Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Moralistic attacks on consumerism are commonplace in fiction, so much so that many of us have no desire to read another one ever again. Consumerism may well be worth criticizing, but its critics will have to do a little bit better than repeatedly announcing that virtue is gone, and identity now consists in false lists of brand names, and there is no meaning anywhere, and all anyone thinks about is going shopping.
White Noise is the exception to the rule. Its characters are husks who spend far too much time staring blankly at the TV, who dream of consumer products (at one point a young girl whispers “Toyota Celica” in her sleep), who speak in monotones and never really love anything—and yet against all odds, the book is entirely convincing. DeLillo’s austere, detached language—“The smoke alarm went off in the hallway upstairs, either to let us know the battery had just died or because the house was on fire”—is of a piece with his demented world; it registers the carnage from within, rather than pretentiously looking down on it from liberal enlightenment.
It also helps that White Noise is very, very funny, and often at the expense of academia. The book is actually most moralistic at its funniest. The message of DeLillo’s hilarious send-ups of cultural studies is clear: these academics who study the “artifacts” of popular culture from up on high are as complicit in consumerism as everybody else.
Not very much happens in any conventional sense in this book. And though there is a good deal of interiority, of hearing the protagonist’s thought, there are few or no conventional memories or ideas or epiphanies. The book consists entirely in an unbroken series of one- and two-sentence paragraphs that are linked tenuously, or rather loosely woven together. It is a very philosophical book, explicitly—its style is meant to echo that of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus; and there are many references to Nietzsche and Heidegger, among others—but also implicitly in the questions its protagonist continuously returns to: Am I alone? Why I am alone? And indeed, what is it to exist at all? What is most interesting about it is the way the protagonist constructs her world and herself through these fragments, not by linking them but by adding one on top of the other: she doubts herself, corrects herself, changes focus, goes back again, starts over…
Spark, like Nabokov, is fascinated by the authorial voice and its power over her characters. She gives them life, but is always quietly making it clear that they are under her control. Her narrator stands just outside the world of the book, ready to make fun of or ruin or forget about a character at any moment. “I adore the Salvation Army,” a character says, “with what relevance nobody will ever know,” Spark adds. There is a certain cruelty to this. This is a chilly book. But it is also funny; and it captures the fatuousness of bourgeois existence with perfect accuracy. Its impatience with foolishness of all kinds lends it a lasting and very English sense of solemn pessimism. Things in this novel don’t really work out, and when they do, it is not usually for the best. But at least you can laugh along the way.
In 2009, the Italian philosopher Agamben spoke on the state of the church at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. That speech became this book. Agamben is highly critical of the church, but not in the ignorant, superior manner of the so-called New Atheists (God Delusion author Richard Dawkins and company): Agamben has a real reverence for religion.
His thesis is that the church has settled rather too comfortably in our world, that it has become a force of Law, of the “indefinite—and indeed infinite—governance of the world,” when really it should be a source of “messianic experience.” The church should provide us with a radically other experience of time: “a disconnection within the present moment that allows us to grasp time.” All this may sound windy and uselessly abstract (it did at first to me), but in fact its implications are wide-ranging and its diagnosis is acute. Agamben is surely right that a kind of non-empirical awareness of the world has been lost with the rise of the secularism and the secularization of religion. This book also includes a useful afterword by Leland de la Durantaye, and stunning photographs by Alice Attie.
I also recommend several of the books I reviewed for the Gazette this fall: Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolaño, Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon, and Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max.