In the later half of 2022, I watched Noah Baumbach’s most recent directorial film on Netflix, White Noise, an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel of the same name. With Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig in the leading roles of this dark comedy, I was right to expect a good time in watching the film, though I was not prepared for the level of uncanny discomfort I would feel afterwards. Naturally, I was inclined to read the original source material that inspired the film. In my reading, I was struck by how relevant, in all of its absurdity, the novel remains almost 40 years after its release.
In the early hours of July 16, 1945, the first nuclear bomb, “Gadget,” was detonated.
The Trinity test was a success. In less than a month, another bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and another on Nagasaki three days later, marking the advent of the nuclear age and the birth of the deadliest form of weaponry. In the following decades, the Cold War would exasperate feelings of unease within popular culture. DeLillo weaves this unease into the fabric of his own storytelling to say: we are living in dangerous times.
Whether this danger comes in the form of nuclear war, terrorism, invasion, or disease,
we live with such dangers in our periphery. To not fall into a state of existential dread, we are washed away by the noise that constantly surrounds us—targeted advertising, the hum of whatever show we have playing in the background, brightly-coloured signs and lights, and the pull of social media. It’s as though all of us search for meaning and a form of companionship within white noise.
The novel follows protagonist and narrator Jack Gladney and his family. He lives with his third wife, Babette, and their four children from their previous marriages. The novel feels mundane in its first part as DeLillo establishes the context for the event that follows. The family goes about their daily lives, going from one disjointed conversation to the next. The dialogue flows like a jazz record, never quite concluding a conversation. The novel is intentionally fragmented, moving from one conversation to the next, from one event to the other, much like a Wes Anderson film. The family goes through room to room, day to day, as each of them obsesses over something. They are all too busy.
In the beginning of the novel, there is no sudden sense of the impending doom created by a toxic airborne event. Even when toxic chemicals are discovered at the children’s school, they are all too wrapped up in their day-to-day lives. The television is still on. The family only evacuates with warnings and sirens because “this couldn’t possibly happen to us.”
During early Covid-19, I often heard the notion that the virus, just like the toxic event in White Noise, would never come to us. This belief often lasted just up until the point that it did. Suddenly, even going to the supermarket invoked a level of fear, fear of something that we cannot see. What do we all do then? We buy Pelotons, we start streaming more shows, TikTok emerges as the most downloaded app. We wrap ourselves up in a simulation—in white noise.
Eventually, what settles after some time is the acceptance of a “new normal.” We continue to go about our lives until we receive the latest news, the latest reminder of our own mortality; then we continue on. When Jack Gladney speaks to his wife on the topic of death, “the question comes up from time to time, like where are the car keys,” writes DeLillo. The inevitability of mortality seems insignificant. We know, we accept, and we continue.
Truly, White Noise is hilarious despite being fundamentally about death. It so brilliantly illustrates the absurdity of the modern world. The materials we consume have come to act as our coping mechanisms. What we consume is what shapes who we are and gives us meaning, but also turns our thoughts into a fog of white noise.