The 79th Venice Film Festival opened on August 31st with a movie of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, White Noise. It was clear why director Noah Baumbach went back to a book thirty-some years old. It includes a description of a small mid-American city at grips with a health crisis in some ways like the Covid-19 pandemic. Nyodene D from a crashed tank-car has formed a “billowing black cloud” of poison that hovers overhead teasing different areas with the changing wind. It’s an “airborne toxic event”. The response of the authorities is an over-planned plan that seems like the answer to an altogether different emergency. The public is left uncertain and vulnerable to mad fantasies but somehow manages to muddle through.
There is much more in DeLillo’s 326 pages than a threat from the sky. So much more that the book has been called unfilmable. The story isn’t realistic in the classic mode with characters whose twists and turns we follow to a conclusion. In fact, White Noise is better read as a satire than as a novel. The target is no one in particular but all of us and our lives in an age of unlimited and mostly useless information.
Jake Gladney is fifty-one and a college professor. However, his is not another campus tale but rather a family-in-its-nest chronicle, full of daily smalltalk and the exchange of big ideas. But it isn’t housebound and cut off from the larger world. Jack has been married three times and his household consists of Babette, his wife, and four children, three of his by previous far-flung wives, and one of Babette’s by her previous husband. Jack’s resentment-free clan stretches from the Midwest to the Indonesian jungle and an ashram in Montana, passing by several world capitals.
Jack is a paragon of tolerance and understanding. He gets along with everybody. Love making with Babette is a contest in politeness.“What do you want to do?” asks Babette, to which Jack replies, “Whatever you want to do.” She says , “I want to do whatever’s best for you,” to which Jack answers,“What’s best for me is to please you”. And so on into the small hours.
Jack respects each child’s point of view however outlandish. Authoritarian, he is not and we come to feel that he’s less a parent than an older buddy. The kids’ independence grows but is fragile, and so in a serious way is Jack. His predicament here is an educated person’s in the world of White Noise. He has suffered an onslaught of contradictory information on enlightened child rearing. The burden of it is inhibiting. He’s no patriarch but a sympathetic bystander.
Which recalls DeLillo’s insistence in interviews that he is a modernist in the line of James Joyce and William Faulkner. His use of multi-syllable technical and scientific terms shouldn’t mislead us. He isn’t post anything. He sees himself as part of a relay race of artists passing the baton and ever moving forward.
Jack’s colleague, Murray Jay Siskind, on the other hand, speaks post-modernism’s cool language. He stands back from the fever of life—though one imagines him seated on a chaise longue—and analyses piles of data. It may come from the small print on supermarket packages, from a painstaking perusal of comic books, or from his extensive survey of car crashes in B-movies. Of the latter, he says we should look past the crushed bodies and severed limbs. “Watch any car crash in any American movie. It is a high-spirited moment like old-fashioned stunt flying….The movie breaks away from complicated human passions…it’s a yearning for naïveté.”
Information pours into the Gladney household from all sides. The cell phone hasn’t taken over yet, but the landline, computers, TV and radio are never still. Rumours infiltrate. The studious kids bring contradictory opinions home from school. Everyone reads everything from supermarket tabloids to Jack’s university texts. The deluge of scraps leads away from security and to doubt. Murray explains that the family is strongest when it keeps facts out. “Not to know is a weapon of survival.”
Babette, herself a devotee of phone-in radio shows, also contributes information as a part-time teacher to retirees. She teaches them correct posture and a course called “Eating and Drinking: Basic Parameters.” “We didn’t grow up with all these shifting facts and attitudes,” she says. “One day they just started appearing. So people need to be reassured by someone in authority that a certain way to do something is the right way or the wrong way, at least for the time being.”
White Noise is concerned with the confusion between reality and technology’s presentation of it. Jack, always intent on doing the right thing, is uneasy about the spirit in which we watch electronic screens. He’s upset when the children delight in the photo news of a plane crash on TV. When the family watch a collection of the day’s calamities, their and his own reaction frightens him. “Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping.” Another colleague who like Murray had left modernism behind wasn’t worried, “We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information.”
After nine days of fleeing the cloud of Nyodene D, the Gladney family can return home to its routines. One of these is the contemplation of extraordinary sunsets that the various pollutants in the air have enhanced in beauty. But author DeLillo has work to do. Having planted several plot seedlings along the way, he has to attend to them. There is the fear of death theme that has shadowed the story and tortures Jack. There is Babette’s sharing his fear and attempting to treat it with pills of mysterious Dylar. There is, moreover, the 25-caliber Zumwalt automatic that Jack has been gifted. DeLillo doesn’t forget Anton Chekov’s advice to writers, “One must never place a loaded firearm on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep."
Nor can DeLillo forget that his market-wise publisher is going to call his idea-heavy meditative satire a novel. He will oblige by tidying up his wild garden with a fierce burst of heavy-handed novelistic gardening.
On publication in 1985, one critic condemned DeLillo's novels, insisting they weren't actually novels at all but "tracts, designed to batter us, again and again, with a single idea: that life in America today is boring, benumbing, dehumanized.…” He was right in the case of White Noise, which is a satire and as such would fail if it didn’t deliver a battering. Just how filmable all this might be will be clearer, when Noah Baumbach’s movie leaves the festival circuit and is generally available.