Loud Fictions: Noise in the Contemporary American Novel

Rachel Sykes


In his 1946 essay, ‘Silence,’ the English novelist Aldous Huxley described the twentieth century as ‘the Age of Noise. Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire – we hold history’s record for them all’ (149). Writers of the early twentieth century saw noise as a symptom and consequence of modernity and modernist writing, as Josh Epstein notes, was ‘infiltrated’ by ‘the sounds of air-raid sirens, trains, typewriters, propellers, pianolas, radio static, and (perhaps most ominously) radio silence’ (xiv).



The noise of the West is an aesthetic concern for many contemporary novelists

[Image by Kid Clutch under a CC BY license]


Today, noise seems culturally unavoidable and, as I argue in this article, the loudness of the West is an aesthetic concern for many contemporary novelists and critics. By focussing on American fiction, particularly on the idea of the ‘Great American Novel,’ I want to explore an as-yet undeveloped critical assumption: that the American novel is, or is expected to be, loud in order to capture and compete with the cultural, industrial, technological, and political noise of its time.

Put simply, I argue that many contemporary American novelists both suffer from and feed off an expectation to represent what Don DeLillo famously defined as the ‘white noise’ of late capitalist society. To DeLillo, who published White Noise in 1985, modern America is a nation ‘awash with noise’ (36) where the electrical, technological, and industrial sounds of the nation are menacing and omnipresent. ‘You hear it forever,’ DeLillo writes, ‘Sound all around, now awful’ (196).

It is here that any discussion of a novel’s loudness intersects with ideas of its social worth. Four years after White Noise was published, Tom Wolfe criticised absurdist and minimalist fictions for excluding the noise of ‘the racial clashes, the hippie movement, the New Left, the Wall Street boom, the sexual revolution, the war in Vietnam.’ Wolfe’s adjectives for fiction are as brash as they are loud. He claimed that the novel should be both ‘confrontational’ and ‘radical’ and argued that as citizens of the ‘mightiest political power in all history’ it is the duty of American novelists to raise their voices and document the rising volume of the contemporary United States.



Many contemporary American novelists both suffer from and feed off an expectation to represent the ‘white noise’ of late capitalist society

[Image by Scott Joseph under a CC BY NC ND license]


The same rhetoric continued to the century’s end. Calls for what DeLillo named ‘the big social novel’ in the mid-1990s or what critic James Wood referred to as ‘the Great American Social Novel’ in 2001, promised to halt the death of the form by re-announcing its social necessity and incorporating the noise of society within the confines of a novelistic frame.

Indeed, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, critics increasingly conflated the idea of literary innovation with the need to be loud. As Jeffrey M. Perl laments, every thinker in the West is now required to ‘broadcast their claims’ (4) to such an extent that intellectual shyness, introversion, and quietness are treated with suspicion. Similarly, as this article contends, the American novelist feels subject to a nebulous pressure to produce ever bigger, bolder, and louder tomes and to compete both for a dwindling readership and against the noise of society.

To name one notable example, debates about the growing noise of American culture and the novel’s waning dominance converged in 2001 when the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center brought a singular cacophony to Manhattan. Novels like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007), and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008) are, to my mind, loud fictions. Foer fills his prose with bangs and explosions, from the ‘horrible noise’ (210) of the planes to the ‘animal’ (232) noises produced by the narrator’s grieving relatives. O’Neill similarly saturates Netherland with unnatural sounds, of noise where there should be quiet: ‘the loud moaning of air’ (84) through a house, the ‘loud collective gasp’ (226) of crowds, and, again, the ‘horrible noise’ (36), of the attacks and their aftermath. DeLillo’s Falling Man is perhaps the most famous example of a ‘9/11 fiction’ and begins just moments after the second tower falls, in a world ‘awash’ with more noise than DeLillo had previously imagined. ‘The noise lay everywhere they ran,’ he writes, as his protagonist, Keith, tries to escape Manhattan, ‘stratified sound collecting around them, and he walked away from it and into it at the same time’ (2).

Notably, the noise represented in these fictions stresses the singularity of the attacks and, as I have argued elsewhere, reaffirms notions of American exceptionalism by emphasising its dissonance.[1] The loudness of violence and conflict, from the terrorist attacks of September 11th to the retaliatory wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, introduced US citizens to a kind of noise that had been relatively absent, or at least distant, from their experience of the twentieth century.



The loudness of violence and conflict introduced US citizens to a kind of noise that had been relatively absent from their experience

[Image by Eric under a CC BY NC ND license]


More interesting than a reading of ‘9/11 fiction,’ then, is a consideration of the noise found elsewhere in the American novel and a broader exploration of the loud aesthetic of fiction proposed here. Beyond the loudness of the attacks, a major part of the noise I read in ‘9/11 fiction’ is its claim to contemporaneity. Loud prose often focuses on national and topical event as a marker of present experience that demands our full attention. These novels feel ‘stuffed’ and ‘over full’ (12) of action and information, as Mark Greif writes of the ‘big, ambitious novels’ favoured by Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, Saul Bellow, and David Foster Wallace, gesturing towards the singularity of the contemporary and the global importance of America through the representation of loud people, places, actions, and events.

