Toxic Streaming Event: On Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise”

By A. M. GittlitzJanuary 16, 2023

Toxic Streaming Event: On Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise”
DON DELILLO’S 1985 novel White Noise follows protagonist Jack Gladney as he leads his family through a fiery chemical spill on the outskirts of the fictional suburban college town of Blacksmith — memorably referred to as “the airborne toxic event.” Fewer may remember that the event is short and uneventful. The remainder of the book turns into a comic melodrama on how Jack, as the only man exposed to the toxic air, copes with the knowledge that he might die in the next several decades.

This punch line hits far harder when rereading White Noise in the era of the plummeting American lifespan, when exposure is such an accepted fact of life that a prognosis of death in our mid-sixties would be welcome reassurance. It is hard to imagine a time before darkening clouds of toxic crises gathered on the horizon, when the biggest neurosis of American life came from anxiety that the stability of its suburbs may not last forever. Unfortunately, Noah Baumbach’s recent White Noise adaptation for Netflix is so sentimental about the Gladneys (Adam Driver as husband/father Jack and Greta Gerwig as wife/mother Babette) that it misses the joke, along with every opportunity to show the novel’s simultaneous declaration of American middle-class superficial civilization’s peak and subsequent decades of decline.

Baumbach was certainly brave in his attempt to depict the reputedly “unadaptable” high satire so faithfully. DeLillo’s free-associating dialogue and revelatory monologic rants chew the banal scenery of Blacksmith shot-for-paragraph. Even if these lines often felt as if they were being delivered from a cue-card for the first time, Baumbach commits to the book’s best scenes of marital drama, family comedy, and non-sequitur soliloquies with all the sincerity of Marriage Story (2019) or the slapstick nature of 1980s comedies like Lost in America (1985) or National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983). Particularly pleasing was the digital rendering of the airborne toxic event in all its quietus — a thunderous Lovecraftian storm so violent one might think it could suffocate the entire world. But White Noise endures as a classic postmodern novel for its subversion of the disaster genre, portraying crisis as a minor escape from the less cinematic disasters of everyday life. Baumbach proves he understands this by opening the film with a giddy lecture by Jack’s colleague Murray Suskind (Don Cheadle) about the appeal of movie car-crashes. While we know intellectually that car crashes involve horrific death and dismemberment, their actual effect is of jovial relief, he tells us, in what feels like an appeal to the audience to forgive the overall lighthearted tone of the film we’re about to watch.

This opening monologue is matched in quirkiness by the film’s ending: a large-scale dance sequence set in a radiant supermarket, a location DeLillo depicts in the novel as the lone public sphere of vacuous Blacksmith. The credits roll over characters gleefully dancing with colorful product-placed brands, or comically white-labeled generic versions of the same product, in a “we’re all lost in the supermarket” riff faithfully reflecting the novel’s proto–Gen X cynicism about consumerism, branding, adspeak, suburban routines, and a society reduced to traffic jams, shopping lines, and television. But the trouble with these extrapolations, faithful as they may be, is that they draw too deeply from the book’s outdated caricatures: the professors revered like priests, doctors too coldly competent, or a wife who makes too-Rockwellian a feast to properly enjoy before it’s time to evacuate. Meanwhile, the more ominous contemplations of the future in White Noise are cut.

In the original ending, the family gathers at the side of a highway to watch a sunset that has become more colorful since the airborne toxic event: “Some people are scared by the sunsets, some determined to be elated […] we don’t know whether it is permanent, a level of experience to which we will gradually adjust, into which our uncertainty will eventually be absorbed, or just some atmospheric weirdness, soon to pass.”

Even when presented with easy opportunities, the film refuses allusions to the present. This is most jarring when the authorities competently organize a mass evacuation before winds blow the toxic air into Blacksmith — and everyone in town dutifully obeys. Where, I could not help but wonder, are the conspiracists, the militias, the evangelicals, and other denialists?  The town is already deserted when the family finally drives away, arriving late to an orderly refugee camp in a strip mall outside of the disaster zone, where FEMA-like bureaucrats are so overly prepared that they wear uniforms issued for a recent simulation for this exact event — unlike the disasters of the last two decades, in which hurricane, flood, and wildfire survivors have often been left wondering when FEMA will ever show up. Their plan is so well executed, in fact, that it is only Jack who is exposed, a price paid for his lone skepticism, against the advice of his family and the authorities, that toxicity could reach him.

