Rereading White Noise and Feeling Deep Dread… For Noah Baumbach’s Adaptation
Ken Gordon is Very Skeptical About Seeing Don DeLillo on Film
In 1985, the year Don DeLillo’s classic novel White Noise was first published, I was 15, a year older but considerably less intellectually sophisticated than Heinrich, the son of protagonist Jack Gladney. Heinrich, a kid who plays chess by mail with an imprisoned murderer, says things like: “If you came awake tomorrow in the Middle Ages and there was an epidemic raging, what could you do to stop it, knowing what you know about the progress of medicines and diseases?” To which his dad, the academic responsible for founding, ahem, Hitler Studies (“I invented Hitler studies in North America in March of 1968. It was a bright cold day with intermittent winds out of the West,”) responds weakly: “‘Boil your water,’ I’d tell them.”
Well, it’s 2022… and if, thanks to Covid, you’ve washed your hands while counting to 20, avoided touching your face, donned a mask, practiced serial social distancing, and/or quarantined yourself, you’d be able to give Heinrich a slate of fairly good answers. In fact, the pandemic might well be accurately described as an “airborne toxic event”—which is an essential plot point in White Noise.
I’m now a husband and father of two, and just realized that it’s the perfect time to reread White Noise. Filmmaker Noah Baumbach, you see, has adapted the book for the screen. The film recently premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, but hasn’t been released to you and me and everyone else in the great unwashed pool of Netflix subscribers.
I am worried that Baumbach’s adaptation will colonize my literary experience of the book. The only way I could think to protect that experience was to pick up the novel again. As Nabokov puts it: “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”
Baumbach is my favorite contemporary director—I seemed to have watched the superlative The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and While We’re Young and Frances Ha a laughable number of times—but I loved White Noise long before, say, principal photography started on 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. The novel was the first book of contemporary literary fiction that mattered to me.
When I arrived at college, in the late 80s, it was something my smartest new friends were talking about. I took a look. Turned out to be a perfect read. It mocked American suburbia (which I had just left) and laughed at the absurdity of late 20th-century college life (which I had just entered). It felt important. Relevant. Funny. I got it.
Since then, I’ve often smiled about, say, Jack’s fellow academic, Murray Jay Siskind, and his striving to “immerse himself in American magic and dread,” analyzing at 1,000 miles-per-hour the meanings of the grocery store: “This place recharges us spiritually, it prepares us, it’s a gateway or pathway… Everything is concealed in symbolism, hidden by veils of mystery and layers of cultural material. But it is psychic data, absolutely. The large doors slide open, they close unbidden. Energy waves, incident radiation.” This sort of thing made great sense to my suburban sensibility.
I hadn’t at that point read Roland Barthes Mythologies, but rereading it now, I noticed how much Barthesian culture decoding goes on in the novel. (My teenaged son—he’s not named Heinrich—really digs Mythologies. I told him that the characters in White Noise go around talking like Barthes. This seemed to intrigue him.)
And there was the famous opening scene describing the moving-in day at the College-on-the-Hill. DeLillo stuffed it into a JC Penny catalog (a WW Whitman catalog?) of consumer culture:
As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags—onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.
We’d been there. We’d done that. We felt, as one says now, seen.
Of course, that was in a previous century. Higher ed is a whole different thing now. The pandemic forced all schools to go remote—including my own daughter’s college—so Jack’s description of the day of the station wagons fills me with a bit of nostalgia for a simpler time. (The irony! The irony! There’s nothing simple or sweet about the world of the novel. It is drenched in fear and death.)
In my earlier readings, I was with the students, not the parents. Now when Jack says: “Tuition at the College-on-the-Hill is fourteen thousand dollars, Sunday brunch included,” I smile sardonically at the brunch gag, and think how great it would be if we only had to pay $14,000 a year for my daughter’s liberal arts college. When he reports “Their summer has been bloated with criminal pleasures, as always,” I just sigh, along with every other suburban American parent.
I missed a number of other things, as a young reader—largely, I think, because I lacked both the imagination and experience to understand what DeLillo’s protagonist and his family experienced in White Noise.
