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Seminal Lines

Photograph by Christer Stromholm

“There’s little in taking or giving,
There’s little in water or wine;
This living, this living, this living
Was never a project of mine.
Oh, hard is the struggle, and sparse is
The gain of the one at the top,
For art is a form of catharsis,
And love is a permanent flop,
And work is the province of cattle,
And rest’s for a clam in a shell,
So I’m thinking of throwing the battle-
Would you kindly direct me to hell?”

Coda – Dorothy Parker

All That Is by James Salter

All That Is by James Salter

James Salter is one of few modern writers able to create equally compelling male and female characters. He says it’s because he has made a conscious “effort to nurture the feminine” in himself and in his responses to the world around him which “pure masculinity” often discounts. This very shrewdly cultivated skill is something one can clearly see in All That Is, rippling with atmospheric vitality and meticulously developed men and women vying for the reader’s attention. The story of Salter’s first novel in over 30 years revolves around former naval officer, now book editor, Philip Bowman and the people who drift in and out of his life. The book itself is primarily concerned with the nature of love, the hardship of relationships and the way in which people deal with both. After returning home from Okinawa and a stint at Harvard, Bowman meets and falls for a young woman by the name of Vivian Amussen. “He saw himself tumbled with her among the bedclothes and fragrance of married life,” Salter writes of Bowman’s daydreams, “the meals and holidays of it, the shared rooms, the glimpses of her half-dressed, her blondness, the pale hair where her legs met, the sexual riches that would be there forever.” Shortly after the couple tie the knot, however, Bowman learns that nothing lasts forever, especially marriage. Theirs sours rapidly as Vivian loses interested in her husband’s bookish whimsies, in his talk of high culture and his quixotic reveries.

With his marriage over, Bowman travels to London on business where he meets Enid Armour – a sultry South African English blonde with a chronic philanderer for a husband. The pair embark on an affair and following Bowman’s divorce travel to Spain to consummate their romance, to consolidate their fledgling love. It is here in his descriptions of cities and their poetry through the eyes of the lovers that Salter reveals himself to be a master of etymology and lyrical precision. His rolling sentences flow mellifluously from one page to the next, creating iridescent snapshots of García Lorca’s homeland, effortlessly integrating his story and the country’s history into the narrative. “He was…an angel of the re-awakening of Spain in the 1920s and ‘30s,” Slater writes, “[his] books and plays filled with a pure, fatal music, and poems rich in colors with fierce emotion and despairing love.”  Numerous historical elements and literary references are interwoven into the plot, adding to the wonderfully rich tapestry of Salter’s prose. Salter captures the glamorous milieu of Europe – Greece, France, Spain – in all its glory, through opulent literary ruminations over its present and its past. He goes from describing places to describing people in them with graceful fluency, connecting the two to create a larger, more vivid picture. “They went to Toledo for a day and then on to Seville, where summer lingered and the voice of the city, as the poet said, brought tears,” he writes of the two lovers in Spain, “They walked through walled alleyways, she in high heels, bare-shouldered, and sat in the silent darkness as deep chords of a guitar slowly began and the air itself stilled.”

This kind of tender evocation also extends to Salter’s images of the lovers in their most intimate moments. “The glory of her,” Bowman marvells looking at Enid, “England stood before him, naked in the darkness…He pulled her over him by her wrists, like a torn sheet.” But for all their passion, Bowman’s relationship with Enid eventually fizzles out and the two part.  Shortly after, he meets Christine Vassilaros and her young daughter. The pair fall in love and set up house, living in blissful domesticity or so Bowman thinks until one day Christine decides it’s over. Inexperienced, uncertain and self-doubting Bowman appears to be the very antithesis of a romantic lead and in many ways remains so until the end. He laments his incompetence with women from the start, blaming it on his absent father. There are nebulous questions over Bowman’s masculinity and there is but one moment in the book when he exercises its full force, revealing the truly chilling side of man. Wounded by Christine’s betrayal and humiliated by having to forgo the house they shared Bowman waits patiently to take his revenge, which comes as an unexpected twist in the otherwise linear plot. Salter brings the story to an equally unexpected close, which in many ways reflects the precariousness of life. “He had been married, once, wholeheartedly and been mistaken,” Salter writes of Bowman toward the end of the book‚ “He had fallen wildly in love with a woman in London, and it had somehow faded away. As if by fate one night in the most romantic encounter of his life he had met a woman and been betrayed. He believed in love – all his life he had – but now it was likely to be too late”. This rather reductive view is relegated by Bowman himself just pages later as he realises that it is, in fact, never too.

