DON DeLILLO is a prodigiously gifted writer. His cool but evocative prose is witty, biting, surprising, precise. Here's a characteristic passage, describing the faculty of "the popular culture department, known officially as American environments," at a middle western institution called College-on-the- Hill, where DeLillo's new novel takes place:
"A curious group. The teaching staff is composed almost solely of New York emigres, smart, thuggish, movie-mad, trivia- crazed. They are here to decipher the natural language of the culture, to make a formal method of the shiny pleasures they'd known in their Europe-shadowed childhoods -- an Aristotelianism of bubble gum wrappers and detergent jingles. The department head is Alfonse (Fast Food) Stompanato, a broad- chested glowering man whose collection of prewar soda-pop bottles is on permanent display in an alcove. All his teachers are male, wear rumpled clothes, need haircuts, cough into their armpits. Together they look like teamster officials assembled to identify the body of a mutilated colleague. The impression is one of pervasive bitterness, suspicion and intrigue."
That is splendid stuff; not merely are its wit and glitter distinctive, but it is true -- it describes, with sympathetic but devastating finality, an academic subspecies that any habitu,e of the campuses will immediately recognize. DeLillo spills out passages like that with seeming effortlessness, and White Noise is loaded with them. For lovers of pure prose the novel is a trip; the trouble is that when you step back from it and view it clinically, it proves to be a trip to nowhere -- yet another of DeLillo's exercises in fiction as political tract.
This is what makes DeLillo so irritati and frustrating: he's a writer of stupendous talents, yet he wastes those talents on monotonously apocalyptic novels the essential business of which is to retail the shopworn campus ideology of the '60s and '70s. Like his contemporary Robert Stone, whose abilities are comparable, he's more interested in the message than the medium. He knows how to shape a novel and tell a story, but he's a pamphleteer, not a novelist; he's interested in ideas and institutions (especially malign ones), but not in people. The result is that he writes books that, while their sheer intelligence and style are dazzling, are heartless -- and therefore empty -- at their core.
White Noise, though arguably DeLillo's best novel, is a case in point. Its narrator, Jack Gladney, teaches "Advanced Nazism, three hours a week, restricted to qualified seniors, a course of study designed to cultivate historical perspective, theoretical rigor and mature insight into the continuing mass appeal of fascist tyranny, with special empasis on parades, rallies and uniforms, three credits, written reports," and right away you can figure out that Jack Gladney is far less important than the various messages affixed to him. He's hung up on all things German -- he's even named his young son Heinrich -- in which he sees the roots of modern evil, but he's also hung up on technology, which he considers to be the American Nazism: "Man's guilt in history and in the tides of his own blood has been complicated by technology, the daily seeping falsehearted death."
Technology is everywhere, transmitting "waves and radiation" that carry with them the death-in-life of modern society. The television set, throbbing in the living room, brings daily calamity into the American household: "That night, a Friday, we gathered in front of the set, as was the custom and the rule, with take-out Chinese. There were floods, earthquakes, mud slides, erupting volcanoes. We'd never before been so attentive to our duty, our Friday assembly. . . . Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping." Could there be a more predictable catalogue of trendy political themes: radiation, addiction to violence, television as religion, the trivialization of suffering, the vulgarity of America?
ALL OF THIS being the case, it will not surprise you to learn two things. The first is that all four of Jack's previous, unsuccessful marriages were to women who had one connection or another to espionage; the CIA is as essential to novelists of the fashionable left (DeLillo, Stone, Didion) as shredded bodices are to the authors of Harlequin romances. The second is that a "toxic event" takes place; a tank car carrying a lethal chemical overturns, and a killer cloud slowly begins to work its way toward the town of Blacksmith, where the Gladney family lives. An evacuation is ordered:
"The enormous dark mass moved like some death ship in Norse legend, escorted across the night by armored creatures with spiral wings. We weren't sure how to react. It was a terrible thing to see, so close, so low, packed with chlorides, benzines, phenols, hydrocarbons, or whatever the precise toxic content. But it was also spectacular, part of the grandness of a sweeping event, like the vivid scene in the switching yard or the people trudging across the snowy overpass with children, food, belongings, a tragic army of the dispossessed. Our fear was accompanied by a sense of awe that bordered on the religious. It is surely possible to be awed by the thing that threatens your life, to see it as a cosmic force, so much larger than yourself, more powerful, created by elemental and willful rhythms. This was a death made in the laboratory, defined and measurable, but we thought of it at the time in a simple and primitive way, as some seasonal perversity of the earth like a flood or tornado, something not subject to control. Our helplessness did not seem compatible with the idea of a man-made event."
There you have it: fiction as op-ed material. As such, to give DeLillo his due, it is very effective. DeLillo constructs a powerful case against a great many things it's extremely easy to be against: the numbing and corrupting influences of technology, the dehumanization of modern society, nuclear war, all the usual suspects. But upon these unrelievedly familiar themes he has constructed a novel that simply doesn't work as fiction, which is the novelist's first artistic obligation. None of the characters acquires any genuine humanity because each exists solely to represent something; there's too much chatter, too much of which is merely brittle; the tank- car accident isn't an event but a deus ex machina; the conclusion -- DeLillo often has trouble winding things up -- is contrived.
Listen: Don DeLillo can write, and attention therefore must be paid. He's also smart, perceptive and clever. But that's not enough. Until he has something to say that comes from the heart rather than the evening news, his novels will fall far short of his talents.