Moving from First Person to Third: Narrative Technique in DeLillo’s White Noise

American literature has evolved extensively over the course of the history of the republic, from the Puritan sermons which emphasized the importance of a solid individual relationship between the individual self and the omnipotent God to the parody of relativism we find in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. One of the recurring concerns of American fiction, though by no means restricted to American writing, is the position of the self with regard to the other, whether manifest as God, nature, the community, or another individual. Since at least the Modernist period, writers have explored the definitions and relationships of the self formally as well as thematically and narratively. Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise carries on this particularly American obsession of the troublesome question of the self, its boundaries, its supremacy, and its very existence. Through his innovative use of his protagonist Jack Gladney as the novel’s narrator, DeLillo creates a fictional system which threatens to dissolve at every turn of the page. In offering a view of contemporary culture through the eyes of Jack Gladney, DeLillo creates a metafictional document that shifts the focus of the reader’s attention from mass culture to a single individual’s experience of that culture. Thus, the question is not so much the semblance of the fictional world of White Noise to the reader’s experience of reality, but the mimetic function of Jack Gladney’s narrative.

DeLillo’s narrative technique first appears in his first novel, Americana, published in 1971. In this novel, DeLillo discovers the power of moving “from first person consciousness to third person,” of moving from the subject position to the object position (DeLillo 1971, 270). Keesey has commented on “the dream of entering the third person singular” prominent in DeLillo’s fiction (16). Frank Lentricchia has written in detail of the postmodern narrative technique of movement from a first-person subjectivity to a third-person objectivity as integral to the American experience. This distancing of the reader from the reality of the novel has several functions. By telling a story through the eyes of Gladney, we experience contemporary mass culture, DeLillo’s favorite theme, as Gladney does; we experience the same (or similar) disillusion and confusion that Gladney does and we share in Gladney’s distancing of himself from his experience. In this way, the narrator’s state of mind is a mimetic reproduction of anyone in the reader’s reality. The objectified subject technique that DeLillo employs also serves as the site of DeLillo’s further explorations of character, perception, and action. By treating a character who treats himself and his experience as an object, DeLillo can cast his characters into roles not mimetically coherent.

The identity and characteristics of the narrator in the novel evoke a number of questions of critical importance to our understanding of the whole work and the interaction of its parts. Rarely has a work of fiction so utterly interweaved the relationship between narrator and story narrated so neatly and successfully. The choice of Jack Gladney as the novel’s narrator, called “DeLillo’s most important formal decision” (Lentricchia 93), literally casts the entire work in a new light, shifting emphasis from such areas of technology, mortality, and consumer culture to such broader literary concerns as mimesis, form, and perspective. Jack Gladney’s “objectified subjectivity” points to an understanding of identity based on the sum of one’s work and/or products or as an amalgam of data, as opposed to identity based on essential characteristics. Human life becomes one’s “whole data profile” (140). The reader only knows what the narrator (Gladney) narrates. The narrative voice of the novel, apparently Gladney though some critics believe this assumption is not entirely free of ambiguity, is cold and mechanical, continuing the naturalistic tradition of objective reflections of reality that dominates the history of fiction. We might understand the novel better if we recognize Jack Gladney as a fictional construct, born of and defined by language, and the novel itself as the literary space in which DeLillo explores the limits of the self-conscious character. A creature of DeLillo’s imagination, Gladney is placed in a likewise fictional system of language and laws, namely the impersonal world of mass consumer capitalism and technology-mediated reality. The opening chapter of the novel sets the tone for the effect of DeLillo’s use of narrator. In the course of two pages, Gladney uses a catalogue of the common possessions of the typical American student: the luggage, clothing, eating habits, technological gadgets, leisure activities, and reproductive technologies. He recount his position as an observer of “this spectacle every September for twenty-one years” (3). He describes the spiritual and ontological condition of parents, suggests the philosophical sham of the area’s architecture, and recounts the history of Hitler Studies in America (3-4). As narrator, Jack Gladney believes he is conveying an accurate and clear rendering of his experience of 1980s pop culture and technology. Like many other of DeLillo’s novels, White Noise is famous for its abundance of lists of objects, reminiscent of Whitman’s cataloguing in Leaves of Grass. The last sentence of the last paragraph reads: “On telephone poles all over town there are homemade signs concerning lost dogs and cats, sometimes in the handwriting of a child” (4). Here, an otherwise sentimental picture of childhood innocence is rendered lifeless and cold.

