DeLillo turns a TV-movie disaster scenario into a new Book of Revelations in these pages: a very disturbing, very impressive...

WHITE NOISE

DeLillo, whose recent taste for fashionable conspiracy and political/philosophical statement has detracted from his eloquent gifts, is back in top form here: sections of this new novel harken back to his best, early, most generous work—and also extend themselves further into regions of dark domestic poetry and fearful pity.

The family of Jack Gladney, an insecure academic chairing the Department of Hitler Studies at a small college, is made up of the progeny of both Jack's and wife Babette's previous marriages. In this step-family, then, Jack is happy: "Heat, noise, lights, looks, words, gestures, personalities, appliances. A colloquial density that makes family life the one medium of sense knowledge in which astonishment of heart is routinely contained." True, Jack's professional life is kitschy, in a college that also has a whole department of "American environments"—staffed by fast-talking exiles from New York City, focusing on Elvis, car crashes, UFOs, and generic foods. But his private life with Babette is blissful—clouded only by their mutual fear of it ending: who'll be the first to die, to interrupt the happiness? Then, however, about halfway through the book, there's a catastrophe, an "airborne toxic event," a chemical spill that necessitates evacuation of the college town; during the exodus Jack is momentarily exposed to the noxious air when he gets out to re-fuel the family car, an exposure which will later doom him to a premature death. And though the chemical cloud disperses, the now-strengthened fear of death—the title's "white noise"—continues to paralyze Jack and Babette both: she goes so far as to submit to sexual blackmail, to guinea-pig herself in experiments for an anti-death-anxiety drug called Dylar; Jack takes jealous revenge upon the mad scientist pushing the pills. . . while yearning desperately for the pills at the same time. True, the novel goes wrong here—opting for flashy paranoia and sci-fi, relinquishing the naturalness of the family scenes, the evocation of loneliness before death, the apocalyptic clarities of the evacuation after the spill. In the main, though, DeLillo's most human instincts prevail in this book, resulting in a wealth of lyrical, touching, and terrifying scenes: the family eating fried chicken together in their car; a visit by Babette's broken-down father; and, most indelibly, the descriptions of the "black billowing cloud, the airborne toxic event, lighted by the clear beams of seven army helicopters. They were tracking its windborne movement, keeping it in view"—to the awe of those below in cars and on foot.

DeLillo turns a TV-movie disaster scenario into a new Book of Revelations in these pages: a very disturbing, very impressive achievement.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1984

ISBN: 0140077022

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Sept. 22, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1984

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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