An Annotation of the First Page of White Noise, With Help From Don DeLillo

February 22, 2005

On February 10, Don DeLillo gave a reading at the University of Texas to mark the sale of his papers to the university’s Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. The next day, the Austin American-Statesman reported that DeLillo read from Libra and Underworld, answered a few questions, and then left. Uneventful, but DeLillo isn’t exactly a flamboyant guy.

A few days before the reading, the American-Statesman published something excellent: an annotation of the opening page of White Noise, with details drawn from various drafts of that page found in the author’s papers. The reporter, Jeff Salamon, also interviewed DeLillo for the piece. Some of the information in Salamon’s annotation has long been known to DeLillo observers—e.g., the fact that DeLillo wanted to call the book Panasonic but couldn’t get permission from the Matsushita corporation—but the piece contains a number of specific new details about DeLillo’s writing process.

The American-Statesman’s site has a totally annoying registration process (and the login and password posted on Bug Me Not don’t work anymore). So I will just post the entire thing here, after the jump.

Twelve years after I first read it, White Noise is still my favorite novel. I don’t have a favorite movie or a favorite TV show or a favorite album or a favorite band; I don’t tend to narrow things down quite that much. But I have a favorite novel, and it’s White Noise.

first page of White Noise

Here is the first page, along with Salamon’s annotation:

1. “White Noise” was DeLillo’s breakthrough book commercially, but as late as the final galleys it had a different title: “Panasonic.” In a June 13, 1984, letter to his editor, Elisabeth Sifton, DeLillo explained the importance of this choice: ” ‘Panasonic’ as a title is crucial for a number of reasons…. The word ‘panasonic’, split into its component parts—‘pan,’ from the Greek, meaning ‘all,’ and ‘sonic,’ from the Latin sonus, meaning ‘sound’—strikes me as the one title that suggests the sound-saturation that is so vital to the book….” Unfortunately, the Matsushita corporation felt otherwise and denied Viking permission to use the brand name. Included in the Ransom Center archives is a list DeLillo made of 39 possible other titles, among them “White Noise,” “Psychic Data” and “Mein Kampf.” (The latter is not a tasteless jape—the book’s narrator is a professor of Hitler studies.) Today, DeLillo acknowledges that “White Noise” turned out to be a fine choice, after all. “Once a title is affixed to a book, it becomes as indelible as a sentence or a paragraph.”

2. By putting two long lists in the first paragraph of “White Noise,” DeLillo cannily placed his characters in a society defined by materialism and brand-name consciousness. Over the course of various drafts, the lists changed—a guitar was added in the second draft and then cut; “garlic-flavored potato chips” became “garlic chips,” which became “sour-cream-and-onion chips,” which became, finally, “onion-and-garlic chips.” What was DeLillo looking for with all this tinkering? “Rhythm,” he says. “A play of syllables and even sounds. I hear sounds in a sort of indescribable way as I write. Not only that, but there’s the look of the prose—the literal shapes of letters of the alphabet. This has always been important to me. There’s definitely a visual element in the way I work at sentences and smaller units—phrases. Somewhere in ‘Underworld’ there’s a phrase, ‘the raw sprawl of the city,’ and what I see in this phrase is not just what it means, but the word ‘raw’ encased in the word ‘sprawl,’ so that it’s repeated.” Even as “White Noise” was being copy-edited in its galley form, DeLillo made one more vital alteration: He changed “jujyfruits” to “fruit chews.”

3. The mention of “personal computers” was very of the moment in 1984, but it’s a moment that DeLillo has never become part of: To this day, he writes his books on the same Olympia manual typewriter he has used since 1975. “It’s very scarred,” he says. “It looks like the typewriter equivalent of an old baseball coach who’s been around for 38 years, and he’s bandy-legged and spits lots of tobacco juice.” In a Feb. 5, 1997 letter to David Foster Wallace, DeLillo explained this choice: “(T)he reason I use a manual typewriter concerns the sculptural quality I find in words on paper, the architecture of the letters individually and in combination, a sensation advanced (for me) by the mechanical nature of the process—finger striking key, hammer striking page. Electronic intervention would dull the sensuous gratification I get from this process—a gratification I try to soak my prose in.”

4. In the first drafts, this paragraph, like every paragraph DeLillo writes, gets a page to itself. It’s a method DeLillo discovered while writing his previous book, “The Names”: He types one paragraph and then pulls the sheet out of the typewriter and scribbles changes on it. Later, he inserts a fresh sheet and types out another draft of the paragraph, and so on, until it’s done. “The advantage is being able to see a fragment of prose more clearly if the page isn’t entirely covered in words,” he explains. “If there are only five lines or ten lines—whatever the size of the paragraph—you can reread and rewrite with a little more clarity. It’s as simple as that. I can simply see it better with a lot of blank space around it.”

5. DeLillo had his description of the women in place from the start. But the men were tougher for him to nail down. “The women are in diet trim, competent and alert, knowing people’s names, ready to respond to whatever stimulus the occasion calls forth, beyond the range of their vague and somewhat softer men,” he wrote in his first draft of the sentence, ending with a clause that is itself vague and somewhat soft. By the next draft, the men are still a bit fuzzy—“a little vague but genial and accomplished in parenthood.” A draft later they are “genial and ungrudging” and the phrases “like peacetime generals” and “gazing over the scene with their crinkly eyes” have been penned in and crossed out. The final version, with “content to measure out the time” and “distant” hinting at a sense of alienation, is a far cry from the vague softness of the first draft. Which raises the question of whether, when DeLillo writes, he is trying to nail down something that he already has in his head, or is discovering things as he writes. “I’m always discovering—I should say, ‘frequently discovering’—things during the act of writing,” he says. “I never sketch out anything in advance. At most I have a very, very general idea; I depend on language to produce ideas, to produce characters and stories.”

6. This sentence is the first laugh-out-loud line in the book, but DeLillo didn’t nail down the delivery right away. In what appears to be the third draft of this paragraph, the joke makes its first appearance as “giving off a scent of massive insurance coverage,” which DeLillo knew wasn’t quite right. ” ‘Scent’ is a word that might be taken a little too literally,” he says. “And it’s ultimately inaccurate. The feeling the men give of insurance coverage is not that pinpointable.” In the fourth draft, the phrase has turned into “something about them suggesting a sense of massive insurance coverage,” and then the words “a sense of” are crossed out, leaving a joke that is funny because it has been honed until it is honest and spare — funny, as the saying goes, because it’s true. DeLillo may have put it best in that letter to Wallace: “I think the key to all this is precision. If the language is precise, the sentence will not (in theory) seem self-conscious or overworked. At some point (in my writing life) I realized that precision can be a kind of poetry, and the more precise you try to be, or I try to be, the more simply and correctly responsive to what the world looks like — then the better my chances of creating a deeper and more beautiful language.”

In a sidebar, Salamon highlights some details from the collection:

An 18-year correspondence with the hilariously profane writer-editor Gordon Lish. (“Listen, nosepicker,” begins one letter.)

Lengthy correspondence with novelists Franzen and Wallace (who, yes, footnotes his letters). To DeLillo’s credit, he seems to respond to their daunted first missives in an encouraging and solicitous manner, never treating them like mere DeLillo-putians.

Inadvertently funny exchanges between DeLillo and his earnest foreign translators. (DeLillo explaining the euphemism “put your nightstick in a sling” is alone worth a trip to the Ransom Center.)

Some day I’m going to make it down to Austin so I can check out all this stuff.