Saturday, February 14, 2009


An extract from Don DeLillo's White Noise. I found it pretty boring but at least it is not as huge as Underworld which I had to abandon. DeLillo, like Pynchon, is just not my cup of tea it seems. Reading the book I felt I should have rather read an essay by a sociologist and one of those continental thinkers who write gloomy treatises on media, consumerism, technology, capitalism, the dehumanizing effect of American culture and the general hopelessness of our postmodern world... DeLillo is quite funny and sharp at places but not as much as his reputation would lead one to believe. The idea of the essential absurdity of much of mainstream life in America (and indeed rest of the world too) exemplified by shopping, among other things, is not very original but still it is quite funny to read.


The encounter put me in the mood to shop. I found the others and we walked across two parking lots to the main structure in the Mid-Village Mall, a ten-story building arranged around a center court of waterfalls, promenades and gardens. Babette and the kids followed me into the elevator, into the shops set along the tiers, through the emporiums and department stores, puzzled but excited by my desire to buy. When I could not decide between two shirts, they encouraged me to buy both. When I said I was hungry, they fed me pretzels, beer, souvlaki. The two girls scouted ahead, spotting things they thought I might want or need, running back to get me, to clutch my arms, plead me to follow. They were my guides to endless well-being. People swarmed through the boutiques and gourmet shops. Organ music rose from the great court. We smelled chocolate, popcorn, cologne; we smelled rugs and furs, hanging salamis and deathly vinyl. My family gloried in the event. I was one of them, shopping, at last. They gave me advice, badgered clerks on my behalf. I kept seeing myself unexpectedly in some reflecting surface. We moved from store to store, rejecting not only items in certain departments, not only entire deparments but whole stores, mammoth corporations that did not strike our fancy for one reason or another. There was always another store, three floors, eight floors, basement full of cheese graters and paring knives. I shopped with reckless abandon. I shopped for immediate need and distant contingencies. I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise, I had no intention of buying, then buying it. I sent clerks into their fabric books to search for elsuive designs. I began to grow in value and self-regard. I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I'd forgotten existed. Brightness settled around me. We crossed from furniture to men's wear, walking through cosmetics. Our images appeared on mirrored columns, in glassware and chrome, on TV monitors in security rooms. I traded money for goods. The more money I spent, the less important it seemed. I was bigger than these sums. These sums in fact came back to me in the form of existential credit. I felt expansive, inclined to be sweepingly genrous, and told the kids to pick out their Christmas gifts here and now. I gestured in what I felt was an expansive manner. I could tell they were impressed. They fannned out across the area, each of them suddenly inclined to be private, shadowy, even secretive. Periodically one of them would return to register the name of an item with Babette, careful not to let the others know what it was. I myself was not to be bothered with tedious details. I was the benefactor, the one who dispenses gifts, bonuses, bribes, baksheesh. The children knew it was the nature of such things that I could not be expected to engage in technical discussions about the gifts themselves. We ate another meal. A band played live Muzak. Voices rose ten stories from the gardens and promenades, a roar that echoed and swirled through the vast gallery, mising with noises from the tiers, with shuffling feet and chiming bells, the hum of escalators, the sound of people earing, the human buzz of some vivid and happy transaction.


Anonymous said...

Well, I'm not going to get into one of those online slanging matches about DeLillo -- he divides people in that way -- but I would keep in mind that 'White Noise' is almost 25 years old. Much of the affectless landscape he describes in this particular book has withered somewhat with the economy. I still find his writing razor-sharp. The whole 'Airborne Tonic Event' is hilarious, spooky and has stayed with me.

DeLillo has an incredible grasp of contemporary minutiae. In 'The Body Artist' he describes a breakfast scene and how the orange juice was hers, whilst the newspaper was his, even though she was reading it. How we colonize personal space. Or in 'Cosmopolis' where the main character begins to notice his impatience grow in line with the speed of technology. Because things have gotten so fast, he finds himself using a piece of technology before he has even made the conscious decision to use it.

I went to a reading of 'Underworld' which was utterly uncanny. I was sat next to Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits and other unlikely British celebrities were dotted around the audience of an absurdly huge neon-lit hall. The whole situation was torn right from one of his books. There's not many writers who can actually influence your perception of reality in that way.

km said...

Alok: Ah, good to see you posting again. I've stayed away from DeLillo's novels only because I read some of his short stories in the New Yorker and didn't feel a thing. I should give "White Noise" a spin.

Jason Weaver: you sat next to MARK KNOPFLER?!! Holy crap. Did he say hello?

Anonymous said...

You won the The Brilliante award. Check it out.

Keep up the great work !

Anonymous said...

Okay, this is going to be a pretty sharp right turn from your point, because (1) I keep White Noise close to my cuffs as a capital-G-reat novel and (2) I would rather take a fingernail gouging to the eyeballs than spend any amount of time shopping (for anything other than used books). But I've been thinking about readers abandoning books.

I recently, after cursing Ellroy's name for weeks on end, finally threw in the towel on The Cold Six Thousand-- I just couldn't take the stylistic vapidity. It was making me dread reading (and nothing does that) and I was only ploughing along out of some weird reluctance to quit. And I couldn't remember the last time I just gave up on a book out of enmity like that, and even so, had a hard time admitting it to others.

So, it's been on my mind lately, neurotically (obviously) and I read that eh, one can give up on Underworld, and eh, if White Noise were any longer it, too, would maybe end up in a donations bin or kindling pile. And I think there's a lesson there, so thanks. Even though if I had a few beers in me I wouldn't be able to refuse an addendum like "... even if you're completely wrong about DeLillo.")

Jesus, this is turning into some sort of confessional.

Tardy said...

I read this book recently and thought the whole novel was splendid! I've never known the interior experience of modernity to be invoked so heart-quickeningly and - unusually - undismissively.