All That Is is a lyrical meditation on the human condition, replete with languorously poetic turns cut with fastidious precision. The book’s key themes evoke universal interconnections, between love and death, loneliness and companionship drawing the conclusion that one’s fate depends almost entirely upon oneself. Yet the book is much more than a romantic allegory, All That Is also deals with a number of other topics such as identity, social exclusion and inclusive alienation. The latter are diligently rooted in the plot. Bowman feels an outsider, an interloper at Harvard and a stranger in his American-Jewish social circles despite being inexorably linked to his friends and acquaintances by a shared cultural heritage. Bowman is the vessel through which Slater channels the search for one’s identity, in and out of relationships. And in this Bowman is uncompromising, refusing to settle into a cosy existence by way marriage, electing to teeter on the peripheries of the in-crowd. “He might have married one [a Jewish woman] and become part of that world, slowly being accepted into it like a convert,” Salter writes of Bowman’s decision, “He might have lived among them in that practical family density that had been formed by the ages, been a familiar presence at seder tables, birthday gathering, funerals, wearing a hat and throwing a handful of earth into the grave. He felt some regret at not having done it, of not having had the chance. On the other hand, he could not really imagine it. He would never have belonged.”

This sense of otherness is a motif throughout the book. Bowman’s search for a place in the world is defined by his romantic failures, which continuously distort and destabilise his sense of self until he finds love once again. All That Is is characterised by Salter’s trademarks, his geometric prose, his tacit force, decisive authority and erotic realism. Sex lends the book much of its thematic unity both individually and in relation to Salter’s other works. On occasion, the amorous liaisons lack the poetry of the more commonplace scenes but Salter redeems himself through those. Speaking in a recent interview, the writer said that he “will never again write a book in which there’s a single sexual act”. This might prove to be an interesting exercise if, indeed, Salter decides to write another book. Certainly, his “energy and desire” seem to be intact as is his lifelong passion for flying. Like his protagonist, Salter was a military man, a US air force pilot, who gave it up to pursue a career in the literary world. This inevitably invites one to draw comparisons between the two men, but while Bowman often appears finite and fallible Salter does not. He commands attention with the inimitable certainty of a master storyteller, a literary  frotteur, a man who likes to “rub words in his hand”  but one who never minces them.

The Paris Review | James Salter 

Guardian | James Salter

Publisher: Picador
Publication Date: May 2013
Hardback:  304 pages
ISBN: 978-1447238249

Yet Another Top 10 List – Smutty Books

Emmanuelle_Story of the Eye_The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman_The Ripening Seed_Querelle_Sexus_Lolita_Delta of Venus_Story of O_Philosophy in the Boudoir

After yet another night on the town and a variety of noxious alcoholic medleys I woke up this morning feeling malcontent, maladroit and morbidly hungover. I was going to – very audaciously – vow to stay off the booze for the remainder of February but then realised it was Valentine’s Day and I would certainly need something 20 proof and above to get me through it. That and some books, perhaps, of the smutty variety for it is somehow both appropriate and inappropriate to be reading smut on this merchant-made capitalist abomination of days.

