Rethinking Postmodern Narrativity: Narrative Construction and Identity Formation in Don DeLillo's White Noise

By Wiese, Annjeanette | College Literature, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Postmodern Narrativity: Narrative Construction and Identity Formation in Don DeLillo's White Noise


Wiese, Annjeanette, College Literature


Literary interpretation always involves emphasizing particular aspects of a work or works, which means that many illuminating elements are passed over and lacunae result. It is in light of such lacunae that I would like to address one often-missed question concerning the way we read contemporary novels, and especially those associated with postmodernism. When we approach fiction with an ideological or theoretical focus, a task that is of course quite fruitful for developing our ideas about the world, we often miss aspects of the practical, heuristic, and experientially rooted human concerns that novels so aptly represent. One neglected avenue for rediscovering this experiential dimension of fiction can be found by turning our attention to the interconnection between the formal and thematic function of the narrative structure of the contemporary novel. I contend that contemporary fiction-for all its treatment of the postmodern condition and the theories that describe it-specifically highlights and reclaims the importance of narrative structure in relation to identity and human experience. In other words, fiction provides a distinctly narrative means of countering the loss of individual, meaningful experience so often associated with the ahistorical, simulacral, and absurdly ironic nature of postmodernity.

I take as my example here Don DeLillo's well-known novel White Noise, first published in 1985. It is perhaps a testament to the fertile range of problematics that arise from the novel that critics are so divided on how to interpret the mix of cultural, literary, and popular content there; and it is just this intersection of ideas that makes it such a useful text for teaching. Moreover, DeLillo is frequently touted as one of the key cultural anatomists of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Especially in the 1990s, and often in response to White Noise, many critics have seen his work as exemplifying the analyses of the present sociocultural condition offered by Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, and Jean-François Lyotard, so casting White Noise as a "postmodern prototype" (Bonca 1996, 26). But while readers such as Leonard Wilcox (1991), Douglas Keesey (1993), Mark Conroy (1994), and Frank Lentricchia (1991a) highlight the performative presentation of postmodern theories in the novel, others try to 'rescue' elements of the text from postmodern relativism. Thus, critics such as Paul Maltby (1996), Dana Phillips (1998), and Jesse Kavadlo (2004) focus on Romanticism, the sublime, the pastoral, nature, and the articulation of enduring human longings in DeLillo's writing; Thomas J. Ferraro (1991) focuses on DeLillo's evident concern with social issues like the American family; and Tom LeClair (1987) argues that the novel's heterogeneity reflects systems theory. Such readings contrast starkly with more 'orthodox' postmodern interpretations, which focus on episodes like the visit to the "Most Photographed Barn in America," probably the most referenced moment in the novel because of its apt representation of a Baudrillardian simulacrum.

However, what is missing in such postmodern readings is the important tension that the novel sets up between the theoretical and narrative aspects of the text: it is in this tension that we see the significance of narrative in relation to identity and lived experience, even or especially in light of the purportedly antinarrative culture in which we find ourselves.1 And this significance allows us to identify the rich interconnections between form and idea that are so prevalent in American literature from the latter half of the twentieth century.2 Furthermore, because this strikingly underexplored current within the novel underscores how it reveals larger issues regarding narrative as a mode of thought in contemporary culture, it can serve as a model for examining the interrelation of form and function, and hence for assessing why narrative fiction still serves as the ideal site for exploring historically located human experience. …

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