I didn’t realize how much the book is really about the erosion of adult authority, didn’t get the comedy of the kids understanding things far better than the grownups. Heinrich, for instance, is forever outdebating Jack, asking probing difficult philosophical questions he knows his dad can’t sufficiently answer. Or consider his sister, Denise: “Denise was eleven, a hard-nosed kid. She led a more or less daily protest against those of her mother’s habits that struck her as wasteful or dangerous.” Jack and his wife Babette try to project a sense of adult competence. It doesn’t always work. As a father of a well-educated 20-year-old and 17-year-old, I understand the dynamic all too well.
What else did I learn on this rereading?
The book was much harder to page through than I remember—probably because, like everyone else in America, my attention span is now measured in millimeters, thanks to the smartphonification of our culture and the fact we don’t go more than 30 seconds without being radiated by information from some electronic device or another.There’s so much in the book; far too much for a movie. Would DeLillo’s uniquely flat and observant voice filter into the production? DeLillo infused every page, every paragraph, with a little sense of dread.
Paying attention wasn’t an issue in the first section of the novel, which unfolds in a series of short, snackable chapters, but mid-book, the airborne toxic event section, is one long, extended chapter (pages 100 to 163 in the paperback).
I consumed the novel, in fits and starts, after work, on the couch, inevitably falling asleep. In fact, I’m not even sure I’d finished the book in my earlier readings. Here’s why: I was surprised to read that Jack’s wife Babette has an affair toward the end of the novel, and then Jack goes crazy and shoots the man Babette has been sleeping with. These events were not properly deposited in my memory banks. I suspect that I never read this far, and didn’t merely forget this part of the plot, because my margin notes—mostly vertical lines near moments of resonant prose—stop at page 200.
There’s so much in the book; far too much for a movie. Would DeLillo’s uniquely flat and observant voice filter into the production? DeLillo infused every page, every paragraph, with a little sense of dread. Would Baumbach do the same with each frame? I knew that whatever Baumbach did, it would wind up bearing a considerably lighter cognitive load, as my futurist friend David Rose might say. I wanted to keep it heavy. In fact, I relished the fact that I had to work to transform DeLillo’s words into a movie inside my own head.
I can barely look at the trailer. I’m a huge fan of Baumbach (and Adam Driver, who plays Jack, and Greta Gerwig, who plays Babette). But the mere idea of this movie fills me with a kind of dread. It’s the dread of disappointment. I don’t trust that the crew will produce something that’s nearly as good, or as personally fulfilling to me, as DeLillo’s novel.
As I type this, I’m remembering now how the BBC made a documentary about DeLillo that dramatized some of his fiction, and it was awful. Why? What I saw on screen (on YouTube, to be precise) wasn’t at all how I’d pictured it as a reader. The acting was off, the scenery not nearly right. I’m worried that even a skilled director such as Baumbach will produce something just as depressingly wrong.
When I look at the trailer, for instance, I recall that Jack says, in the novel, this about Babette: “Her hair is a fanatical blond mop, a particular tawny hue that used to be called dirty blond” and can’t square that with Greta Gerwig’s frizzy fusilli hairdo. Babette’s hair is an important detail in White Noise:
“Your wife’s hair is a living wonder,” Murray said, looking closely into my face as if to communicate a deepening respect for me based on this new information.
“Yes, it is,” I said.
“She has important hair.”
“I think I know what you mean.”
Sadly, I’m not sure Baumbach knows what Murray means.
Ok, ok, maybe I’m just overreacting. Someday very soon I’ll be clicking over to Netflix and will see White Noise promoted on the homepage, nestled among the selections the streamer’s AI thinks I desire, and, more than likely, I will follow the instructions to watch. Who am I kidding!
Maybe Murray, played by the awesome Don Cheadle in the adaptation, has the right idea. “You have to learn how to look,” he says in the novel. “You have to open yourself to the data. TV offers incredible amounts of psychic data. It opens ancient memories of world birth, it welcomes us into the grid, the network of little buzzing dots that make up the picture pattern.”