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23 November 2022updated 25 Nov 2022 12:05pm

What Don DeLillo saw coming

In 1985, White Noise captured America’s nascent attention economy. Can an $80m Netflix adaptation live up to his vision?

By Chris Power

In January 1985 Don DeLillo published a novel that achieved a rare hat-trick: the highest sales of his 14-year career, adulatory reviews and an enhanced reputation in any university English department interested in postmodernism – which in 1985 was all of them. Ten months later it won the National Book Award. According to the novelist Richard Powers, White Noise “placed Don DeLillo at the centre of contemporary cultural imagination. I can think of few books written in my lifetime that have received such quick and wide acclaim while going on to exercise so deep an influence for decades thereafter.” Now approaching 40, it re-enters the culture in the form of Noah Baumbach’s $80m Netflix film adaptation. Will this version establish itself at the centre of our cultural imagination? Certainly not, although that has nothing to do with its quality; it’s because there is no centre now – something the decentred, fragmentary work of DeLillo, a noun rarely positioned far from the adjective prescient, saw coming a long way off.

White Noise tells the story of Jack Gladney (played by Adam Driver in the film), a professor of Hitler Studies at College-on-the-Hill, a small liberal arts university in the American Midwest, his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), who teaches posture and reads tabloid newspapers to the blind, and their large post-nuclear family: seven children from six different marriages and relationships, none of them both Jack and Babette’s. The film alters this last fact, making the youngest child theirs, implying a solidity to their marriage that the book withholds and providing an early clue that this might be a more reassuring ride than its source text.

Another is the Gladney residence, which in the film is an idyllic college-town specimen: large, ramshackle, cosily cluttered, on an elm-lined street where neighbours wave from porches and children toss baseballs. In DeLillo’s version it is more troublingly poised between two Americas: on one side the idyll, but on the other the ground plunges to an expressway that provides the novel’s first instance of its analogue for death: white noise. “There is an expressway beyond the backyard now, well below us, and at night as we settle into our brass bed the sparse traffic washes past, a remote and steady murmur around our sleep, as of dead souls babbling at the edge of a dream.” The story’s territory is set out: the family, a system throbbing with life, poised above the river of death.

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Both book and film contain a glut of words. In the crowded Gladney house, in the supermarket and the college cafeteria everyone is voluble and no one is ever far from a TV or radio, voices running under, over and alongside the overlapping dialogue. “We still lead the world in stimuli,” a neurochemist says proudly of the United States in the novel, a statement the film emulates with its busy soundbed. While some scenes are shuffled or cut, words reassigned from one character to another, structurally it is a very faithful adaptation. Beginning with a lecture by Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) on the meaning of the car crash in American cinema, it’s an academic satire that becomes a family sitcom, only to be derailed and transform into a disaster thriller that gives way to a story about addiction, infidelity and revenge. “All plots tend to move deathward,” Jack tells his students. “This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games.”

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Plot isn’t really what DeLillo does, but he does do death, and White Noise is his most single-minded investigation of the theme. At the outset death is abstract, a matter for domestic chatter and lecture hall ruminations (“Who will die first? The conversation comes up from time to time, like where are the car keys”). But when an accident at a train yard causes a toxic spill, the novel tightens into a disaster narrative, albeit with more semantic debate. Is the airborne toxic event a “billowing cloud” or a “feathery plume”? Even as they flee it, the Gladneys spend time parsing definitions, clinging to analysis as if it might stave off death (talk of White Noise as a Covid film is overdone, but it’s here, as the radio lists symptoms, that parallels with the pandemic are most apparent).

Whether cloud or plume, the event drives the middle section, an oddly placed climax. Here Jack is exposed to Nyodene D, which persists in the body for 30 years with unknown but almost certainly terrible results, and he is “tentatively scheduled to die”. The third section meanders again, as Jack and his stepdaughter, Denise (Raffey Cassidy), try to understand Babette’s addiction to an unlicensed drug called Dylar, designed to overcome the fear of death. This propels Jack, who now possesses a gun and the belief that he might be able to “kill death”, on a mission to murder a rogue pharmacist who Babette has been sleeping with in exchange for pills. (“It was a capitalist transaction,” she confesses.) Jack finds the dealer but the confrontation doesn’t go to plan. Jack tries to ignore death; when that fails, to flee it; when that fails, to defeat it; when that fails, to accept it. It’s the nature and quality of this acceptance where book and film stand furthest apart.

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DeLillo, born in 1936 into a large Italian family in the Bronx, New York City, was 48 when White Noise was published. With his previous seven novels he had built a reputation as a serious, intellectually ambitious, sometimes abstruse writer who engaged with modern America in a way that was considered not just current but predictive. In the Seventies, having quit his ad-man career, he wrote about a TV executive fleeing New York to “explore America in the screaming night” (Americana), college football and nuclear war (End Zone), reclusive rock stars and teenage maths geniuses (Great Jones Street and Ratner’s Star), Wall Street traders getting involved in terrorist plots, and journalists hunting for a Hitler sex film (Players and Running Dog).