The mediation of Gladney’s perspective is made suspect with regard to its realism by the intervention of DeLillo as author. Full of the artifacts of contemporary culture, White Noise reads like a poststructural fetish object made up an endless series of self-reproducing objects. DeLillo manipulates language in order to create (or sustain) the illusion that reality has meaning that can be understood in terms of discrete and containable sets of information. Several critics have noted that such collections of non sequitar sentences, phrases, and themes suggests a tension in the narrator’s response to his observations. Lentricchia describes such formal features (staccato-like sentences with little subjective interpretation) as “terrorized punctuation, a sort of tip of the withheld subjective life of Jack Gladney . . .” (98).

At times, DeLillo seems to be writing non-fictional prose. The writing approaches the impersonal stance of scientific writing in its detailed observations and objective interpretations. At the beginning of chapter four, Gladney delivers his observations on people’s eating habits. Then, he goes to look for Babette at the local high school where she jogs. When he sees his wife, we understand the connection between his vague, seemingly disconnected speech about the eating habits of people and his wife’s interest in exercising. His objective stance ambiguously renders events and thoughts that would appear obvious and clear were they expressed in the traditional first-person consciousness. An extended quote from one of DeLillo’s most avid critical commentators, Frank Lentricchia, will set the tone for the discussion of perspective in White Noise:
“Like Melville’s Ishmael, Twain’s Huck, and Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, DeLillo’s Jack Gladney is a sharp observer and commentator who at the same time participates – often to the reader’s bewilderment – in an action which fatally shapes him, so that he will not understand with total lucidity what it is he observes, or who he himself really is, or the extent to which he, Jack Gladney, is the less than self-possessed voice of a culture that he would subject to criticism and satire. The major consequence of the book’s materials being filtered through a character named Gladney rather than directly through a writer named DeLillo is a complexity beyond the narrator’s ken: a terrible complicity in the horrors narrated that may be the real point of the writer’s (not Gladney’s) discomforting perspective.” (92)

Throughout the narrative, DeLillo uses metafictional devices to further separate his narrator from his story. After receiving cloudy details of his impending death, Gladney struggles to decipher meaning from the accumulation of data that apparently makes up this sentence. “It is when death,” he observes, “is rendered graphically, is televised so to speak, that you sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself. A network of symbols has been introduced, an entire awesome technology wrested from the gods. It makes you feel like a stranger in your own dying” (142).

There are moments, however, in which the narrator’s anxiety threatens Gladney’s objectivity and he struggles to conceal the emotional responses he has to his own reported situation: “In my own mind, in real terms, I feel relatively sound, pending confirmation” (277). Gladney feels uneasy relying on his own interpretation (or is it expression?) of his own condition. A series of technologically-themed utterances interrupt the narrative at various points: “A radio said: ‘Hog futures have declined in sympathy, adding bearishness to that market'” (149); “A voice on the loudspeaker said: ‘Kleenex Softique, your truck’s blocking the entrance'” (36); “The radio said: ‘Excesses of salt, phosphorus, magnesium'” (236). Technology has a voice and is indeed a cold parody of Gladney’s narrative voice. These utterances, speech acts with no perceptible speaker, duplicate the distancing between Gladney’s consciousness as narrator and his speech acts. The most obvious evidence of the narrative tensions of the novel are the recurrent trilogs. The most common interpretation for these linguistic anomalies is perhaps best expressed by Frank Lentricchia:
“Just how far down and in media culture has penetrated is illustrated by the novel’s formally most astonishing moment – an effort to represent the irruption of the unconscious – variations on which are played throughout. A deep refrain – like a line of poetic chant, with strong metrical structure – is placed by itself in privileged typographical space, part of no paragraph or dialogue, without quotes and related to nothing that comes before or after: a break in the text never reflected upon because Jack never hearts it” (102).

