White Noise by Don Dellilo – Review

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“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.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

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“It now lately sometimes seemed a black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe.”

If I were forced to define Infinite Jest in a sentence I would say: It’s the saddest comedy you’ll ever read. That might sound like a contradiction, but it’s also what makes this book special; serious is, after all, not the opposite of funny. This is a powerful, playful, and mind-stretchingly smart examination of addiction and melancholy which is far more fun than its length and vocabulary give it any right to be.

The plot, like many of the characters, is broken into a very strange shape. Page-long paragraphs detail characters’ obsessions, and the narrator sounds like a lexical-prodigy who has been given a mixture of dope and crystal meth. The majority of the action takes place in the late 2000s, and time has been subsidized; corporations bid to name years after themselves. The Statue of Liberty now displays ads.

This is a novel with Things To Say about modern society’s desperation to escape boredom through entertainment, and that might sound like a tedious subject by definition; in fact, the chapter-long diversions and endless footnotes make it seem like Wallace is almost challenging you to view it as such. Trust that your time won’t be thrown away, though, and you’ll see it’s been made with a combination of fearsome talent and moral fire.

The strength of the language is hard to overstate. While some of his short-fiction can be just as meticulous, nothing else I’ve read by Wallace comes close to this in terms of raw feeling and perception. I felt like Infinite Jest showed me the neuroses of the world laid bare:

“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

While who might be perceived as the main character shifts constantly, the most important in my eyes is Don Gately. He’s a huge, square-headed ex-burglar and current addict who’s trying desperately to believe in sentiment again and put his past behind him. In a novel filled with sly wordplay and postmodern trickery, Gately’s desperation to stay sober stands gives the book a heartfelt centre that keeps more playful elements in check.

Whether or not you’ll appreciate this book, though, may come down to patience. The story’s fractured structure begins to make sense as the final sections reveal what might have been happening in the opening scene, and send you racing back to the start for clarification. It is, in other words, structured like a loop. The end is the beginning is the end. It almost demands rereads, and with its size this will be a turn-off for many.

I think it’s worth the effort, though.

[SPOILERS]

I did some head-scratching to see if I could work out the ending on my own. That’s part of the fun for me in a book-slash-puzzle like this one. Although I’ve since read a few of the treatises on this hulk of a book since I jotted this down, these were my initial impressions:

[REALLY, SPOILERS]

Hal is able to feel, finally, but has been trapped in his own mind, likely by the potent DMZ, and is unable to communicate — except, perhaps, with Don Gately through the wraith of his father. They go on an expedition inspired by J. O. Incandenza to find the Master copy, buried inside his skull. The Separatists already have it. Orin had surrendered his mother to make his own torture end, and so she had already given up the location of the Mad Stork’s grave in the Great Concavity.

Whether or not Wallace’s dystopic-vision of our present falls depends on how much you trust in our ability to resist temptation, and so everyone will have a different ending playing inside of their own mind.

There’s something beautiful in that.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace

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“I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful. But since it’s my own choices that’ll lock me in, it seems unavoidable—if I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try.”

A good collection of essays can enlighten, entertain, and persuade without feeling like it’s trying too hard to do any of these things. That’s what A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again does. You’re swept along weird, quirky, or banal topics, subjects which other writers might make boring but not, fortunately, this one. It’s littered with funny and smart observations, and its arguments/explorations are interesting and the style playful. If you’re looking for a place to begin reading David Foster Wallace, this is it.

Wallace zeroes in on the weird bind that comes from life in the Western world (particularly America, capitalist bastion that it is): mental discomfort, weird thought patterns, and eventually ennui can actually be instilled by our physical comfort and societal wide sense of entitlement for luxury and ease. This all creates some strange ways of responding to entertainment and art. Most of us are (relatively) pampered people, who eat tasty food, have (compared to most of the world) good educations, and are unlikely to be blown up by mortar shells. We also have some of the highest mental illness rates on the planet.

We’re bombarded with advertising and cultural prompts about what to want, when to want it, and what it means to want what we want when we want it and why wanting what we want means we should also want this different product, as that will be what truly makes us individual, and when we want that we should want this other thing, but we’re not the kind of person who wants too much, as that would make us materialistic…

It all gets a bit complex and weird and frustrating, but these essays are great at pulling back the layers of modern life and revealing what it is at heart: mildly absurd. I don’t get the feeling that Wallace is being a Luddite, either. If you had planted him anywhere from 12th century France to present-day Saudi Arabia, he would have come away from these cultures with some bizarre and fascinating musings.

It’s just nice to be reminded of how silly all us humans look from the outside sometimes.

The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel by David Foster Wallace

“How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.”

This is an incomplete novel by David Foster Wallace that was released posthumously. It’s sometimes dazzling and other times tedious. I would never, ever recommend it to anyone but a hardcore David Foster Wallace fan. It’s in such a specific style, and tries to make you feel the banality that its characters live and grow in, which makes for an interesting experiment which is occasionally (intentionally) mind-numbing to read. Like with all of DFW’s works, though, the words are put together with tremendous skill, and can crackle in your skull and leave you thinking days after you put the book down.

“To be, in a word, unborable…. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

The Pale King takes place in the IRS (the Internal Revenue Service) and I appreciated that aspects of life which are often ignored — taxes, social malaise, the difficulty of true acceptance — are put under the microscope, as seemingly unrelated events slide in and out of view at random. The fragmented chapters leave you disorientated, as though they’re dozens of short-stories rather than one interconnected narrative. Reading this is like having hurried, interesting conversations with strangers, trying to work past their defences so you can figure out what it is they want to really talk about.

It’s unfinished (there are a number of plot threads which are brought up and never addressed, although potentially by design), but the thesis here is vital: real adulthood can involve tedium, and frustration, and that both these things are intensely important for becoming quote-unquote mature. Without the ability to sit and think in silence, even when doing so is uncomfortable and draining and painful, the world will grind you to dust.

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.

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

“What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.”

This is one of the most perplexing books I’ve read in a long time. I should have expected that from Wallace, whose Infinite Jest sent my mind reeling in eight different directions (although I still loved it), but the mixture of lucidity and surrealism here cast a strange tone over the whole narrative.

A collection of short stories, the highlights for me here were Good Old Neon (which I’d read before) and Another Pioneer. The former is a powerful portrayal of suicide, bleak but with one of the most electrifying and beautiful endings I’ve ever read. The latter is the retelling of a retelling of a retelling of something that was overheard on a plane, the tale of a savant living in a tribal culture which examines tradition and the human aversion to change.

Some of the other stories, however, dragged. The Soul is Not a Smithy had some fantastic descriptions of daydreaming, but the rest never amounted to much. The Suffering Channel could have been cut by a third and not lost much, in my opinion. Oblivion, the title story, felt like it was going nowhere but then saved itself with a really simple (almost cliche) but somehow incredibly unexpected ending.

Not my favourite DFW so far, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend this to someone who hadn’t read him before, but Oblivion was still extremely ambitious and at times brilliant.