My AP Lit students have just begun reading one of my favorite novels, Don DeLillo's White Noise. After reading the first fifty pages, many of them are left a bit befuddled. While some of their head-scratching is understandable given that we've just returned from a long holiday break and their noggins are still a bit cloudy from a combination of time off and the revelries in which even many top-flight high school students engage while on vacation, a fair portion is due to the stylistic approach DeLillo takes in the first third of the novel, a section entitled "Waves and Radiation.
The chapters are brief, and the subject matter is, to put it lightly, odd at times. I do, however, try to guide students toward seeing the way DeLillo juxtaposes the unusual with the surprisingly profound, and I use chaos theory as a means by which we can find meaning in the apparently meaningless. A snarky debate over rainfall between the narrator, Jack Gladney, and his fourteen year-old son Heinrich turns into a meaningful consideration of truth--is it absolute, or does it depend, to varying degrees, upon relativism? A trip to the grocery store with the often cringe-worthy Murray Siskind becomes a profound meditation on the nature of death and our relationship to it. One particularly astute student even transformed a seemingly random utterance from the family television (such utterances appear regularly in the novel) into a mirror of the relationship between Jack and his wife Babette.
When students grasp these concepts, it makes me smile inside. The smile isn’t only because these young men and women have grappled with something conceptually difficult and ultimately made sense of it; the smile is also the result of the hope that such epiphanies engender in me--hope for our fractured, chaotic world. If we can stare into the waves and radiation of a perplexing postmodern novel and find enough order to construct meaning, why can’t we confront the schisms that so violently divide us into a host of “either/ors”--black/white, red/blue, right/left, even have/have not?
The answers to that question won’t come easily, but ultimately, in finding them--no matter how much pain we may endure in the process--we can and will grow stronger.