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An Introduction to ‘White Noise,’ Don DeLillo’s Defining and Unfilmable Novel

The postmodern masterpiece has been long and widely regarded as impossible to adapt, but Noah Baumbach, equipped with renewed timeliness and a Netflix budget, is putting that to the test

Netflix/Ringer illustration

“Louisiana Sues for $9 Million in Chemical Spill by Railroad”

“Railyard Acid Spill Causes Evacuation in Denver”

“High Levels of Dioxin Reported at a Trailer Park in Missouri”

“Families Find They Can’t Escape Dioxin”

National news stories about chemical accidents dotted the inside pages of American newspapers throughout the early 1980s. Rarely deemed worthy of the front page by big papers like The New York Times, these mishaps seeped into the public imagination, leaving the names of various substances on the minds of consumers across the country: vinyl chloride, toluene, phosphoric acid, hydrofluorosilicic acid, tetraethyl lead, styrene, nitric acid, dioxin. On the radio and on television, the multisyllabic handles were read in detached, matter-of-fact, newscaster-speak.

Officials said the accident took place about 4 a.m. in the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad switching yard when the coupler from one rail car punched a hole of 14 inches by 6 inches in the tank car while switching it.

About 20,000 gallons of nitric acid spilled onto the ground, where it vaporized into thick billowing clouds and was carried over the city by light winds out of the northwest.

According to the American novelist Don DeLillo, who structured his 1985 novel White Noise around an “immense toxic cloud … almost beyond comprehension, beyond legend and rumor” that overtakes a college town, such incidents were inescapable.

DeLillo moved to Greece in 1979 and lived abroad until 1982, when he returned to New York, where he’d been born 46 years earlier. “I began to notice something on television which I hadn’t noticed before,” he told The New York Times in 1987. “This was the daily toxic spill—there was the news, the weather, and the toxic spill. This was a phenomenon no one even mentioned. It was simply a television reality. It’s only the people who were themselves involved in these terrible events who seemed to be affected by them. No one even talked about them. This was one of the motivating forces behind White Noise.” A month before the book’s publication, the worst industrial disaster in history caused the deaths of thousands, when 40 to 45 tons of the toxic chemical methyl isocyanate escaped the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.

On November 25, writer-director Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of White Noise—arguably DeLillo’s most popular work, the novel that won him the National Book Award and is still taught and read today as an exemplar of postmodern fiction—will hit theaters. (The movie will also be released on Netflix on December 30.) White Noise is a quintessential “unfilmable” novel, the kind of book that could be a symbol for jokes about Hollywood misjudgment and arrogance. In fact, in 2020 the novelist Emma Cline published a short story in The New Yorker in which a thinly fictionalized Harvey Weinstein attempts a deluded and doomed comeback by producing an adaptation. It’s the kind of book to fuel poor imitations and dissertations in equal measure. “I can think of few books written in my lifetime that received such quick and wide acclaim while going on to exercise so deep an influence for decades thereafter,” the Pulitzer-winning novelist Richard Powers wrote in his introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of White Noise. “I can think of even fewer books more likely to remain essential guides to life in the Information Age, another quarter century on.”

Lucky for us the feeling of bombardment and numbness the book portrays in the face of globalized consumerism, environmental disaster, rampant misinformation, perpetually unfolding conspiracy, and “the cults of the famous and the dead” has not changed much since 1985. We still have DeLillo to keep us company. He has written other masterpieces, but none as simultaneously accessible, funny, and keen. With each page you feel you’re receiving a secret transmission about how fucked we are—and also what tenderness the world may still yet offer. A sleeping child releasing the words “Toyota Celica” under her breath is an occasion for genuine awe.

The novel is a satire of the inanities of academia and the information overflow of daily life as it’s lived among the claustrophobic chatter and electrical hum of TV sets, strip-mall advertisements, cheap tabloid headlines, and neon-bright product branding as enshrined in fluorescent-lit suburban grocery stores. The Gladney family—the blended product of at least five marriages—is our sitcom introduction to this world, and the first of the book’s three parts follows their high jinks like a TV series that’s come unmoored from the typical tight A-plot, B-plot formula. There are neighbors with names like Old Man Treadwell and oddball friends pursuing new world records; jokey exchanges at the kitchen counter about mom’s failed diets; a moody older son lurking in the background, appalled.

Jack, college professor, father, and a husband many times over, is the protagonist, and DeLillo makes the novel’s comic ambitions most apparent when he describes his field of expertise on Page 4: “I am the chairman of the department of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill. I invented Hitler studies in North America in March of 1968. It was a cold bright day with intermittent winds out of the east,” he deadpans, folding in the TV weather report.

