DeLillo’s White Noise & Consumerist Excess

Sam Jordison (The Guardian) on the American writer’s critique of late twentieth-century Western culture
Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo is a writer in love with words. He’s often spoken about the almost physical pleasure he takes in putting black on white, in banging out syllables on his noisy old typewriter, of watching sentences take shape in front of him. He delights in the ebb and flow of language, in riding a lulling rhythm and also in disrupting that rhythm. The sudden shorter sentence. He also just seems to enjoy words for their own sake. Their quiddity; you get the impression that he revels in the fact that if he writes “shoe”, you’ll immediately think of the thing you wear on your foot. He loves to itemise, to catalogue, to amplify.

In White Noise, he does so to fine effect. This novel bursts with language. Most obviously, the early chapters are full of long, exuberant lists. There’s a typically fine example on the very first page:

“The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping bags; with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts.”

These are lovely word pictures, at once mundane and strange (why are the rafts “inflated”?). And it goes on. The lists are often simple – but also lovely in sound and cadence. “Blue, green, burgundy, brown. They gleamed in the sun like a desert caravan.” They can also be hilarious: “The ashram is located on the outskirts of the former copper-smelting town of Tubb, Montana now called Dharamsalapur. The usual rumors abound of sexual freedom, sexual slavery, drugs, nudity, mind control, poor hygiene, tax evasion, monkey-worship, torture, prolonged and hideous death.”

But the lists aren’t just their for their own sake. This bounty of language at the start of the book, this overflow and variety, and this overwhelming choice of words on offer, all complements a growing idea in the novel about the excesses of consumerism. Sometimes, the lists are explicitly about goods and consumption. People don’t just carry cameras, there are also: “tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits.” Shopping is to be catalogued and inspected: “He picked up a bottle of extra-strength pain reliever and sniffed along the rim of the child-proof cap. He smelled our honeydew melons, our bottles of club soda and ginger ale.” And again: “There were six kinds of apples, there were exotic melons in several pastels. Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright.” [Read More]

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