White Noise by Don Delillo – an Illustrative Example of Postmodern Literature

April 13, 2021 by Essay Writer

White Noise: The Quintessential Postmodern Novel

The literary theory of postmodernism grew from the turmoil and chaos that afflicted society after World War II. Departing from modernism and traditional writing styles, the postmodern writers harbored a distrust of established ideologies and principles and created a new writing form that deconstructed barriers and rules of society. Postmodern works broke rules of writing and instead, through their complexity and confusing elements, embraced chaos and skepticism and questioned reality and absolute truths. Although the unique and unfettered nature of postmodernism makes it nearly impossible to define, several common characteristics pervade postmodern works. All of these defining qualities exist in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Despite DeLillo’s denial of his postmodernist label, his novel clearly exhibits all of the identifying characteristics of postmodern literature, assigning White Noise the designation of the quintessential postmodern novel.

DeLillo’s novel possesses the postmodern element pastiche—the combination of multiple genres in one work. Pastiche utilizes genres of the past to create something new and also prove that literature can amalgamate many different writing aspects. White Noise can be described as science-fiction, post-apocalyptic, drama, satire, and comedy. The emphasis on technology and industrial issues which causes an apocalypse-type disaster allows for the science-fiction description, and the Gladney family’s struggle to survive in a chaotic world after “the airborne toxic event” (DeLillo 105) permits the label of a post-apocalyptic novel. The novel has many dramatic moments where the characters discuss life and death and well as intense, philosophical issues, but also has many comedic and witty moments interspersed throughout the novel, making it also a drama and a comedy. The frequent use of irony that adds to the comedic elements of the novel along with DeLillo’s criticism of society’s materialism and dependency on technology also marks his novel as a satire.

The use of irony in the novel also contributes to its postmodernism. Many postmodernists treat serious subjects jovially to distance themselves from the difficult subject. They evoke black humor and different types of irony to offer critiques of society and to display how society should not fear dark and somber things. DeLillo sprinkles irony all throughout his story using it even at the most serious of times. He uses it to show how the characters should not fear death and how the characters ignore danger when “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” (8) and they did nothing about the possible imminent danger. DeLillo also uses irony to mock certain characters and expose the ridiculousness of certain beliefs and customs. When Jack’s boss advises him to change his name and appearance to gain more prestige, the change they make is pretentious as it is the same name only without one letter, “we finally agreed that I should event an extra initial and call myself J.A.K Gladney” (16). DeLillo continues to ridicule society and its principles by exposing absurdity such as Jack not knowing German despite being the founder of Hitler studies and his college requiring all Hitler majors to understand some of the language, “I had long tried to conceal the fact that I did not know German” (31). The use of irony not only gives the novel a lighter tone, but also exposes DeLillo’s critique of society and acceptance of confusion and chaos.

The fragmentation of the novel’s timeline also displays the postmodernist idea of embracing disorder and irrationality. The postmodern element of fragmentation grants writers an escape from the traditional chronological storytelling and allows for temporal distortion and events told in segments. In DeLillo’s novel, the chapters offer no sense of a chronological time stream and instead appear disjointed and without any connection. Each of the chapters exists independently of the others and only detail one event with no description of when it takes place in the story. DeLillo also has three parts to the story which detail three different periods that have no connection through time. The fragmentation of the story is quite jarring and confusing as there is no clear link between anything which adds to the chaotic nature of society that the postmodernists embraced.

Maximalism in postmodernism also added to the disordered and exaggerated style that the writers of the period practiced. The component of postmodernism features excessive detail and long, exaggerated details. DeLillo’s novel has maximalism in nearly all of the chapters as it describes materials as well as the surrounding sounds. They novel opens with a long list specifying each object that Jack sees, “…loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows…” and continues to describe more of what Jack sees throughout the book. The excessive detailing of objects and supplies illustrates Jack’s fixation on material things and how he perceives people and the world based on it. Unnecessary objects become a representation of an identity for Jack. When he observes people he first looks at their possessions to understand more about them. When he runs into Murray at the supermarket, Jack immediately looks into his cart and observes what he is buying as he sees one’s possessions as a revealer of a person (19). DeLillo also uses maximalism when describing the noises and sounds in the background of Jack’s life, “horns kept blowing, sound waves mixing in the air” (307). The constant sound imagery and detailing of noises display the pandemonium of sound that surrounds people in their everyday lives and how they become so accustomed to such sounds that they no longer notice. Randomly thrown in bits of lines from the television along with other noises portrays how easily people can ignore the never-ending circus of noise that acts as the background for progressing society.