“I never felt that I was writing a comic novel before White Noise,” DeLillo said after the novel’s publication. The idea of a college teaching Hitler studies tickled him. “I haven’t a clue where that thought came from, but it seemed innately comic, and everything sprang from it.”

The lives of the Gladneys, and all the other residents of the fictional Midwestern town of Blacksmith, where College-on-the-Hill is located, are upended by the “airborne toxic event,” the potentially lethal result of a mysterious rail-yard accident. This dramatic injection of plot sends the novel moving in a different direction. During the ensuing evacuation, Jack is exposed to Nyodene D., which, according to the oblique information he receives, will kill him eventually. Nobody can say for sure when, but death—it’s gonna happen. “I tapped into your history. I’m getting bracketed numbers with pulsing stars,” a medical technician tells Jack. He asks for an explanation and the technician balks: “You’d rather not know.”

The novel’s final section obsesses over an experimental drug called Dylar, which was designed to remove the fear of death. Babette, Jack’s wife, has been participating in a secret, wildly unethical trial, and Jack badly wants to get his hands on it too. In the aftermath of the airborne toxic event, the book grows hard-boiled. (“I can’t imagine a culture more steeped in the idea of death,” DeLillo said of America in the ’80s.) Both Jack and Babette are terrified of dying, and the lengths they’ll go to assuage their fear become increasingly dangerous. A gun appears and is eventually used—in a seedy motel, of course. “Who will die first?” Jack wonders. “This question comes up from time to time, like where are the car keys.” This is the tone of the novel, one of the funniest in the American canon.

But White Noise also stands out as one of the most difficult to turn into a movie. The novel’s dominant form is the list. It derives much of its energy from the non sequitur. Holy trinities of brands—one representative single-sentence paragraph reads “MasterCard, Visa, American Express.”—interrupt (or deepen?) the flow of scenes and thoughts with near-mystical portent. There are beautiful, strange paragraphs that feel swirled together almost at random, with details suddenly butting in via short, declarative sentences. The dialogue is so stylized as to be alien. Conversations between academics about, say, brushing your teeth with your finger unfold across multiple pages. DeLillo’s prose holds it all together, even when the novel threatens to lag or drift.

Baumbach’s best movies (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) are about hyperverbal intellectuals being cruel to one another. They’re jagged and lean, 93 minutes or less. White Noise is a seductive challenge—the ridiculous family bickering; the even more ridiculous academic sparring—but any filmmaker working to meet the material needs to find a visual style that rivals the bracing quality of a DeLillo sentence. That’s hard to do. Just as difficult is locating a performance mode that makes the dialogue work. Michael Hoffman’s Game 6, from DeLillo’s only original screenplay, relied on an overly caffeinated delivery. David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, from DeLillo’s 2003 novel, slowed the lines down with performances that were as “baroquely stylized as the words being recited,” as film critic Vadim Rizov put it. Baumbach might go one way or try to find a register of his own, but he has his work cut out for him.

Reading White Noise today, I still laugh and pause with wonder because of the language, which seems impossible to translate to the screen. It would be possible, as the critic Cosmo Bjorkenheim noted, to have TV sets “blare in the background” during the domestic scenes, with snippets of broadcast competing for the viewer’s attention alongside the characters’ dialogue. That would be one way to capture the book’s titular relentlessness. But there’s really no substitute for the effect of a line like, “After dinner, on my way upstairs, I heard the TV say: ‘Let’s sit half lotus and think about our spines.’” Multiple times in the novel, DeLillo anthropomorphizes the television. It has its own unique, incomparably weird language:

“The TV said: ‘This creature has developed a complicated stomach in keeping with its leafy diet.”

“The TV said: ‘Until Florida surgeons attached an artificial flipper.’”

In 2022, the novel also reads with a malignant edge that might not be as intense outside of a context defined by explicit and public antisemitism, both celebrity-driven and otherwise. The Hitler studies gags still play well—there’s a recurring bit about how Jack never learned to speak German—but there are moments when Jack seems hyper-attuned to ethnic and racial differences in an uncomfortable way; a more diverse, globalized society is a cause of real anxiety. Like the distance between his worldview and his field of research is collapsing. It’s only later, when he’s committed an act of violence and finds himself covered with blood, that Jack seems to transcend his prejudice. “It was no longer possible to tell whether the blood on my hands and clothes was his or mine. My humanity soared.” But the levels of irony here are showing bracketed numbers and pulsing stars. Impossible to read with certainty.

Some novels rewire your brain into thinking with their style—White Noise is one of them. After reading it for the third time, I walked around a drug store while awaiting my second COVID booster shot with fresh eyes. A news alert buzzed my phone about the uncertain future of beer sales at the World Cup. To quote the novel’s perfect line, “American magic and dread.”

Ross Scarano is a writer and editor from Pittsburgh.