This Day In Literary History
On January 21st, 1985, the famous American writer Don DeLillo won the National Book Award for his classic novel, White Noise. Although DeLillo had been publishing novels since 1971, their avant-garde nature resulted in little commercial success.
White Noise was DeLillo's breakthrough novel; it established him as a major talent and made him famous. The novel is narrated by its main character, Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies - a field he originated.
He is considered a master of his field, though he speaks no German. His fellow professor and star of the department, Murray J. Siskind, wants to start a field of his own - Elvis Studies.
Jack lives with his fourth wife, Babette, and their oddball children from previous marriages. 14-year-old Heinrich is a moody and introspective teen whose hairline is already receding. He plays chess by mail with an imprisoned mass murderer.
Eleven-year-old Denise is a "hard-nosed kid," and she leads "a more or less daily protest against parental habits she considers wasteful or dangerous." Her little sister Steffie, however, is an unusually sensitive child.
Steffie "becomes upset when something shameful or humiliating seems about to happen to someone on the [TV] screen," so she leaves the room and stands outside while Denise tells her what's going on.
Three-year-old Wilder, who may be autistic, rarely speaks, but his mere presence is a comfort to his parents. The first part of the novel, Waves and Radiation, establishes these characters as it paints an absurdist portrait of modern (1980s) family life and satirizes the world of academia.
Most of the plot takes place in the second and third parts of the novel. In the second part, The Airborne Toxic Event, a toxic chemical is spilled from a railroad car and released into the air over Jack Gladney's hometown, resulting in an evacuation.
Jack discovers that SIMUVAC, an organization that recruits schoolchildren as volunteer victims in simulated evacuations, is using the real-life airborne toxic event to rehearse its simulated evacuations.
In the third part of the book, Dylarama, Jack and Babette both confront their severe thanatophobia - fear of death. Babette copes with her phobia in an unusual way; Jack discovers that she has become addicted to Dylar, an experimental drug used to treat thanatophobia.
Acutally, Denise is the first to discover her mother's habit; in order to get her fixes, Babette has been sleeping with the shadowy manager of the Dylar research project, whom she calls "Mr. Gray." Babette doesn't see this as adultery. She explains to Jack that "it was a capitalist transaction" in exchange for drugs.
White Noise is a brilliant work of avant-garde postmodernist fiction that satirizes modern family dynamics, novelty academia, crass commercialism, media saturation, conspiracy theories, and the virtues of violence, all of which are part of the omnipresent soundtrack of American life - the white noise of the title.
The original title of the novel was Panasonic, which comes from the Greek word pan, which means all, and the Latin word sonus, which means sound.
Unfortunately, Panasonic is also a registered trademark of the Matsushita electronics corporation. The company was opposed to DeLillo's use of Panasonic as the title of his novel. So, fearing a lawsuit, his publisher made him change it.
In 2006, a feature film adaptation of White Noise reached the preproduction stage, but then the plans fell through and the novel was never filmed. Whether it will be filmed in the future is unknown.
That same year, DeLillo wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed avant garde indie film Game 6. Set amidst the 1986 World Series between the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox, the film starred Michael Keaton as Nicky Rogan, a playwright and obsessed Red Sox fan.
Nicky's last play was savaged by the critics. His new play is opening on the same night as Game 6 of the World Series. Assured by those around him that his new play will be a hit, he's plagued with doubt and fear.
Instead of going to his play's opening night, Nicky watches the ballgame at a bar. The Red Sox are on the verge of beating the Mets to win the World Series. To Nicky, this is a sign that his play will be a success. Then the Sox blow the game and Nicky snaps...
Don DeLillo has written seventeen novels so far. He has also written plays and short stories. His most recent novel, The Silence , was published in October of 2020.
His work has won him numerous awards, including the Norman Mailer Prize for Lifetime Achievement. In 2015, he won the National Book Awards Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Quote Of The Day
"There's a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated." - Don DeLillo
Today's video features a BBC TV documentary on Don DeLillo. Enjoy!