Then followed the imperial phase. Between 1982 and 1997 DeLillo published the books that, in various combinations, represent the top five for most of his readers. The Names (the number one hipster choice; “a 21st-century novel published in 1982”, according to Geoff Dyer) entangles an unwitting CIA operative with a murderous Greek language cult. Libra is an alternative history of the JFK assassination. Mao II, begun as a response to the fatwa imposed on Salman Rushdie in 1989, posits that novelists can’t compete with “the emergence of news as an apocalyptic force”, an idea that became commonplace a decade later after the fall of the World Trade Center (a brooding presence in the novel). Then came six years of near-silence broken in 1997 by Underworld, an 800-page epic about lives lived in the shadow of nuclear annihilation during the second half of the 20th century. Incredibly, and without abandoning any of the positions he had worked from throughout his career – narrative fragmentation, the individual’s saturation by mass media, atmospheres of paranoia and what he refers to in Players as “accumulating dread” – he produced a great social novel of the kind few thought he had either the inclination or the specific skills to write.

Watching Baumbach’s film, a blur or lag between his White Noise and DeLillo’s becomes apparent. Take the Gladney home, every bit as stuffed with content as Elliott’s in ET (a critical mass of possessions I lusted after as a child), or White Noise’s second most important setting, the supermarket. The A&P is shot to amplify its dizzying bounty, at one point the camera rising to show the serried shelves in a tableau that recreates Andreas Gursky’s photograph 99 Cent.

In the novel this overabundance troubles Jack: “Why do these possessions carry such sorrowful weight? There is a darkness attached to them, a foreboding.” But the film’s beautiful production design fetishises it: old Coke cans, Lucky Charms cereal boxes, foam-cushion headphones, plastic visors, Minnie Mouse sweatshirts, vintage Volvos. It all looks so good! So authentic! The retro pleasures negate the book’s futurity. Reviews of the novel felt that DeLillo was commenting on the present in a way that defined it, so certain was his grasp on what he has called “American forces and energies” (eerily abetted a month before publication by the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, the worst airborne toxic event in industrial history). Baumbach’s film lacks any of this bleeding edge, being instead one more unit in an avalanche of 1980s-themed content; Stranger Things with a side of Jean Baudrillard.

Similarly, the thrall that television exerts – a family debate is brought to a halt by the cry, “Plane crash footage on TV!” – plays differently in 2022. When we see the Gladneys intent on the screen, unblinkingly lifting noodles to their mouths, it hits not as an image of alienation but a nostalgic portrait of an era when families stared at one screen rather than six different ones. In the novel DeLillo, via Murray Siskind, fingers television as “the primal force in the American home”, but elements of his cultural diagnosis persist in the age of the attention economy: there is, Murray says, “a wealth of data concealed in the grid”. In 1985 the Village Voice praised DeLillo’s grasp of how television sounds but complained that “perhaps he’s come to regard the box as too sinister, too important”. In an irony that runs in DeLillo’s favour, after a brief cinematic run the film will exist on Netflix. The small screen has become even more dominant than he foresaw.

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There’s irony, too, in Baumbach’s fidelity to DeLillo’s novel being what renders the film unfaithful to the book’s atmospheres – the authentic prophecies of 1985 becoming 2022’s artful but artificial reconstructions – particularly when the film is so alive not just to the book but its hinterland. Among DeLillo’s working titles for White Noise were “The American Book of the Dead” and “Panasonic”, his final choice until Matsushita Electric refused permission. It’s a detail the film playfully acknowledges when Jack wakes at night and stares at his bedside clock, the Panasonic brand name as prominent as the ruby-red digits.

Speaking in 1979 about what characterises the novels he finds most rewarding, DeLillo said, “There’s a drive and a daring that go beyond technical invention. I think it’s right to call it a life-drive even though these books deal at times very directly with death. No optimism, no pessimism… [they] open out on to some larger mystery.” The closing supermarket soliloquy of White Noise strikes just this line between optimism and pessimism, acknowledging the bodily pleasures, entertainments and scandals designed to distract us from death. In Baumbach’s version, which ends with a musical routine (a danse macabre, but a celebratory one), living is reward enough for the inevitability of death, whereas DeLillo’s conclusion suggests acceptance is impossible, but avoidance just might work.

Here again the film hews closely to, but definitively isn’t, DeLillo’s White Noise. It reminds me of another simultaneous presence and absence, at the National Book Award ceremony in 1985 when DeLillo delivered his one-line acceptance speech: “I’m sorry I couldn’t be here tonight, but I thank you all for coming.”

“White Noise” is in select cinemas from 25 November and on Netflix from 30 December

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This article appears in the 23 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russian Roulette