White Noise

White Noise Study Guide

White Noise was published in 1985 to great critical acclaim; it won the National Book Award and, more importantly, opened up DeLillo's oeuvre to new readers. More than anything, it established DeLillo alongside Thomas Pynchon as one of the most important contemporary writers and a must-have on collegiate syllabi.

DeLillo claims his main inspiration for Jack Gladney's obsessive fear of death was Ernest Becker's 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction work, The Denial of Death, in which Becker argues that man's attempt to deny the fact of his own death is his major impulse. While this idea could hold water in any period, DeLillo makes it all the more relevant by examining the "white noise" of modern death that lends the novel its title, the reminders of our death that lurk beneath our technological society.

More specifically, DeLillo explores the notion of simulacra (something that resembles something else or, in other words, simulations) in American society. In 1983, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote Simulations. In it, he maintains that the postmodern world privileges simulacra over reality; we believe our secondary, simulated reality is more real than first-degree reality. His classic example is that Disneyland, a fantasy world, seems more real to us than the real world. DeLillo utilizes this idea throughout White Noise, focusing on a nation reared on the simulated reality of the media which even had a former actor (Ronald Reagan) as President at the time. DeLillo says the idea for White Noise came to him while he watched television news, and realized that toxic spills were becoming such a daily occurrence that no one the news cared about them -- only those affected by the spills cared. We can see this idea play out in the airborne toxic event in White Noise, when people are upset that the media pays their crisis little attention, but it emerges in subtler ways when DeLillo examines the consumerist, technological atmospheres of death we create for ourselves -- from our living rooms to our cars to our supermarkets.

DeLillo also takes a look at several more typically postmodern ideas -- ambiguity of identity, waste, racial heterogeneity, the family -- and gives them his astute, humorous spin. Though most readers find his view of American society harsh and pessimistic, others see the ending of White Noise -- with its bonding through consumerism in the face of death -- as subversively uplifting.