So in case you’re feeling a little bit like me here’s a list of some literary smut, arranged in alphabetic order by the first letter of the writer’s surname. The list is by no means comprehensive and reflects my own reading preferences and prejudices. So, friends, say NO to Hallmark and Cadbury and go buy one of the below! Or tell me what would be on your list.

Emmanuelle by Emmanuelle Arsan
“What’s beautiful is to refuse to let yourself stop, sit down, fall asleep, or look back.”

Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
“We did not lack modesty—on the contrary—but something urgently drove us to defy modesty together as immodestly as possible.”

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter
“I desire therefore I exist.”

The Ripening Seed by Colette
“One would have to be a raving lunatic to try to find out what a woman wants, or to imagine that she knows herself!”

Querelle of Brest by Jean Genet
“When we see life, we call it beautiful. When we see death, we call it ugly. But it is more beautiful still to see oneself living at great speed, right up to the moment of death.”

Sexus by Henry Miller
“To love or be loved is no crime. The really criminal thing is to be make a person believe that he or she is the only one you could ever love.”

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin
“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.”

Story of O by Pauline Réage
“Finally a woman confesses! Confess what? What women never allowed themselves to confess!”

Philosophy in the Boudoir or The Immoral Mentors by Marquis de Sade
“Nature, who for the perfect maintenance of the laws of her general equilibrium, has sometimes need of vices and sometimes of virtues, inspires now this impulse, now that one, in accordance with what she requires.”

Source: GoodReads, Wikipedia

Charles Nicholl: Dazzling the reader with his prose and infectious curiosity

Traces Remain by Charles Nicholl

“I have always found the details of history more interesting,” writes Charles Nicholl in the preface to his new collection of essays, “or anyway more evocative, than the larger perspectives of History.” And this is precisely what Nicholl explores in Traces Remain – the overlooked and forgotten fragments and people that have failed to make it into the textbooks. The 25 essays gathered here originally appeared in a number of literary publications and were guided, according to the writer, by the general principal of “poking around,” libraries and archives “re-examining existing evidence and then trying to ask new questions about it,” sometimes “prospecting”. Despite his seemingly casual air Nicholl is meticulous in his research, taking on the role of a painstakingly assiduous detective as he trawls through the decades, searching for clues to untold mysteries. One of these is the legend of Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett, an intrepid Amazonian explorer described as a “man in hand-to-hand combat with the wilderness,” who disappeared over 80 years ago. Fawcett was accompanied on the doomed expedition by his son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell. His last dispatch was dated 25th May 1925 and was sent from Dead Horse Camp, exactly what happened to the three men after that has never been established although some answers have been provided by the subsequent rescue missions. The first and most famous of these was led by Commander George Miller Dyott in 1928, who learned that Fawcett had “played his ukulele for some Xingu Indians a few days before vanishing in the Mato Grosso jungle” and was most likely massacred by the Nahukwa tribe, who in turn blamed the notoriously fierce rival group Saya. “Despite the staring-eyed fantasies of his later years,” writes Nicholl, “he [Fawcett] was in many ways an admirable Englishman, austere, laconic, honourable, and incredibly tough, playing with a straight bat on some of the stickiest wickets the planet could provide.”

Strange and curious personages like Fawcett feature throughout this fascinating book. Among them is a poet by the name of Thomas Coryate, once the “butt for courtly wits and poets like John Donne and Ben Jonson,” he was also a “courageous traveller,” who in 1608 covered 1,975 miles in just over five months and visited 45 cities around Europe. Coryate wrote a book about his voyages called Crudities – loosely alluding to “raw experience” – which managed to make waves alongside such literary triumphs as William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist – on stage at the time. Then there’s an English pseudoscientist, clairvoyant and con-man by the name of Edward Kelly, who fooled Bohemian royalty with his  “esoteric flannel,” and later died in suspicious circumstances most likely at the orders of Emperor Rudolph II. “The usual telling of the story is that Rudolph ceased to believe in him,” says Nicholl, “Kelly’s promises, particularly with regard to heaps of transmuted gold pouring into the treasury, had proved empty.”  Kelly’s story is surpassed only by that of another con-man, adventurer, French scribbler, one time heavy-weight boxer and nephew to Oscar Wilde’s wife, Constance, Arthur Cravan. He was briefly married to avant-garde poet Mina Loy who had his child and outlived him by several decades. When asked toward the end of her life what had been her happiest instances Loy said: “Every moment spent with Arthur Cravan. ‘And the unhappiest?’ The rest of the time.” He is thought to have drowned off the coast of Mexico around 1918, although according to the most recent theory, Nicholl says, Cravan reinvented himself as the no less mysterious author B. Traven, who went on to write several hard-bitten Mexico based novels.

Along with the mysterious fates of the aforementioned men, Traces Remain includes two murders cases, two discoveries of unmarked graves, one missing Shakespeare play and one very enigmatic portrait recently found in Herefordshire. The latter is a work of art believed to have been painted by Frederick Hurlstone, its subject may or may not be Lord Byron in the guise of one of his own fictional heroes called Manfred. Yet, as Nicholl explains, despite numerous authentications the sitter and artist cannot be conclusively verified. “Does it look like Byron?” he says, speaking of the portrait after seeing photographs of it, “To answer this, one has to ask another question: what did Byron look like? Byron’s appearance changed all the time – because different artists saw him differently and because he was a great believer in diets and regimes, and his weight fluctuated by as much as four stone. Various portraits show around Byrons and thin Byrons, Byron’s with moustache, with mutton-chop whiskers, in costume, in uniform, in Greek helmet, in his dressing gown and so on.” In fact, there are over 40 portraits of the Romantic poet and albeit this latest one cannot be authenticated,  Nicholl says, “the sad-looking man in the fur hat deserves further investigation”. This kind of uncertainly –  a theme throughout the book  –  is one of its pitfalls and in a general sense the trouble with writing about historical marginalia.

Many of the tales within the collection are about the obscure who crossed paths with those that made history. One of them is of a woman for whom William Hazlitt divorced his wife and wrote “with alarming frankness,” as Nicholl puts it, Liber Amoris. The thinly disguised fictional account of Hazlitt’s love bares no resemblance to any other of the writer’s works, and was once considered a thing of great embarrassment. It also caused a bit of a scandal despite being published anonymously, and while Hazlitt managed to recover from it almost instantly being a bullish “spiky” and “self-absorbed” man that he was, Sarah Walker’s reputation as a “dowdy trollop” and “one man’s amour fou”  prevailed. The turn of her fate is difficult to trace, says Nicholl, but all evidence indicates that Hazlitt’s love was unrequited and that Walker went on to marry and have a son. It is most likely she died of “old age” perhaps, the writer speculates, thinking of those “distant days of her youth, and that strange, hectic man who loved her so passionately, and wanted to marry her, and ended up marking her life and her name with the taint of scandal that would never quite go away”. Nicholl goes from subject to subject with ease and authority, from talking about interpersonal relationships between English poets and European dignitaries to Leonardo Da Vinci’s relationship with his art, which is explored  here through the painter’s Milanese notebooks. Unbeknown to many, Nicholl says, Da Vinci was also a keen writer or rather a “writer-down of things: a recorder of observations, a pursuer of data, an explorer of thoughts, an inscriber of lists and memoranda”.

