By Lemann, Nicholas
The Washington Monthly , Vol. 18
Not long ago the winners of the American Book Awards for 1985 were announced: Don DeLillo's White Noise in fiction and Anthony Lukas's Common Ground in nonfiction. Thankfully for the purveyors of the awards, which have been controversial lately, it was a quiet year. Nobody much complained. Both books were by well-known, veteran authors, both were well received, neither wore the glossy sheen of commercialism. God's in his Heaven; it seems churlish to disrupt the claim. But since the American Book Awards brought it up, it seems to me that when you hold the two books side by side, the work of fiction is clearly the lesser one. Whatever literature is, Common Ground comes closer to it than does White Noise. White Noise is funnier and more adept in its use of language. But reading Common Ground, and not White Noise, one has the feeling this is life; its characters are unruly, proud, idealistic, failure-prone, and deep but also ordinary-like Huckleberry Finn, it presents ordinariness and nobility as residing in everyone By recounting the history of busing in Boston through the detailed history of three families and profiles of several public figures, it creates a rich tableau of American urban life, while also showing how our grandest dreams run aground.
If busing is Lukas's symbol of the American condition, DeLillo's is a large, vague, menacing cloud of toxic waste that invades the sunny middle-American college town where White Noise is set. In Common Ground we're brought down by our inability to be as good, in our social selves, as we think we are Everything is spun out of a dense web of human character and motivation . In White Noise, the enemy is inanimate and extrinsic: the cloud and, in a larger sense, death. There's no reason for DeLillo to explore peoples souls, and by and large, he doesn't.
I don't mean to be dogmatic about what the proper subject matter for great fiction must be. In particular, I want to give a wide berth to two much-discredited criticisms of American literature. The first is that the American novel is too negative in its view of American life. Over the years, critics who believe this have consistently overpraised "affirmative" novels that quickly fade into well-deserved obscurity and have argued against the merits of works of real genius. Today it seems to be a permanent oddity of the freest and richest society in history that it can't produce self-celebratory art-it's a quirk in our national character-but that in no way justifies a dismissal of the grand procession of negative novelists, from Melville and Hawthorne on.
The second criticism is that the American novel isn't doing a good job of producing a realistic portrait of American life. It's true that social realism hasn't been the hallmark of American fiction for the past 40 years, but, as has been proven time and again, strict realism is not the one true path to greatness in the novel. Novelists should be judged on the basis of their skill as novelists, not as reporters, though a reportorial gift has been an important talent of many novelists. Sinclair Lewis and John O'Hara would have been first-rate reporters, but William Faulkner, a much greater novelist, would not.
The case for Common Ground over White Noise can be made without resorting to calling DeLillo either insufficiently affirmative or insufficiently realistic. Common Ground is the much more negative and depressing of the two books in its view of ordinary American life. White Noise is about people who live pleasant (though troubled) lives, and it ends on an upbeat (though strange) note, while Common Ground deals with poverty and with the hopelessness of our major social problem. Lukas is more realistic, but the territory on which DeLillo's novel takes place, Campusland USA, is one he obviously knows well, and he evokes it with great good humor. The problem with White Noise is more that its vision is too easily achieved, too pat. …