The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping bags; with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts. As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags—onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum Dum Pops, the Mystic Mints.
I’ve witnessed this spectacle every September for twenty-one years. It is a brilliant event, invariably. The students greet each other with comic cries and gestures of sodden collapse. Their summer has been bloated with criminal pleasures, as always. The parents stand sun-dazed near their automobiles, seeing images of themselves in every direction. The conscientious suntans. The well-made faces and wry looks. They feel a sense of renewal, of communal recognition. The women crisp and alert, in diet trim, knowing people’s names. Their husbands content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging, accomplished in parenthood, something about them suggesting massive insurance coverage.
I chose to study an extract from the first Chapter of White Noise, an important novel published by Don DeLillo in 1985, because I think that this work tackles the major course themes of time and place in ways that are connected with contemporary concerns about the future of humanity and with our anxieties about the state of the environment and the Earth. In this regard I also see a relationship between this text and The Road extract that I have just examined.
I shall try to show how all these themes are expressed in the text through the narrator voice, the choice of language and tone, the setting and its details, and how the initial paragraphs introduce the reader to them.
The beginning two paragraphs are like the opening of a stage or the first panoramic view of a film. Somebody, we still do not know who, is talking and depicting the scene he or she has in front and we are dragged into it through these eyes. The general tone is detached, as if removed, somewhat ironic. This somebody is a witness who does not seem involved in what is happening, is an observer who does not belong to the group on which he casts a sort of entomological look. He has the same distant look on things in the first paragraph as he has on people in the second paragraph, as if they too were objects to be examined, dissected and judged, not as individuals but as an anthropological phenomenon. The voice is dry, evaluating, even sarcastic.
The effect on the reader of these cadenced, fragmented sentences, short and long, made up of rhythmic lists of objects – stuff, a lot of stuff – and of precise and razor-cut collective descriptions, is wonderfully visual, like well applied strokes of a paintbrush. As we read, our eyes see all these things individually come to life, one after the other, we see these students, their mothers and their fathers, their attitudes, their faces, their movements. These are sentences that are true speech acts, constructed by carefully chosen words that make a world in a performative sense (Loxley, 2006) and generate powerful and very physical images.
Don DeLillo makes a masterful and even voluptuous but always controlled use of language – in perfect correspondence to content. The list of things in the first paragraph is a delicious succession of well studied rhythmic and balanced groups of words, couplets and triplets of objects: ‘stationary and books’, ‘rugs and sleeping bags’, and ‘sheets, pillows, quilts’, ‘the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices’. Sound repetitions reiterate and reinforce the almost oppressive quality of this pile of material goods: alliteration like in ‘boxes of blankets’, ‘Mystic mints’, assonance as in ‘boots and shoes’, ‘fruit chews’, and consonance as in ‘hockey and lacrosse sticks’, ‘bows and arrows’ are just some examples. Sometimes words seem to be used to satisfy rhythmic reasons as in ‘inflated rafts’, where the word ‘inflated’ was possibly added to create a balanced sentence: ‘with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts’.
In some cases images are reinforced by the use of onomatopoeian words: ‘cars slowed to a crawl’, women are ‘crisp and alert’. The ready and swift movements of the women stand in stark contrast to the inertia of the men, suggested by the lengthy, prolonged cadence and by the repeated dull ‘d’ and ‘t’ sounds: ‘Their husbands content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging, accomplished in parenthood’. On the contrary, the choice of the sound ‘r’ referred to the students creates a feeling of mechanical and perhaps overdone agility and youthfulness – ‘students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside’.
But who is speaking? Who is creating this world together with the reader? Why this detachment, this disenchantment with things and people? The narrator speaks in the first person point of view and seems to have strong opinions, to be biased, I would say it is an unreliable narrator who wants to influence the reader, offer a vision. But so far this voice is not saying much personal, we are just pulled into the scene as witnesses and made curious about what is happening next.
An enormous mass of things are removed by the students returning to college from the fully loaded station wagons, and the narrator seems to delight in enumerating them to the fullest, to not forget anything. These objects are there to cover every possible circumstance or need of life, as if to take everything into account, to have all under control. This necessity to control, to prevent every possible occurrence is expressed in many ways, insisted upon, reiterated: the suitcases are ‘carefully secured’, the students bring along both ‘light and heavy clothing, ‘the controlled substances, the birth control pills’. The mothers have ‘conscientious suntans’, ‘well-made faces’, the men have a ‘massive insurance coverage’. In the compulsive need of control, of tidiness, of coverage there is I think a first hint of what shall be the fundamental theme of the novel: the fear of death.