The chaotic nature of society makes it confusing and difficult to understand—causing fear and paranoia. Postmodernists discussed paranoia and terrorism in their works as well as pushing the idea that modern society can not be understood. DeLillo presents the idea that people fear everything, “there is a darkness…something large in scope and content” (6) which plays out when the Airborne Toxic Event occurs. This event—an act of terrorism—evokes panic in all of the characters and heightens their previous fears. Fear motivates almost all of the characters’ actions, especially the fear of death. Babette commits adultery just to release herself from the fear of death, and Jack constantly wonders about death and his time to die. Although most of the characters refuse to embrace chaos and uncertainty, Jack’s son Heinrich propels these ideas. Heinrich believes that the world cannot be understood and that “our senses are wrong a lot more often than they’re right” (23). Heinrich has little fear of the world and holds a postmodernist view of accepting confusion and irrationality—embodying the postmodern theory. To hide from fear and paranoia, the characters lie to conceal the terrifying truth, “something lurked inside the truth” (8) such as Babette’s lies about sleeping with another man and being a drug addict and thus create other realities to escape from accepting their own.

The postmodern idea of hyperreality—the idea of a fabricated world or aspect that becomes more real than reality and that no one has a choice—permeates throughout DeLillo’s novel. At the beginning of the novel when Murray and Jack visit the most photographed barn in America, DeLillo presents the idea of hyperreality. The photos of the barn become more real than the barn itself, and once one knows the barn is the most photographed, they can “only see what others see” (12) and “can’t get outside the aura” (12). Other aspects of Jack’s life become hyperreality such as his own name. The name he creates, J.A.K Gladney, becomes more real than his own. Only known by the historical community by his fabricated name, Jack Gladney only exists for his family, and J.A.K Gladney exists on a larger scale and Jack merely exists as “the false character that follows the name around” (17). DeLillo also creates a hyperreality in terms of sexual fantasies. When Jack rummages through a magazine containing erotica, he notices how the fantasy provides more arousal and becomes more real than an actual sexual encounter “people write down imagined episodes…which is the greater stimulation” (30). The hyperreality of DeLillo’s world assists in the deconstruction of gender roles throughout the novel.

Postmodernists encourage the deconstruction of established beliefs and roles in society, the most common being gender roles. Postmodern authors often subvert the roles of men and women in society and invert the stereotypes that persist. DeLillo deconstructs his gender roles subtly, slowly breaking the established functions of men and women. The first exposure to inverted gender roles occurs in a random mental picture that defies the stereotype of a frail woman cooking for her husband, “she entered the cheerful kitchen where her husband stood over a pot of smoky lobster bisque, a smallish man with six weeks to live” (23). DeLillo once again switches the assigned roles for men and women during a sexual encounter between Jack and Babette. Although Jack states that “as the male partner…it’s [his] responsibility to please” (28), Babette becomes the “pleaser” and thus takes over the stereotypically male dominate role. DeLillo also grants his male characters’ pastimes often categorized as feminine. Whenever Jack feels depressed or unmanly, he goes shopping and comforts himself by immersing himself in the world of consumerism—an activity generally associated with women. The subtle deconstruction of gender roles reveals DeLillo’s postmodern ideals of developing a new world that ignores the rationality and rules established by past movements and literature.

The postmodern period boasted of a break from modernism and the belief in the understanding of modern society and embraced new styles of writing that reimagined literature. Instead of writing a novel that fit into one genre, the postmodern writers wrote novels like White Noise that possesses characteristics from a multitude of genres. Irony also characterized postmodernism as satire and humor lightened the serious subjects and dismissed the fear of things that caused paranoia such as terrorism. DeLillo, along with his fellow postmodern writers, similarly utilized fragmentation and maximalism to create stories with no clear timeline and to present a type of chaotic story telling. With the introduction of the complex hyperreality, postmodernism developed a form of true chaos and critique of society. All of these elements contributed to the deconstruction of established beliefs and stereotypes, such as gender roles, which was the goal of postmodern writers. White Noise utilizes all of the elements of postmodernism and possesses themes and messages about society that follow the postmodern theory, making it the quintessential postmodern novel.

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