Don DeLillo presents this off the wall piece that takes the reader on an adventure they may wish they’d never joined. Told in an oddly lilting manner, a family comes to terms with the pressures of the outside world in a way only they can surmises is rational. Jack Gladney is the Chair of the Hitler Department at a small college in Middle America. He thrives on the uniqueness of his work and yet has never learned to speak German, leaving him missing a key aspect of the essential research. At home, life is equally as unique, as Gladney and his wife, Babette, head up a family of children from their past marriages. A familial conglomeration of offspring from past unions that are mixed together like a multi-tiered cake, Jack and Babette try to create some normalcy in a situation that is anything but. With all that is going, there is something on the horizon, literally. When an accident at a train yard releases a toxic chemical, Gladney and his family gaze upon it with some awe. However, this cloud does not dissipate and soon the town is forced into an evacuation situation, which sees Jack Gladney exposed, however briefly, to some of the fallout. He chooses to keep this to himself, though the pall of death is now front and centre for Jack. He returns home contemplative as he banters with the children in the house, only to learn that Babette has been going through her own rollercoaster of emotions on this subject and many others. For the remainder of the novel, death lurks, as does the inherent fear of its arrival, taking the reader on a mind-bending (and numbing) discussion of preparation for the end and the afterlife’s inviting call. While there are surely some peaks in this novel, much of it is spent in valleys I wish I had kept well enough alone. I’ll go neutral on any recommendations and let each reader make their own decision on this one.
It is always difficult to dive into the middle of a well-established author’s domain and find issue with the first piece you discover. Having never read Don DeLillo before (and asked to do so for a book challenge), I could not help but wonder what sort of experience I might have. The dust jacket blurb for this piece seemed somewhat intriguing, which left me hoping that I would find something that kept my attention. However, as things inched along, I was drowned in silly offshoots that frustrated me more than helping move the story. Jack Gladney has the potential to be a captivating character, especially with the job he holds, though that ends up being a distance subplot and seems used only as window dressing for the piece. Rather, we see how Gladney tries to work through the patchwork of his home life with children from all sorts of marriages over a series of years, none of which give the reader any depth to the protagonist. There is little about the man that proves overly exciting, as he ambles along with his quasi-philosophical musings and banal conversations about life, death, and any number of other topics that lull the reader into something akin to wakeful sleep. I wanted much more, especially with all that was going on around him (and set at a time when chemical disasters could have meant a Cold War clash). Those around Gladney were equally irksome, fuelling some weird need to engage him on silly topics throughout, without actually making any progress. The premise of the novel had some potential for me, though its impact was lost in many of the long-winded and silly conversations that took place, circling the topic for ages and getting nowhere. Be it between the children or including adults, I wanted to reach out and toss a punch at someone’s throat, hoping it would end things and force the characters to move onwards. Alas, I suffered through it too many times, but soldiered on, knowing that the book challenge group would want to know about it. I suppose there is something in here for those who want something a little deeper or with some philosophical meat, though I hold firm that the title aptly describes this piece: something annoying in the background that is best ignored.
Kudos, Mr. DeLillo, for the attempt, but I will steer clear of your work for a while.
This novel fulfils the June requirements of Mind the Bookshelf Gap Reading Group. https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/886451-mind-the-bookshelf-gap
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons