting.

(It could be I’m misreading this, but the way it currently stands this comes across as so dismissive that I almost couldn’t believe it came from the same book which created a character as interesting and conflicted as Sebastian Flyte.)

None of this will matter as you go through it, though. It’s one hell of a ride. But while there are some novels I only love in hindsight and can look back in astonishment at the ways they toyed with me as a reader (The Crying Lot of 49 by Thomas Pynchon, for example), this is the first time I remember setting a book down, and, despite really enjoying it while reading, know I’m not interested in thinking about it, ever again. There’s just not much there I think is worth reflecting on. It’s a nice pond I mistook for a great lake.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

“One fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul. For the human species, selfishness is extinction. […] Is this the doom written within our nature?”

Near the beginning of Cloud Atlas, taking place around one-hundred and fifty years ago, a priest recounts how pacifist ‘savages’ were slaughtered by nearby Maori tribes. “What moral to draw?” our first narrator, a white American gentleman, muses. “Peace […] is a cardinal virtue only if your neighbours share your conscience.”

This is a novel split into six: six sections, six protagonists, six time periods, six genres. 19th century New Zealand among tribes who are being colonised; pre-World War 2 Belgium; California in the midst of the 70s counter-culture; North-East provincial England; a dystopic Korea in the 22nd century (I think) where capitalism has been taken to alarming extremes; back to tribalism in a far flung future. The stories stop in their middle, only to start again after you have seen how the future has been influenced by these tales: in some cases this was significantly, in others not.

This might seem like a gimmick, which is something the novel is conscious of. It wants you to know you’ll be rewarded if you stick with it, that any efforts to pay close attention will not be brushed aside in some sort of irritating postmodern game, such as in Italo Calvino’s ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller‘ (which I found infurating). Little self-conscious prods mid-way through keep the reader assured that Mitchell will not leave threads untied, such as when Robert Frobisher, a young, selfish and gifted composer, muses about his new work:

“In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor; in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late.”

Mitchell slips in and out of different characters and situations with astonishing ease, and what should feel—due to its scattered narratives and sheet ambition—cluttered, confusing and unfocused is held together by very wonderful but careful writing, and themes which emphasize humanity’s interconnected nature. Symbols, plot-points and characters occasionally connect the six stories, but these threads are never overemphasized to make a narrative point or to seem clever. In other words, they stay fun to spot. Each story shows someone trying to overcome oppression, but you could read each of them in isolation and still enjoy them.

At its core, Cloud Atlas is occupied with humanity’s history of violence and opression, and where that history may lead us. That’s why it stays interesting despite being so ridiculously busy in terms of story. In each of the sections, arrogance, entitlement and greed mean that characters are unfairly treated and hurt. I expected something optimistic here, as I had watched the Wachowski’s film version, which changes some of the endings (most notably the tribal future’s) so they’re more uplifting. I think the novel is more honest about where our current course could take us if we aren’t very, very careful, and as such is a more honest plea for empathy.

Many novels this ambitious falter because, in the search of grand philosophical themes and strange structures, they forget character and storytelling. Cloud Atlas, thanks in part to its beautifully crafted first-person style (except in California, where it becomes an intruiging third-person thriller) feels extremely personal, and so succeeds where most other books of this sort would fail.

On Writing by Stephen King

“So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”

Books on writing often start with the strange assumption that the reader is already wonderfully disciplined, and merely needs guidance in regards to adjectives and paragraph structure. King is more helpful. He explains the nuts and bolts of his trade rather than the just the tweaks needed to finished products. He takes the time to dispel myths about the magic of ‘inspiration’ as the cause of good stories, and encourages you to approach the craft in the way of a carpenter: it can be difficult, yes, but once you’ve learned the tools of the trade the most useful thing you can do is sit at your desk every morning.

King’s books do not crave being taken seriously, they merely hope that they are. They embrace some ridiculous premises, and are happy to sit on genre shelves while their creator bathes in money, but if you approach them with trust they are often refreshingly honest portraits of very strange situations. This makes him the perfect person to explain the actual process of fiction writing, as he avoids romantic ruminations which impede serious discussion of what should be, above all else, hard work.

King is above all practical, but also infectiously enthusiastic. His love for the craft shines through, and his focus on the joy of his job makes you able to take him more seriously when he talk about the difficulties.

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

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“When they were introduced, he made a witicism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.”

I love David Foster Wallace, but he’s a strange one. He’s been described as a human eyeball, which is also a good way to describe how he makes a reader view the world. Everything is laid bare, all small details magnified, even the parts of human life we’d normally avoid or ignore.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is an uncomfortable but insightful book of short stories. Examining self-consciousness, loneliness, misogyny, and other more lurid aspects of modern life, the narratives flash between ridiculous, heartfelt, skull-achingly painful, and very occasionally beautiful.

I get the feeling that very few people could read this and find it mediocre. The reactions would be love it or hate it. I’m in the former camp, but even so some stories just left me bewildered or mentally exhausted (for example, “Tri-Stan”), unsure whether the effort to get through these was even worth it. And then pieces of genius like “Forever Overhead”, “Adult World (I)” and “Brief Interview #20” remind me why I think David Foster Wallace was one of the greatest writers of the 21st century.

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

“We have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, ubiquitous in space and durable in time: but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.”

Labyrinths, a book of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, is dense. Neutron star dense. Its overwhelming scope makes little moments feel massive, as Borges can use ten pages to create what would take others hundreds.

He tries to make you process the impossible as plausible, and the results are mind-bending.

Despite the grand ambitions and heady concepts, the style here is smooth. Borges’ prose is academic and understated, so things never feel (unintentionally) frustating. Erudition comes roaring out of this thing like heat, so it can take a while to adjust; you may want to shut it and cool off occasionally, or you’ll lose focus. But oh, it’s worth it.

The stories here are so varied in theme, tone, and genre, that I can see just about any of them being someone’s favourite from the collection. Not every one will stay with you, and some you might even find boring if they’re not written in a style you appreciate, but they all have extremely creative and well-thought-out ideas. A few, like “The Immortal”, “The Circular Ruins”, and “The House of Asterion”, are some of the greatest short stories you’re likely to read.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

“Why, alone of all the more-than-five-hundred-million, should I have to bear the burden of history?”

Trying to describe Midnight’s Children is like trying to describe a country: I can outline the flavour of the place, and say what I liked best, but it’s difficult to explain what actually makes it special or worth a visit. This book is bold, exciting, playful, thoughtful, funny, and sad, but if I had to use just one word to describe it, one that takes into account just how weird it gets at times, it would be ‘fantastic’.

Saleem Sinai is born at the exact moment India becomes independent, and as such has a monumental sense of importance and some rather strange abilities. Over the course of Midnight’s Children, the title of which refers to the other children born on the same day as Saleem, we trace his family to understand why he — and thus India — are the way they are.

Saleem’s entire family are woven throughout important historical events in India, giving readers peaks through a small hole into different parts of history’s inner-workings. This means the book feels fragmented sometimes, but when the story’s finished you can put all the pieces together in your mind to form something of ridiculous scope and beauty. The gorgeous prose is what ties things together and keeps the novel from buckling under its own weight; combined with Rushdie’s sly observations which never stop feeling interesting and insightful, the language here is just outstanding.

A weird mixture of history, fantasy, truth and lies, Midnight’s Children attempts to condense India into a novel. It shouldn’t work, it’s just too big, but it absolutely blew me away. The best way I can think of to summarise why is to bastardise a Walt Whitman quote: this book contains multitudes.