White Noise (Netflix) – a review

White Noise (Netflix) surprised me. As resistant as I am to the idea of sitting down to watch a film, I carry enough vestigial interest in Don DeLillo and his works from my 1990s PhD studies that I was quite keen to see what filmmaker Noah Baumbach made of the fairly unfilmable 1985 novel White Noise.

My most cited article on DeLillo is my chapter on Underworld, his 1997 doorstep novel that emerged as I was working on my PhD. Reluctantly, I included a chapter on it in my thesis. But the best chapters of my PhD were never published in article form: those on White Noise, Libra, and Mao II. 

To read them, you’ll have to download the ebook of my thesis, Don DeLillo, Events, and Local Gods. Even I have to do this, because apparently I have failed to save the file. It is excellent, though.

White Noise was and is written about and spoken of as a postmodern novel; it’s mentioned as such in the opening paragraph of its Wikipedia article. It is usually grouped with such novels as The Crying of Lot 49, but I always disagreed with that view, and saw DeLillo as an old fashioned high modernist, steeped in the classics. That’s what I attempt to demonstrate in my lengthy White Noise thesis chapter, with a particular focus on the concept of noise itself, which most critics ignore. Here’s a sample:

[T]he fear of death inhabits Jack’s life like a parasite, interrupting sleep at odd hours in the night, creeping across the sky in a black cloud, internalising itself as a ‘nebulous mass.’ Even his working life is concerned with death: the mass death wrought by Hitler and his Nazi death cult; or the cult of the dead celebrity; the death that lies at the end of plots and conspiracies; death portrayed in television disaster coverage; or in car crash movies; death by shock or natural causes; accidental death by surf; or death narrowly missed in a plane or on the expressway; the notoriety of the dead; seeking notoriety in death; death which is held back by denial, or by surrounding oneself with the young and immortal; by superstition or science – or a faith in science which amounts to superstition. 

The more you read DeLillo, the more you start to suspect that he is steeped, not in theories of the postmodern, but in the classics. It is this debilitating fear of death which Epicurus and his followers (like Lucretius) wished to rid humanity of. They saw it as the main cause of human unhappiness, and believed that true happiness lies in the conquering of such fear. Epicurus said, ‘When we are, death is not; and when death is, we are not.’

In the novel (and film) white noise is linked to death; and death and the fear of it are the central thread of the novel (and film). What I brought to my thesis was a knowledge of the work of French polymath Michel Serres, who saw noise, le parasite, as something both inevitable and unavoidable, arguing that the scientific tradition ignored huge swathes of reality because it was noisy. You can build your house from scratch, but there is always a rat in the foundations, according to Serres, and to ignore it is to miss the point that life, hope, change, arise from noise. Everything else is entropy. 

I was pleased to see that some of this comes across in the film, as well as the paradoxical faith in and fear of scientific progress that characterises the senior Gladneys. I was also pleased to see that the oldest younger Gladney, Heinrich, is portrayed as the possessor of scientific discourse: a central scene has him confidently explaining the Airborne Toxic Event to a crowd of adult refugees. It doesn’t matter whether he is talking sense: the main thing is that he’s using the right language.

Heinrich is also expert at undermining his own father’s faith in reason and science, using his own weapons against him in sometimes hilarious Socratic dialogues.

“Can you prove, here and now, that this stuff is rain? How do I know that what you call rain is really rain? What is rain anyway?”  

“It’s the stuff that falls from the sky and gets you what is called wet.”  

“I’m not wet. Are you wet?” 

“All right,” I said. “Very good.”  

“No, seriously, are you wet?”  

“First rate,” I told him. “A victory for uncertainty, randomness and chaos. Science’s finest hour” (24).

It’s a shame there isn’t more time for Jack and Heinrich dialogues in the film, though at 2 hours and 16 minutes it is already too long, of course.

There are two other missing pieces, one near the beginning of the novel and the other near the end. The first is the scene where Jack and Murray Siskind visit ‘The Most Photographed Barn in America’ and contemplate the crowds with their cameras. The crowd, argues Murray, are already ‘part of the aura’, and he sums up the platform problem of postmodernism with a succinct phrase: Nobody sees the barn. The platform problem, simply put, asks where are you standing when you claim that everything is a simulacrum? From my thesis:

[I]f there is no longer anything real, if we can see the inauthentic but not the authentic, if everything is a simulacrum and everything has equal value to everything else, where is it that we are standing that we are able to see this? Where is the cooler climate from which we observe the heat-death of the information universe?

Well, as Murray J. Siskind would surely say, it’s obvious. An answer can be found in the title of the novel. Because – to paraphrase Murray on the subject of The Most Photographed Barn – no one sees the book. When critics have addressed the subject of ‘white noise’ at all, the concept is, in every case, seen in negative terms. Noise is always nasty, disturbing, destructive, and annoying. This negative conceptualisation is remarkably similar to that given to the word chaos before ‘chaos theory’ came along to debunk such a view. And noise … is closely related to chaos, and can be seen as a positive, life-affirming, and creative force.

Life-affirming because something the film gets more or less right is that White Noise does not read as a pessimistic novel. It has a lightness of tone that seems to celebrate the youthful energy of the junior Gladneys and the unpredictability and chaos of real life. This is reflected in the way the film ends, with an extra-diegetic dance sequence in the supermarket, which may be satirical, but is also playful.

The second missing moment is related. It’s the incident at the end of the novel when Wilder rides his plastic tricycle across the expressway, avoiding death by sheer random chance as adults look on helplessly. ‘Hey, sonny, no’. Wilder is the antithesis and antidote to death in the novel: where Wilder is, death is not. And while there is some discussion of the child in the film, there obviously wasn’t time to include this moment or to fully establish his credentials.

I felt the casting of the film was a mixed bag. I don’t think Adam Driver is particularly apt as Jack Gladney. It’s hard to think of a contemporary actor who matches my idea of Gladney — it would have to be someone like a young John Lithgow, I think. But well done to Driver for his portrayal as a slightly gone-to-seed middle-aged academic. On the other hand, the ringletted Greta Gerwig as Babette is perfect, and I’ve no issue with any of the child actors. Don Cheadle as Murray J Siskind is fine, but I think a little too professorial. For me, he needs to be younger and hungrier, because Murray is a former sports writer turned academic, and he’s trying to establish a rep. Everything else about the film production was good: production design was great, with the 80s supermarket choc-full of authentic packaging and primary colours.

As a film, I think it was okay. As a version of the novel, it was only ever going to be partial, but I think it captured some of the tone and atmosphere without quite approaching the multilayered cleverness of the novel. One final word from my thesis on the question of whether White Noise is a postmodern novel:

One important question that arises for the academic concerned with Don DeLillo is that of credibility. How is it possible to write a convincing piece of work on an object – the writer or his works – which always has more cunning than the subject? For example, how can you, in all seriousness, stand up and give a conference paper on a writer who has so mercilessly lampooned the very nature of academic conferences, papers, agendas, and course descriptions? As Noel King pointed out…: 

“One hesitates to use postmodern critical theories on a book which contains postmodern sunsets and real events being used as rehearsals for simulations of real events” (King 1991, 72).

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