There’s a white noise machine in my room. I got it to block out traffic noise from the busy avenue outside my window, but years ago we moved our bedroom to the back of the apartment. Now technically useless, the white noise machine continues to work every night. I downloaded two different apps on my phone to simulate the sound when I travel. This low static buzz is imperative; I can’t sleep without.
I hate to depend on a machine for my basic survival, but without it I’ll be staring at the ceiling for hours, contemplating my existence, and I guess that’s sort of Don DeLillo’s goal in White noise. The 1985 novel is a classic of postmodern fiction, long considered “unsuitable” for reasons that become clearer on reading. It’s a funny novel that keeps changing shape, making the reader feel the friction between lives dominated by consumerism and consumption and technology on the one hand, and the weight of mortality on the other.
The new film adaptation of Noah Baumbach’s novel is a valiant attempt to capture DeLillo’s book, but the result is a film so faithful to the original work that it comes very close to failing. The year is 1984 and Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is a middle-aged college professor and head of the Hitler Studies department he created. He lives with his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) in a ramshackle old house full of their children, mostly from previous marriages. His Hitler studies classes — like a seminar, for example, which examines his speeches — are hugely popular, and fellow student Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) wants Jack’s help in setting up a parallel Elvis studies department. But everything is eerily turned upside down when a toxic cloud suddenly forms on the horizon, what the news is calling “the toxic airborne event.”
People can, and do, write long, peer-reviewed articles and dissertations on white noise, because it’s not really just a story, even if it’s very entertaining on the surface. It’s actually quite amazing what DeLillo managed to squeeze into the novel. For example: Hitler Studies? What a strange and largely ignored choice – but both the film and the novel treat this as if it were a completely normal type of university department to found.
Or what about all those lists and litanies of brands that pop up over and over? In the film, this translates to many scenes in a brightly colored supermarket with prominently displayed, period-appropriate products, laundry detergents and milk and particular types of gum. In the novel, we get periodic bursts in the text that become oddly specific little lists. After reflecting on his love for Babette, Jack suddenly exclaims, “The Airport Marriott, the Downtown Travelodge, the Sheraton Inn and Conference Center.
Or what about the ubiquitous televisions? They are everywhere in White noise, set in a time when the internet had not yet covered the world. “I’ve come to understand that the medium is a primary force in the American home,” Siskind told Jack. “Sealed, timeless, autonomous, self-referential. It’s as if a myth was born in our living room, like something we know dreamily and preconsciously. On Friday nights, Jack and his family get together in front of the TV not to watch movies or sitcoms, but to watch disasters happen on the news – “floods, earthquakes, mudslides, erupting volcanoes”. They are pierced, because “every disaster has made us wish for more, something bigger, grander, more expansive”.
A co-worker later tells Jack it’s because “we’re suffering from cerebral fainting.” We need the occasional disaster to break the relentless bombardment of information. Reading or hearing that in 2022, at a time of constant manufactured outrage, that seems almost too prescient.
Other strange things happen throughout the novel, some of which also appear in the film. Jack can’t quite believe that a disaster would befall him because he’s a well-to-do college professor, not the kind of person that disasters befall – that is, a TV person. The distance television placed between him and reality seeped into his existence.
And yet, the frightening airborne toxic disaster ends quite abruptly; DeLillo (and Baumbach) give us the comedic and disorienting experience of coming straight back to reality, with Murray and Jack strolling through the grocery store again. As if “reality” — even a reality as overwhelming as a toxic overhead cloud or, say, a pandemic — couldn’t intrude on white noise for too long.
This bleeding between what’s on TV and what’s real is part of the fabric of the novel. Jack frequently reflects on misinformation and misinformation (“family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation,” he says at one point) — something that comes from the inability of the human brain to process anything that comes to it. falls on it, and our need to make sense of it with conspiracy theories. The characters suddenly start talking strangely, and you realize they’ve slipped into the cadence of a sitcom or thriller. A group of college professors insult each other about their knowledge of pop culture, which starts to make sense when you remember that pop culture is the lingua franca of modern life, the thing that seems more real than our own lives, the experience shared between us.
For the film adaptation, Baumbach removes much of the novel’s theoretical underpinnings, though they’re still there if you seek them out. Rather, it focuses on the larger existential point at the heart of the novel: that all that white noise we’ve generated for ourselves—an urge to buy things, a fascination with disasters, technologies always buzzing back— plan – is a way to distract us from the horrible realization that we are going to die. Real disasters confront us with this fatality, but we try to repel them as quickly as possible. This is why people become obsessed with celebrities (like Elvis) or leaders who falsely promise us the world (like Hitler); by being part of a crowd, losing ourselves in the emotional high of the performer, we can stop the feeling for a while.
Frankly, this choice of Baumbach is a little disappointing. Moving a story that speaks from screens to the screen practically takes some formal inventiveness, a way of getting the audience to not only watch the story unfold but feel it, to experience what the characters live, which could, in turn, enhance the emotional impact.
But it is, after all, a very talkative and theoretical novel. And perhaps a faithful adaptation is all we can ask for, though it thereby loses some of the humor and quirkiness of the source material.
One omission, however, made me particularly sad, because the key to White noise lies in an indelible opening scene of the novel. Murray takes Jack to a local tourist attraction that he wants to see and that Jack has never had a chance to see. It’s been called “America’s most photographed barn,” and they start seeing the signs of it long before they get there. When they arrive, there are “forty cars and a tour bus” in the parking lot, and many people are standing nearby with camera gear, taking pictures of the barn.
“Nobody sees the barn,” Murray tells Jack. “Once you see the signs for the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.” He paints it in almost religious terms: “Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We only see what others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We have agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.
In the end, he said, “They take pictures take pictures.”
Murray’s idea, this slightly absurd idea of a “most photographed barn” that is remarkable simply for being remarkable, breaks the whole White noise focus. There’s not too much of a difference between tourists traveling to photograph an ordinary barn and the way we all take pictures of things that have been photographed a million billion times: the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty , the Golden Gate Bridge, whatever. Why do we do it? Because we’ve seen pictures of it, and we want to prove that we were there too. “There”, not only in Paris, New York or San Francisco, but in the world. We want to break our mediated reality for a moment and set a marker. A photo is a way of asserting reality, of framing existence: We were there. We have lived. We counted.
And one day we won’t be here, but no one wants to think about that right now.
At the end of the novel and film, Jack is once again standing in line at the grocery store, watching people go about their business, browsing the rich array of consumer goods. “Everything we need that isn’t food or love is here on the tabloid shelves,” he concludes. “Tales of the Supernatural and the Extraterrestrial. Miracle vitamins, cures for cancer, cures for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.
White noise talks about the barriers between us and reality that we have built to distract ourselves from our own mortality. But like the white noise machine I need to sleep in, even though there’s nothing left to drown out, we’ve become so dependent on our cultural white noise that the thought of living without it is almost unbearable. Call it the human condition or whatever you want: it’s how we deal with the way we all stare at the ceiling, contemplating existence, hoping that we’ve meant something, in the end.
White noise is streaming on Netflix.