The Media Is the Message: “White Noise ” & “Magpie Murders”

Hundreds of thousands of books are published every year.  We are bombarded with reviews, blurbs, blogs, friends’ recommendations, and bookstore shelf talkers.  Some simply badger us until we have bought the damned book, others ruin it by a hatchet job.  

Sifting through media that have different agendas is increasingly complex.  As Marshall McLuhan once asserted, “The media is the message.”

Here are two recommendations from my recent reading. Both books have been adapted as films.

A  MOVIE TIE-IN CLASSICDon DeLillo’s White Noise, a post-modern classic, published in 1985,  centers on the fear of death and the manipulation of the media.

 It begins with a dystopian tragedy.  When a chemical explosion causes a toxic airborne event, the narrator, Jack Gladney, a college professor, ignores the news, though he and his family are addicted to disasters on TV news.  He assures his wife. Babette, and their children that such disasters do not affect middle-class college towns:  they plague only trailer parks and poor neighborhoods. 

But the toxic event is real, and eventually the Gladneys have to evacuate to a shelter. Jack is surprised to learn that people in charge know little about the chemicals. They are employees of a company that simulates disasters and their consquences.

Jack is always once removed from reality.  At the college where hr teaches, he specializes in Hitler Studies, a field he invented so he could be the expert.  Much of the class is devoted to Hitler’s manipulation of the media:  they watch film footage of Hitler’s speeches and analyze the crowd’s zealous reactions.   One of Jack’s colleagues, an Elvis Studies maven, begs Jack to give his field legitimacy:  the two co-teach a class one day, presenting parallel facts about the destructive lives of Hitler and Elvis, who both drove crowds mad.

DeLillo cleverly interweaves the ramifications of media studies with the narrative. One can see the influence of Marshall McLuhan and other mid-20th-century philosophers and sociologists.  McLuhan, who is best-remembered for the quote, “The media is the message,” believed the media was more important than its content.

DeLillo also explores issues that shape, for better or worse, our society.  Jack and Babette’s blended family, with its multiple divorces and parents scattered around the globe, is logistically challenging,  though everyone is surfacely normal, and they do work together as a unit. But the lovely Babette is forgetful because of some mysterious pills – perhaps she is a drug addict – as her daughter, Denise, surmises when she discovers an empty pill bottle in the trash. Denise and Jack are horrified to learn that nobody, not even the doctor, can identify these pills. Jack continues to investigate.

 Life is darker after the toxic airborne event, but the sunsets are more beautiful In this novel, the family is central, and the characterizations are brilliant, but even the rearrangement of supermarket shelves can have hidden meaning.

Nothing is as it seems.

AN ADDICTIVE MYSTERY.  Everybody is reading Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, unless they discovered it in 2017 when it was first published.  A recent “Masterpiece” adaptation, also written by Anthony Horowitz,  inspired me to pick up this page-turner. 

The structure of this old-fashioned mystery is brilliantly complex.  I give this book full points for plot and structure. An editor, Susan Ryland, must search for the missing pages of the latest mystery by their best-selling author, Alan Conway, who committed suicide a few days after turning in the manuscript.  But before she can solve the mystery, we get to read Conway’s novel, Magpie Murders, the ninth in his Atticus Pünd series.  There are many twists and turns, and references to Agatha Christie.  And then we switch to the section about Susan, who, though not as brilliant as Atticus Pünd – she is not a detective – is driven by her desire to save the publishing company through a labyrinth of clues and an uexpected crime. Anagrams play a large part in solving the mystery.

Do watch the “Masterpiece” series!

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