I would argue for a different interpretation of these phrases. As they are separate from the surrounding text by meaning and reference, they can not be said to be Gladney’s “words.” Anyone who would argue that these “utterances” are the irruption of Gladney’s unconscious should refresh their understanding of psychoanalytic theory for the unconscious is utterly unknowable and therefore unidentifiable. We literally could not know the unconscious if it smacked us in the head. The phrases appear whenever Gladney approaches too close to his own limits in the fiction. When Gladney and Babette contemplate which one of them will die first, Gladney struggles with his own fear of death in terms of “the emptiness, the sense of cosmic darkness” (100). At this point, the phrase “MasterCard, Visa, American Express” disrupts the narrative. Gladney says “I know my limits. I am willing to settle for less” (225). Approaching a limit is a clue to a conflict in narrative voice. These trilogs are a metafictional device, the author’s intrusion into the reality of the novel. By scattering these phrases throughout the novel, DeLillo not only renders his figures even more recognizable as fictional creations of language, but identifies himself with the mysterious transcendence that the characters, especially Jack Gladney, sense in their world. In a word, DeLillo is the novel’s God. As the narrator of Ratner’s Star tells us, life is “a function whose limits were determined by one’s perspectives. . .” (3). When Gladney reaches his limits, DeLillo steps in.

Death as a philosophical and literary subject is a site where narrative tensions are explored. Death is the ultimate limit to all possible knowledge and Gladney recognizes this fact. In chapter 5, he jerks awake from sleep, identifying this rather clinically as “the myclonic jerk” (18) and wonders how this jerk compares to the sensation of death. Terrified of death, Gladney tries to distance himself from even the thought of his own mortality. His narrative technique is to distance the narrative itself, which is the story of his death, or the story of the transformation of his feelings toward death. Gladney, in his capacity as the conduit by which the story is revealed to the reader, is different from Jack Gladney the protagonist in this story. This separation is noted in several places, but succinctly phrased early on: “I didn’t know how I felt and wanted a clue” (79). Contemporary humanity feelings of isolation, confusion, and randomness find their analogue in the second section of the novel. The incoherence of postmodern existence is a response to and a cause of the plot’s lack of coherence at various points. For Lentricchia, “plotlessness is itself a controlled effect” (97).

In the final chapter of Section I, Gladney focuses on death. He looks at these people in the obituaries who have died. He begins to connect his narrative as the record of his death with the possibility of his own living. “The power of numbers is never more evident than when we use them to speculate on the time of our dying” (99). The power of words is also never more evident. Gladney, a scholar by profession, possesses a naturally curious and inquisitive mind and is compelled to explore the possibility of his own demise. His all too human personality denies this pursuit and DeLillo steps in as Gladney’s metaficitonal superego to obstruct this search for peace through knowledge. Gladney is so intrigued by the utter unknowability of death, its mystery and invisibility, because death can not fully contain or express in his objectifying language. He is threatened by death because knowing death forces him to confront the terrifying possibility of truly knowing the self.

The “untellable” reflects the possibilities inherent in a consciousness of presence in a frightening world that makes an objective distance appear safer. For DeLillo, the first person consciousness expresses the unique and positive potentiality of being human. Gladney often discuss the future and the possibility that one of them will die and leave their partner alone. Their conversation turns personal and intimate, intruding on his level of comfort. Suddenly, another trilog appears: “MasterCard, Visa, American Express” (100). Likewise, Gladney pursues the study of Hitler as a means of objectifying his subjective experience of his own mortality, “hoping that identification with one of the world’s greatest aggressors will make him less afraid of his own death” (Keesey 133). The areas of reality which lie beyond our limitations of knowledge are most broadly and immediately expressed by the metaphor initiated by the novel’s title. “If the phenomenon of white noise serves as DeLillo’s metaphor for the way in which technology covers over an existential perception of finitude . . ., it also functions as his trope for finitude itself, something just beyond ‘the range of human apprehension,’ below our daily level of consciousness, ‘sound all around,’ ‘uniform, white'” (Moses 81).

The second section of the book, titled “The Airborne Toxic Event,” centers on escape. As do many of his contemporary postmodern critics, Lentricchia describes DeLillo’s formal techniques with regard to global political structures and their subversion. For him, the creation of the floating death cloud is “DeLillo’s dark comic rebuke of first world hubris, an expression of a controlling structural irony that definitely subverts the conventional critical distinction of character and setting. Setting, in this book, is character become a runaway cancer, intention out of control” (Lentricchia 103). The novel’s setting, the strangely passive Gladney family’s fleeing from the airborne toxic event, further allows for DeLillo’s exploration of a character separated from his own consciousness. In the midst of this most intense threat to personal, emotional, and philosophical integrity, Jack Gladney’s roles as father, caretaker, and guardian of his family tribe are seriously challenged. In fulfilling his duties, he offers his own body to certain death. He makes of his own body, his own “self,” an object for sacrifice, and DeLillo again satisfies his need to explore this particularly American phenomenon.