Apparently, the would-be right-wing rebels followed instructions as well, because the next morning, as an announcement blares that wind has changed and the toxic air is approaching the camp, Jack hopes to cut through traffic by following a Land Rover with a bumper sticker, reprinted dutifully from the book, that reads “GUN CONTROL IS MIND CONTROL.” This is one of many scenes where Baumbach must have been tempted to offer some link to today, perhaps with a more contemporary conservative slogan or a glimpse of a Proud Boy in the driver’s seat, heightening the irony of a liberal professor who secretly believes fascists to have a deeper understanding of how to survive. Baumbach instead visually recites the bumper sticker verbatim as an easily forgotten generic detail before Jack loses the Land Rover in the woods and drives his family into a river. Suddenly, the movie stops, the car harmlessly floating for a long time, and Driver in the driver’s seat shrugs apologetically to the camera as they drift downstream, as if to say: What do you want? This happens in the book.

Then there’s Hitler. In DeLillo’s White Noise, Jack Gladney is a “Hitler studies” professor who doesn’t know German or seemingly much else about the political history of National Socialism. His fascination with Hitler is more reverent than scholarly, nostalgically imagining Hitler as the central figure of a time before the cogs of history had ground to a halt. Baumbach sprinkles some Hitler and Nazi references throughout the film, but there is never the sense implied in the book that reducing fascism to a quirky cultural study obscures its uninterrupted recurrence on the margins of middle-class life. Now that this depoliticized and deliciously edgy reframing has allowed the alt-right to meme Hitler back through the Overton window, it is impossible to imagine a professor delivering Jack Gladney’s theatrically exuberant lecture on Hitler without being “canceled” or called up for a Fox News appearance. And yet, the students listen with unquestioning admiration, as if the Holocaust was no different than one of Suskind’s Roger Corman–esque car crashes.

So, I was let down by the film White Noise, perhaps all the more for having looked forward to it enough to have seen it in a theater weeks before its streaming premiere. From the moment the N of Netflix appeared on the big screen, I could not help but imagine how much happier I would have been at home, where I could have dulled Baumbach’s fumbles by complaining about it on Twitter in real time, or pausing after 37 minutes to see how much more I could endure before giving up to watch Seinfeld. But having suffered through the whole thing was also somewhat of a relief. I came out of it feeling superior — a better reader of DeLillo than Baumbach, and even imagining my millennial generation 20 years wiser than his.

But then, like a smug DeLillo protagonist, I began to spiral into a neurosis of the total phenomenon in which I had just taken part. First, I worried that by making the film so similar to the book, Baumbach had ruined it for those who had not read it. Those who might try now, urged on by the cliché assurance that the book is much better, would quickly recognize all the annoying, boring elements reproduced in the movie and drop the once-cool book after a few pages with an exhausted “okay, boomer.”

And then, deeper worries followed: what if Baumbach, despite not making the movie I would have liked, basically got it right? What if there’s little more to Don DeLillo than a stylistic adaption of ersatz critical theory to pop literature that Baumbach is merely translating to film — author to auteur? What if the point of the adaptation was to sell Netflix subscriptions, just as my 2009 Penguin edition of the 1985 book was designed to appeal to me by looking like a Charles Burns alt-comic? What if somewhere my data has been compiled into lines converging at a point labeled DeLillo-Baumbach? What if the Wall Street Alamo Drafthouse had used the same metrics to determine that a prestreaming limited release of White Noise could fill their theater for a few days, and in the end, all my fantasies of a Marxist DeLillo really only amounted to a bad family comedy, a plate of vegan buffalo wings, and a Bronx-microbrewed bitter IPA?

But then I remembered Cosmopolis: DeLillo’s 2003 novel, in which bro billionaire Eric Packer contemplates his death and the death of capitalism as he traverses class-war-torn Manhattan in a limousine. David Cronenberg’s movie adaptation came out 10 years later, featuring the anti-globalization black-blocers from the book updated to snake-marchers of Occupy Wall Street attempting to smash their way into Packer’s (Robert Pattinson) mobile bunker as he dourly quotes Marx and Bakunin, half-hoping and half-wondering whether, in choosing a life as an agent of capitalism, he had been digging his own grave. That Pattinson sounds infinitely more convincing delivering these lines than Gerwig and Driver is perhaps because Cronenberg is a better director than Baumbach, or at least better at the deadpan weirdness that DeLillo’s dialogue demands. But I prefer to imagine that, by the time Cosmopolis was released, DeLillo had developed Jack Gladney’s character into an avatar of late capitalism on purpose, to raise the stakes at pace with history. And while we don’t know if Packer’s fate catches up with him at the end of Cosmopolis, it certainly seems like he has much less time left than Jack Gladney.


A. M. Gittlitz is the author of I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs, and Apocalypse Communism, and co-host of the podcast The Antifada.

LARB Contributor

A. M. Gittlitz is a writer from Brooklyn, New York, focusing on countercultural history, radical politics, and the paranormal. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Nation, and The Baffler, among others, and in 2020, he published I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs, and Apocalypse Communism. He co-hosts the Antifada podcast.


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