In describing the famous Italian artist, Nicholl also succeeds in describing something of himself for he is very much a modern day polymath – a historian, a scholar, a travel writer and a sleuth looking for greatness in the neglected and the ordinary. Speaking on the subject to the Guardian, Nicholl recently said that he has always aimed to present in his work the “the realities of life as it was lived by that person” with a sense of complete authenticity. “There’s one world that you know these people very well from,” he explained, “so let’s have a look at the other one, at the other, dark side of the moon, as it were: Marlowe as spy, Rimbaud as traveller or explorer and gun-runner, Shakespeare as lodger rather than great playwright.” It is this desire to construct a comprehensive picture of someone that makes Traces Remain  such a consummately engrossing read, full of thrilling details, shady characters, legends and mysteries from all four corners of the world. Much of which Nicholl has travelled himself, after being given tickets to Martinique as part of the prize for the Daily Telegraph Young Writer of the Year award which he won in 1972. He has since travelled most of the globe, Europe, South America, parts of the Middle East. One of the essays in the book is about the quest to find Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria, the beautiful and rich “capital of memory,” as described in the eponymous Quartet. “Only fragments remain of Classical Alexandria,” Nicholl tells us sadly, “but its more recent past can be savoured just by wondering aimlessly through the streets, past shabby villas and Rococo facades and dusty brick-a-brac shops. The city seems like an aging dandy fallen on hard times.” Every essay in the collections has something interesting, worthwhile and amusing to impart, whether it be about a person, an artifact or a city. Nicholl is a man who makes history come alive, dazzling the reader with his prose and his infectious curiosity.

Guardian | Charles Nicholl

Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: December 2012
Paperback: 336 pages
ISBN: 9780140296822

Peter Ackroyd: The temperate biographer

The Victorians were a peculiar lot and no one more so than Wilkie Collins. His globular head was too large for his frame, his legs a little too short, he liked to ride the omnibus, chronically complained of nervous maladies, always wore a “florid fur coat,” and a “rakishly tied Belcher scarf,” bickered with waiters over pourboires and disparaged what he called “the claptrap morality of the 19th century”. The latter is, perhaps, what distinguishes him most from his contemporaries as Peter Ackroyd points out in his biography of this most “sweetest tempered of all the Victorian novelists”. A progenitor of the “popular novel” Collins left a large and varied fictional output, upon which Ackroyd draws in order to show how the writer’s life is inexorably intertwined with his work. This line of narrative is both potentially lucrative and illuminating yet in this case derogated by the biographer’s deadpan reportage style. Collins’ most intimate relationships, apart from that with Charles Dickens, are largely unexplored and given little sustained appraisal. Certainly, his family and women make an appearance, but Dickens is almost always at the fore of the page whether he is lamenting Collins’ choice of mistress, his slatternly comportment or offering grudging praise.

For a while Collins was Dickens’ preferred companion, with the two men often socialising, holidaying and collaborating together. But by the end of Dickens’ life, Collins was so disenchanted with his former mentor he politely declined to attend his funeral. The cause of the fissures in their relationship is unknown or at least undocumented here. Yet once bound together by success, a mutually assiduous work ethic and a somewhat questionable reputation, the two men eventually parted ways. Ackroyd deliberates on this fact by stipulating that Collins may have taken offense to Dickens’ professional haughtiness, but one cannot be sure. What is well documented, however, is that Dickens once speaking of his friend in a literary capacity said: “Collins was a master of plot rather than of character.” Ackroyd elaborates further suggesting Collins was “an adult in craft and an adolescent in sentiment”.  But if so a rather rebellious one, who wrote about the breaking down of class barriers, the inequality of marriage laws and women who defied 19th century stereotypes. Collins was intent upon “exploring the female sensibility in ways foreign to other Victorian novelists, and he created heroines quite unlike those of his male contemporaries”. Something else he was largely unsurpassed in were his plots, the “perfectly calibrated mechanisms,” which both fascinated and beleaguered readers as they periodically agonized to find out what happens next.