Dominated by a rambling structure which suggests the panic and disorder of his situation, Gladney proves to be an unreliable narrator during the airborne toxic event and in his subsequent actions. “In White Noise,” Lentricchia writes, “disconnection is the narrative mark of a mind taking pleasure in its meandering progression, a mind that avoids causal coherence by skipping from topic to topic . . .” (98). For Gladney, a phrase like “Who will die first?” becomes as trivial as “Where are the car keys?” He says, “It ends a sentence, prolongs a glance between us . . .” (15). Questions of mortality, so emotionally evocative and intensely personal, read like simple television advertising jingoes, devoid of emotional substance and expression. Gladney’s very name, perhaps the most basic and compact expression of his identity, is a signifier without the necessary signified: “I am the false character that follows the name around” (17).

Gladney’s constant repetition of his plan to murder Willie Mink in Chapter 37 speaks less of his passionate desire to avenge his honor and protect his wife’s honor than his desire to provide structure to his disorganized sense of self. The character Gladney attempts to construct the self that the author DeLillo has left out. Yet, even this self-preserving strategy breaks down. As Gladney replays his plans for the murder in his mind, that is, on the page, we notice several glaring inconsistencies. Compare, for example, these three “tellings” of the plots:
“Here is my plan. Drive past the scene several times, park some distance from the scene, go back on foot, locate Mr. Gray under his real name or an alias, shoot him three times in the viscera for maximum pain, clear the weapon of prints, place the weapon in the victim’s staticky hand, find a crayon or lipstick tube and scrawl a cryptic suicide note on the full-length mirror, take the victim’s supply of Dylar tablets, slip back to the car, proceed to the expressway entrance, head east toward Blacksmith, get off at the old river road, park Stover’s car in Old Man Treadwell’s garage, shut the garage door, walk home in the rain and the fog.” (304)

“This was my plan. Enter unannounced, gain his confidence, wait for an unguarded moment, take out the Zumwalt, shoot him three times in the viscera for maximum slowness of agony, put the gun in his hand to suggest a lonely man’s suicide, write semicoherent things on the mirror, leave Stover’s car in Treadwell’s garage” (306).

“My plan was this. Swivel my head to look into rooms, put him at his ease, wait for an unguarded moment, blast him in the gut three times for maximum efficiency of pain, take his Dylar, get off at the river road, shut the garage door, walk home in the rain and fog” (307).

The “plan” is repeated at least four more times. These passages are significant in their avoidance of the first-person voice. In the place where the first-person voice seems most appropriate, the recounting of one’s plans for murder, Jack Gladney the person is absent. In his place, we find only language. From this point forward, Gladney “saw things new” (304). At this point in the story, DeLillo, as the author behind the narrator made manifest through his technique, becomes the focus of our critical attention. If Jack Gladney doesn’t even know his own mind, who else can? Gladney suffers from sensory overload, all the more meaningful given that DeLillo has given him all the sensory output he has.

DeLillo’s narrative style focuses almost obsessively on an issue which has dominated literary theory since before the time of Aristotle and Plato: mimesis. The novel reiterates the common postmodern “belief” that image is the only reality. “The town of Blacksmith,” Keesey writes, “has no blacksmith, nor does it contain any simple craftsmen whose work brings them in direct contact with the natural world, as a blacksmith’s does in the making and fitting of horseshoes. The town’s name is not a sign that points to an existing reality; instead, it stands in for that reality, pretending to a contact with nature that the townspeople no longer actually experience” (136). Words and things do not correspond in any fixed manner. The town’s name, Gladney’s name, the occupation and purpose the German nun: DeLillo repeatedly emphasizes the emptiness of the relationship between subjective experience and how that experience is told. “He has tried to communicate through White Noise a warning about the loss of reality through representation, the danger to which people subject themselves when they allow the commercial media and technology to determine their world” (Keesey 149-50).