The great absent is nature: all this colossal amount of stuff is man-made, manufactured, and speaks of a materially advanced society. Even foods are synthetic, identified only by their brand names, not really nutritious. People too have artificial and constructed looks, attitudes and movements: The students ‘greet each other with comic cries and gestures of sodden collapse’, the women are ‘in diet trim’. The only natural presence is the sun which, however, is only implicitly mentioned as having on people a numbing effect, not a nurturing invigorating one: ‘The parents stand sun-dazed near their automobiles’.
I think that the absence of nature is another great theme that emerges from the beginning of the novel. What the reader sees is a useless, void activity, as if these people, notwithstanding all their efforts and abundance of material goods, are animated only by an exhausted, wasted energy. The student summer has not been restful and refreshing, but ‘has been bloated with criminal pleasures’ and in this word, ‘bloated’, and in their ‘sodden collapse’ there is a taste of stupor and apathy echoed by the numbed unawareness of their ‘sun-dazed’ parents. Personal identities are fragmented and lost, in what appears to be a quintessentially postmodern way, and when they look around they only see ‘images of themselves in every direction’: not individuals, but reflections.
What they still do possess, though, is a sense of belonging, ‘They feel a sense of renewal, of communal recognition’. It is as if they had given up their individuality in exchange for reassurance and inclusion in a clan that shelters them from uncertainty, natural dangers and the unpredictability of life, surrounded as they are by all their possessions. And the need to belong to a group of like-minded people, to have a bulwark of objects protecting them as shields, speaks again of their fear of death. So perhaps the immoderate orgy of goods in which people indulge is not so much or not only an expression of their craving for material things but rather a protective girdle against the anguish of mortality, and similarly to the ‘white noise’ which soothes their (and our) ears those possessions appease their (and our) sense of fragility. At the same time though, tragically, those possessions act as a ‘memento mori’ in the same way as the exquisitely painted objects of a vanitas painting. And as a primitive tribe these affluent anguished people find some comfort in the annual September rite of return to college which acts as a substitute for the ancient rites of rebirth.
Like in The Road, the place and time are not specified, but inferred. The college is nameless and it could stand for any average modern American college, it is a sort of mythic college on a hill exactly as ‘the Road’ was an archetypical straight road crossing the emptiness of the central United States. The time is modern, not contemporary, as the reader can guess from the presence of ‘personal computers’, which remind of the Eighties, and the absence of mobile phones, otherwise the fathers, instead of being ‘content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging’, would be obviously playing with them.
The grandiose, imposing futility of the event sets a scene for a looming tragedy: nature is unrecognized, it has been denied and submerged by man-made objects, crowds are obscurely frightened and at the same time obtusely unaware and keep together like primitive humans did confronted with unforeseeable dangers. Perhaps this is our world before The Road, before the end of civilization.
In an interview, DeLillo once soberly said: ‘I’m someone who writes sentences and paragraphs. I think of the sentence — not only what it shares but, in a sense, what it looks like’ (Nance, 2012) and in another: ‘I’m just translating the world around me in what seems to be straightforward terms … I’m not trying to manipulate reality. This is just what I see and hear’ (McCrum, 2010). And I think that in this initial extract from White Noise DeLillo has meticulously and masterfully done exactly that: like an consummate painter of still-lifes he has introduced his vision about our times and fears using his carefully crafted language as a high precision tool.
DeLillo, D. (1985) White Noise [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.it (Accessed 18.12.2016)
Loxley, J. (2007) Performativity [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.it (Accessed 18.12.2016)
McCrum, R. (2010) ‘Don DeLillo: ‘I’m not trying to manipulate reality – this is what I see and hear” In: Theguardian:com 8.08.10 [online] At:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/aug/08/don-delillo-mccrum-interview (Accessed 2.01.17)
Nance, K. (2012) ‘Living in dangerous times’ In: articles.chicagotribune.com 12.10.12 [online] At: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-10-12/features/ct-prj-1014-don-delillo-20121012_1_mao-ii-angel-esmeralda-printers-row