Ackroyd’s work, unlike that of his subject, lacks precisely this quality. And, for all the book’s outward elegance and promise, its success is stymied by the narrative’s perfunctory haste and the dearth of dramatic action and climax. This is made particularly conspicuous because Collins’ highly-wrought personal life contained incident and intrigue in abundance. As an expert of clandestine relationships and cloaked identities in his work, he covered his own tracks with equal skill. Collins had two illegitimate lifelong affairs, with women he refused to marry, once describing the institution as a “ridiculous dilemma”. His maverick views made their way into every one of his books, which contain cogent and sustained repudiations of the status quo. And this is where Ackroyd thrives, in his devotion to show parallels between Collins’ life and his work as he points out that Basil, for example, “alludes to an unhappy love affair” based on Collins’ own reminiscences; The Woman in White is set in Hampstead Green where the young writer and his family lived in 1826; and Hide and Seek depicts the cheap delights of a town “suffused with glitter and gas…the chop-houses, the gin shops, the cookshops, the burlesque shows” which Collins knew quite intimately. Ackroyd excels at joining up the dots to show a comprehensive picture of how Collins’ life enriched his work, but fails to make it as extraordinary or as interesting as it really was.

Speaking of himself Collins once said that he was “averse to respectability in all its forms”. This was at great variance with the character of his father, the minor painter William Collins, who was said to be “the epitome of respectability and propriety”. His liberated attitude then had to have come from his mother, Harriet Geddes, who was a “woman of remarkable mental culture”. The writer did, however, like his father, “possess a painter’s eye” which, as Ackroyd points out, he later used in writing books that came to “resemble a series of pictures rather than a sequence of scenes” demonstrating great “sympathy between character and landscape”. Not only that, Collins had a knack for elaborate and ingenious story lines, which kept the public “reading, reading, reading”. In doing so, he established a new precedent, which saw the first edition of The Woman in White sell-out on publication day, quickly prompting merchandise lines and nation-wide fan clubs. It is now rather strange to think that the “novelist who invented sensation” was originally “consigned to a career in commerce,” stranger yet, that this once much loved and much admired writer is now seldom remembered.

There was a time when Collins was said to have had “the brightest future” of all his contemporaries, and yet today his legacy occupies a marginal place in English letters. Ackroyd’s biography doesn’t attempt to explain why that is, or why this fine writer, whose work was once  a “spring of the English detective mystery,” has been largely reduced to a second-rate scribe. Ackroyd does, however, suggests to the contrary saying Collins is “still a living presence in English literature,” which is debatable at best, even if his works remain “powerful and ingenious, striking and persuasive”.  William Wilkie Collins was born on 8th January 1834 in Marlybone, London. Soon after, the family moved to Hampstead Green and was enlarged by the arrival of Wilkie’s younger brother, Charles Allston Collins. By his own account, Collins’ childhood was unexceptional if  happy. Collins took to travelling around Europe from an early age, where he received much of his informal education through experiences “quite different from that of middle-class England”. Stimulated and transformed by these experiences he transferred them onto paper and “delighted in violating Victorian convention”. Sadly, one would never guess from the temperate biographical account on offer.

Don DeLillo: A valiant and veracious postmodernist

To celebrate its 40th anniversary Picador has recently reissued a selection of classics, among them White Noiseby Don DeLillo. The work, originally published in 1985, won the National Book Award and established DeLillo as one of the most promising contemporary American writers. Today, it remains one of his best books, which gives a valiant and veracious picture of “human dread”, as well as of the horrors and ecstasies of life. The book also contains other signature postmodernist themes, such as the disintegration of traditional value systems; the homogenisation of culture; consumerism; capitalism; and spiritual exiguity. But above all – and this is what distinguishes DeLillo’s skill from that of other writers – White Noise is a work that prompts the reader to contemplate – with prodigious empathy for the characters – death both on an individual and a universal scale. A perilous subject, perhaps, but one DeLillo thinks innate in the “concentrated writing” that, according to him, almost always tends to “end in some kind of reflection on dying”.