Gladney hears “true, false, and other kinds of news” (129). He does not discriminate between what is true, what is false, and what could be something else. He takes in all perspectives, as would a traditional omniscient narrator. “Throughout the novel, Gladney attempts to keep some ironic, critical, and aesthetic distance between himself and his mass cultural environment. However, his effort to preserve some degree of autonomy and authenticity, to organize a self around something other than consumption of the products of mass culture, is continually compromised. Gladney’s experience registers the typical postmodern predicament in which there is no getting outside of culture, no escape from the systems of signs and images in which we are enmeshed” (Simmons 55-6). Gladney claims that “no one thing was either more or less plausible than any other thing. People are jolted out of reality, we were released from the need to distinguish” (129). But we are not subject to any other character’s perspective. He is no filter at all; he transmits to the reader the lack of filtration in a contemporary commodity culture overwhelmed by images and information.

Despite the oddness of the conversations between the family members, they are essentially pathos-building endeavors, establishing and reinforcing emotional/familial ties. The structure of Gladney household reflects the separation and compartmentalization that so dominates contemporary psychic and cultural structures. A pot pourri of intra-family relationships (fathers, step-fathers, mothers, step-mothers, brothers, step-brothers, sisters, step-sisters, wandering grandfathers, etc.), the Gladney family is the structurally postmodern. Having lost the “natural” connections with unite and maintain family solidarity, the Gladneys create their own ties and sustain their own definitions of “family.” Children are not referred to with the “in-law” or “step” suffixes; they are all family. The connection among these family members is warm and mutually reinforcing. The coldness of their exchanges comes from the Gladney narrative technique, his manner of speaking of his family. By offering his perspective in an objective extreme, Gladney seeks to assert the primacy of his will, an Apollonian endeavor at control of chaotic Dionysiac reality. Gladney also seeks “relief for his death anxiety by overcoming self-consciousness in a selfless love for his family” (Keesey 133).

Faced with his own mortality, Gladney remains almost stoic in his lack of emotional expression in his narrative and in his dialogue with other characters. “I stood with my arms folded, trying to create a picture of an impressive man” (139-40). Significantly, it only when the threat of death enters his mind that he begins to form a picture of himself. He is no longer just a receptacle of information. He begins to reflect upon this information.

The constant shift between a limited experience of self-reflection and the predominant technique of avoidance of subjective investigation leads to a tension in the novel that parallels the tension Gladney feels at the threat of the possibility of his own death and his determination to murder Willie Mink. The two points in the novel in which self-reflection and self-distancing converge are the plot’s most important turning points: Gladney’s exposure to the airborne toxic event and his attempt to remedy his botched attempt at the murder of Mink. Following the episode in the hospital with the German nurse, another signifier without a signified, Gladney finally begins to reconcile himself to his own life as a person and as a narrator in a fiction.

The assortment of roles collectively known as Jack Gladney is the exaggerated expression of the American literary concern with individuality. Like the many great fictional personas that have gone before, Gladney seeks to reconcile himself to his family, to his community, and to his culture. Beyond this, however, DeLillo as the author seeks to reconcile Gladney, and indeed every American who struggles with the complexity of a postmodern world, with his experience as both a subject and object of history. In this sense, White Noise, as a physical text limited only by its front and back covers, becomes the metaphor for that reconciliation.

Works Cited
DeLillo, Don. Americana. New York: Penguin Books, 1971.

– – – – – . Ratner’s Star. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.

– – – – – . White Noise. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Dewey, Joseph. In a Dark Time: The Apocalyptic Temper in the American Novel of the Nuclear Age. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1990.

Keesey, Douglas. Don DeLillo. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

LeClair, Tom and McCaffery, Larry. Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983. pp. 79-90.

Lentricchia, Frank. “Introduction.” New Essays on White Noise. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. pp. 5-21.

– – – – – . “Tales of the Electronic Tribe.” New Essays on White Noise. Ed. Frank Lentricchia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. pp. 87-113.

Moses, Michael Valdez. “Lust Removed form Nature.” New Essays on White Noise. Ed. Frank Lentricchia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. pp. 63-86.

Simmons, Philip E. Deep Surfaces: Mass Culture and History in Postmodern American Fiction. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1997.

White, Patti. Gatsby’s Party: The System and the List in Contemporary Narrative. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1992.

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