Most people remember the 1980s as the decade with too many fluorescent colors and uninhibited fashion accessories, one that we’d rather forget.
But lately, an appreciation of the culture has risen with the rejuvenation of hair metal, jean jackets and punk rock. If you’re a part of this back-to-the-future injection, you can’t ignore the literary aspect.
What better place to start than the infamous year 1984, when Penguin Books published Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, winner of the National Book Award.
Jack Gladney is a professor of Hitler studies at the “college on the hill,” a liberal arts school in Middle America whose name is never mentioned. With his fourth wife, Babette, four children and fellow professors who teach contemporary American culture, Jack takes the reader through a journey filled with American consumerism and emotions.
The novel begins with Jack watching the autumn spectacle of students moving in from the safety of a nearby hill. Then DeLillo introduces Jack’s wife, an ample woman with a fanatical mop of blonde hair, a style that would be cute on a petite woman.
Later on, Babette becomes a key character as we learn of the couple’s deep fear of death, a shared trait that brings them together while creating strife. Their four children interact with each parent in their own unique way.
All the children are incredibly advanced for their age, from the pre-teen son discussing politics and life with Jack, to the youngest child offering the family inspiration and assurance.
During lunch at the college, Jack’s friends from New York, teaching American culture, talk of their experiences from their location at the time of James Dean’s death to urinating in sinks, although DeLillo’s numerous descriptions of journeys through the local grocery store are most memorable.
As normal life carries on, DeLillo injects the text with the “white noise”-including television, radio, home appliances–which is always there to revitalize the Gladney clan.
Suddenly, their assurance is shattered as a toxic chemical is released in the town as a result of a train accident. An emergency siren, the harbinger of their deaths, blares as the family stays seated at the dinner table.
The siren is the beginning of a stream of events affecting the family as a whole and individually. DeLillo uses these occurrences as a method for the reader to better understand the characters in relation to their environment. Toward the end, one realizes that all the characters, all different from one another, marinate in the same environment.
Although characters play a main role in presentation, readers recognize that the author’s main concept was something deeper and impersonal.