(Review of ‘Dead Noise’, a novel by Don Delilo)
Let us start with an analytical question – How many question-marks per page do you think an average novel has? The book made me curious. Anna Kareina has 1800 odd question marks in about 1300 pages; i.e., about one and half ‘?’ per page- same rate as that of ‘If on a Winter Night’s soldier’ while in Arabian Nights it is approximately 1.3 question marks per page. Proust’s Swann Song
had a little less than one question mark per page.
In case of White Noise, it was over 1200 question marks in about 300 pages. That is 4 question marks per page, more than doubled the rate in Anna Kareina, the highest contender here. And it shows, and shows enough for me to put in my mind the silly curiosity. I kept on wandering why there are so many questions. Is this a novel that asks unanswerable questions? Or is it some new literary technique to bring out existential issues? Or some kind of joke or satire? Or some kind of annoying habit that author thinks is cool? Has anyone else felt like throwing nuclear bomb on USA just to kill him?
The general IQ level of characters of this story is below freezing point of water – and, if there is any realism in it, though I highly doubt it, I would be worried about future of the world since most characters are either teachers, trainers of some sort or students.
The biggest example is the narrator himself. Just how stupid a university professor can be! He has a habit of getting excited about things and then would start asking questions that, in real life, would only irritate whoever is around. How did people around him fought the instinct of slapping him every time he opens his mouth? And he is supposed to Head of Department of Hitler Studies. I don’t even know what to say about that!
“I understand the music, I understand the movies, I even see how comic books can tell us things. But there are full professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes.”
There are lots of stupid, meaningless, un-relatable and undeveloped characters most of whom looked as if they we’re suffering from insomnia in my mind’s eye most of time. Author has been married many times (four? Five? can’t care less) and has lots of children. If you somehow survived author’s attempt at your life in first one-third,when he is doing what looked like a terrible attempt at developing characters; then you will slowly learn that the book is not called White Noise because it is about a white man making random noises; but rather it has a theme – fear of death. I read ‘The Sound of the Mountain’ based on same theme, and it was far more sober and superior work. This one was simply boring.
I mean why is narrator and his wife so worried about dying in first place – okay, he did found a reason later on; but what about fear in the beginning? He is middle-aged, not at all too old to die. Same for his wife, whose fear is also supposed to be clinical. Now they don’t want to die and they don’t want to live when other is dead:
“Who will die first? This question comes up from time to time, like where are the car keys. It ends a sentence, prolongs a glance between us. I wonder if the thought itself is part of the nature of physical love, a reverse Darwinism that awards sadness and fear to the survivor.”
You can’t have it both ways. The writer does throw in every idea associated to death in one way or other – afterbirth, afterworlds, religious dogmas, murder, diseases, natural and man-made calamities, Hitler etc. Mostly he does so by bringing in conversations that are as much convincingly realistic as Unicorns. I want to argue if only they go hungry for a few days, they will get an idea what real problems look like.
Two out of three stars are for some of quotable sentences. Well, he was trying so hard to be quotable. Sometimes it worked. I probably would have preferred a book of aphorisms from him rather than a novel:
“Fear is self-awareness raised to a higher level.”
“Decorative gestures add romance to a life.”
“In a crisis the true facts are whatever other people say they are.”
“Out of some persistent sense of large-scale ruin, we kept inventing hope.”
“How serious can it be if it happens all the time? Isn’t the definition of a serious event based on the fact that it’s not an everyday occurrence?”
“Maybe when we die, the first thing we’ll say is, ‘I know this feeling. I was here before.’”
“Remember Lao Tse. There is no difference between the quick and the dead.”
“The cycle of history has but four ages. We happen to be in the last of these. There is little time for whimsy.”
“They’ve grown comfortable with their money,” I said. “They genuinely believe they’re entitled to it. This conviction gives them a kind of rude health. They glow a little.”
“Besides, I’m built funny and walk funny. If they couldn’t call me brilliant, they would be forced to say cruel things about me. How awful for everyone.” Describes me.
“His compassion was equal to the occasion, an impressive pity and grief. The bad news was almost worth it.”