Born in 1936 to Italian immigrant parents, DeLillo was brought up in the Bronx, New York, among a large Catholic-Italian community. “I think there is a sense of last things in my work that probably comes from a Catholic childhood,” DeLillo once said, speaking of his upbringing and religion as elements in his fiction, “For a Catholic, nothing is too important to discuss or think about, because he’s raised with the idea that he will die any minute now and that if he doesn’t live his life in a certain way this death is simply an introduction to an eternity of pain.” Monotheism is a mere spectre in White Noise, but the notion of death and its eerie omnipresence is ubiquitous. It presents itself as early as page 17, when Jack Gladney (the book’s protagonist and “chairman of the department of Hitler studies” in a prestigious small town college), speaking of his wife, Babette, and their marriage, explains that the question of “who will die first” inevitably comes up now and then. “I wonder if the thought itself is part of the physical love,” he continues, “a reverse Darwinism that awards sadness and fear to the survivor.” This line of narrative about the order of death between the two spouses, becomes the book’s ideological bloodline, multitudinous and nuanced, shaping its course and direction.

Jack and Babette live in an oneiric Midwestern town with four children – Heinrich, Steffie, Denise and Wilder – from their previous marriages. On the surface they seem to cohabit in blissful domesticity, secure in the knowledge of their mutual love. “Babette and I tell each other everything,” Jack explains, “when I say I believe in complete disclosure I don’t mean it cheaply, as anecdote sport of shallow revelation. It is a form of self-renewal and a gesture of custodial trust. Love helps us develop an identity secure enough to allow itself to be placed in another’s care and thoughtful regard, turned then in the moonlight in our pale hands, spoken deep, into the night about fathers and mothers, childhood, friendships, awakenings, old loves, old fears (except fear of death). No detail must be left out, not even a dog with ticks or a neighbour’s boy who ate an insect on a dare. The smell of pantries, the sense of empty afternoons, the feel of things as they rained on our skin, things as facts and passions, the feel of pain, loss, disappointment, breathless delight. In these night recitations we create a space between things as we felt them at the time and as we speak them now. This is the space reserved for irony, sympathy and fond amusement, the means by which we rescue ourselves from the past.” What Jack fails to realise, however, is that it is not the past that represents the gravest danger but the future.

Jack mistakenly believes that Babette wants to die first as “she would feel unbearably sad and lonely” without him, but in fact her fear of death is far deeper and more crippling than his. So much so that it drives her to adultery in exchange for an experimental pharmaceutical drug called Dylar thought to quell thoughts of mortality, which in turn drives Jack to plot a murder. And thus the ostensibly happy familial union begins to unravel. This plot-line is juxtaposed with another of an airborn toxic threat, which sees the whole town evacuate for fear of annihilation. In weaving the two together, DeLillo compels the reader to confront the idea of death both relatively and intimately, a twist few other writers would take a chance on. White Noise is studded with typically postmodernist elements, consumerist establishments – supermarkets, airports, motels – in which “everything is concealed in symbolism, hidden in veils of mystery and layers of cultural material,” –  the ever-increasing presence of the media, over-information and the sinister duplicity of technological developments, which both pose a fatal threat as well as alleviate it.  Yet all these, although pertinent to the story, are also somehow merely secondary to the Gladney family’s trials and tribulations, their quotidian worries, fears, accomplishments, to “over-closeness, the heat of being”, and to the white noise of existence. And everything about the Gladneys appears authentic, captivating, from their seemingly aimless and inconsequential conversations to their choice of food, from their rational anxieties to their irrational and fractured complicity.

DeLillo captures the state of modern life, the society of the spectacle and the notion of the future as the here-and-now with considerable deft. Not only that, he manages to create a neoteric social satire, funny, plangent, absurd, terrifying and skillfully evocative of modern-day life. A life for which, according to one of Jack’s colleagues, we spend years trying to “devise a shape, a plan” – a plan which is in itself redundant, because, as the book’s resonant refrain suggests, “all plots tend toward death”. And while we wait for this dreaded day, we “wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly coloured goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cult of the famous and the dead,” in this age, our age, of the apocalyptic and the ordinary, rich in magic and dread.

Publisher: Picador 
Publication Date: February 2012
Paperback: 400 pages
ISBN: 99781447202806

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