Why Don DeLillo is America’s greatest living writer

The story, about a college professor who teaches “Hitler studies”, is aimed at modern life: consumerism, paranoia, technology. It’s full of riffs and jokes: “California deserves whatever it gets,” says one. “Californians invented the concept of lifestyle. This is only the author of the Serbs.” He satirizes our dependence on devices and our stagnant responses: “The smoke alarm went off in the upstairs hall, to tell us that the battery had just died or because the house is on fire. We finished our lunch in silence.”

In White Noise, people speak in advertising slogans, and taste the bad news that overwhelms the media: “Only disasters get our attention. We need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else.” But in the book, suddenly there is a local disaster: the Airborne Toxic Event, which spreads a cloud over the area, leading to mysterious evolutionary symptoms (“At first they said skin irritation and sweaty palms. But now they say nausea, vomiting and shortness . of breath”) and creating strange conspiracy theories.

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

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Indeed, images are central to DeLillo’s writing, exemplifying a quarter of his distinct qualities: calm his worldview, as best seen in Mao II (1991). The novel’s title comes from Andy Warhol’s silk-screen prints of Mao Zedong, who have flattened and replicated one of the world’s great figures in the image of a colorful poet. (It’s very DeLillo-esque that Warhol said of his mechanized approach to art: “The reason I’m painting this way is because I want to be a machine.”)

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