America’s greatest living writer?

The story, about a college professor who teaches “Hitler studies”, takes aim at modern life: consumerism, paranoia, technology. It’s full of riffs and jokes: “California deserves whatever it gets,” goes one. “Californians invented the concept of lifestyle. This alone warrants their doom.” It satirises our reliance on devices and our deadened responses: “The smoke alarm went off in the hallway upstairs, either to let us know the battery had just died or because the house was on fire. We finished our lunch in silence.”

In White Noise, people talk in advertising slogans, and savour the bad news that saturates the media: “Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else.” But in the book, suddenly there’s a local catastrophe: the Airborne Toxic Event, which spreads a cloud over the area, leading to mysterious evolving symptoms (“At first they said skin irritation and sweaty palms. But now they say nausea, vomiting and shortness of breath”) and creating bizarre conspiracy theories.

The mode of White Noise – like much of DeLillo’s mature work – is postmodernism: fragmented, subjective, layered with extra-literary elements. The words that come from the TV and radio are presented like dialogue, as though those devices are characters, fully paid-up members of the household. (“The TV said, ‘And other trends that could dramatically impact your portfolio.'”) The self-referential media mash of DeLillo’s world, where brand names become a mantra (the working title for White Noise was Panasonic, but he was refused permission to use it), makes perfect sense in the 21st Century, where our experiences are endlessly processed, photographed, commented on, reshaped and shared. It’s a world that has seen, as the British writer Gordon Burn put it in his book Best and Edwards, “the electronic society of the image – the daily bath we all take in the media – replace the real community of the crowd.”

Images, in fact, are key to DeLillo’s writing, and exemplify the fourth of his distinct qualities: the coolness of his world view, as seen best of all in Mao II (1991). The title of the novel comes from Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints of Mao Zedong, which flattened and replicated one of the world’s great tyrants into an image of colourful celebrity. (It’s very DeLillo-esque that Warhol said of his mechanised approach to art: “The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine.”)

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