Take, for instance, the environment of the city, often conceived as the primary location of modernity. Even without the threat of terrorism, the city is aesthetically loud and fills the urban novel with the noise of more people, traffic, telephones, alarm systems, music, and transport networks. Eric Packer, the multi-billionaire protagonist of DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (2003), claims to live in a ‘quiet’ part of New York City but admits to using his vast fortune to exclude noise from his life. His car has been ‘prousted’ (66), he says; Packer asks his employees to ‘cork-line it against street noise’ and he moves through the city in an artificial haven of quiet.

If wealth protects Packer from the city’s noise, loudness is the norm elsewhere. Jonathan Raban’s Surveillance (2006) opens with an explosion so loud it bursts an observer’s eardrums and intensifies through the ‘noise of sirens, car alarms, bullhorns, whistles, and tumbling masonry’ (1) common to New York. In Pattern Recognition (2003), William Gibson’s first novel to be set in present-day America, characters trace the ‘noise ratio’ (184) of the many cities they visit and frequently refer to the ‘noise level’ that runs ‘phenomenal, industrial’ (131) through all urban environments.

The organisation of noise is a dominant theme of Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad (2010), another loud fiction that is largely set in New York and traces the careers of multiple music executives and musicians from the 1960s to the present. Through a complex web of music industry relationships, Egan maps half a century of American loudness until, on the novel’s final page, the reader is given an audible snapshot of the present: ‘A dog barking hoarsely. The lowing of trucks over bridges. The velvety night in his ears. And the hum, always that hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all, but the sound of time passing’ (348).

Notably, as noise pervades contemporary American culture, it has also become synonymous with mental unrest. Noise is defined by its disruptive potential; it is ‘a signal we don’t like’ (52) according to Bart Kosko and an ‘essentially political’ (6) organisation of sound that economist Jacques Attali imbues with the potential for radical discourse. In Egan’s earlier novel, Look At Me (2001), her protagonist, Charlotte, a Manhattan model who is left unrecognisable by facial surgery, complains that she is ‘breaking into bits … a confusion of junk noise, white noise, space junk, a junkyard of noisy thought that made me long instead for a lovely, petaled silence’ (406). Increasingly, although noise has an expressive potentiality that arguably outweighs the possibilities of silence, novelists depict society’s loudness as a negative facet of contemporary life that denies the mental space in which to contemplate, reflect, and be quiet.



Noise has also become synonymous with mental unrest

[Image by Matt Brown under a CC BY license]


As a result, loud fictions are often anxious, overcrowded, and fragmented. Jonathan Franzen published his third novel, The Corrections (2001), just one week after the September 11th attacks and for many, the novel now typifies the domestic concerns of the late-1990s that Al Qaeda quickly overshadowed. To my mind, The Corrections is also a loud novel: the opening chapter, ‘St Jude,’ establishes a pervasive, domestic unease and awareness of a wider, cultural noise just out of earshot.

The text focuses on two generations of the Lambert family. Alfred and Enid Lambert are the combative mother and father who raise their three children, Gary, Denise, and Chip, in the fictional Midwestern city of St Jude. The novel opens with Alfred, now retired, and Enid, a housewife, struggling through the daily monotony of their lives. ‘You could feel it,’ Franzen writes, ‘something terrible was going to happen’ (3). Tellingly, this danger is signified by a series of sounds, the ‘drone and hiccup’ of the clothes dryer, the shudder of the bedroom windows, and the ‘nasal contention’ of the leaf blower.

Towards the end of the novel’s first page, one sound rises above the rest: ‘Ringing through the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety … a bell had been ringing in their heads for as long as they could remember’ (3-4). Franzen links the alarm to the anxiety of consumerism; ‘the anxiety of coupons’ (4) kept in a drawer, all slowly passing their expiration dates. Like the sound of the present heard on the final page of A Visit From The Goon Squad, Albert and Enid can hear time passing. ‘The dates were historical,’ Franzen writes, ‘The alarm bell had been ringing for years.’ However, in this instance, the present is an alarm bell, designed to remind the Lamberts of the pressure to consume and tying them to the ‘anxious mood’ that Franzen observes in contemporary America.

Ultimately, The Corrections is both a saga of domestic psychological realism and a systems novel about government surveillance, waning industrialism, and the growing power of the pharmaceutical industry. So, whilst Franzen is immediately concerned with the sounds of the Lamberts’ life, he also acknowledges other, louder events just outside the family’s consciousness. The corrections of the title speak to many aspects of Albert and Enid’s daily existence, but refer most literally to the decline of technology-driven industry in the late 1990s and the cultural anxiety that accompanied the end of ‘the longest sustained economic boom in American history’ (101). Franzen depicts suburban St Jude as a ‘miracle of niceness’ (128), an artificial haven of quiet that, like Eric Packer’s cork-lined limousine, shields Alfred and Enid from the loudness of the world but cannot fully exclude the noise of America’s global presence.


CITATION: Rachel Sykes, "Loud Fictions: Noise in the Contemporary American Novel," Alluvium, Vol. 4 No. 3 (2015): n. pag. Web. 7 September 2015,  http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.4.01



[1] See Sykes, ‘‘All that howling space’: ‘9/11’ and the aesthetic of noise in contemporary American fiction,’ C21 Literature: Journal of 21st-Century Writings 4: 1 (October 2015).


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]https://www.alluvium-journal.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/s200_rachel.sykes_.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Rachel Sykes completed her AHRC-funded PhD in American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham in 2014. Her thesis outlined a theory of quiet as a narrative aesthetic and a monograph based on her project, entitled The Quiet Contemporary American Novel and work on Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels are forthcoming.[/author_info] [/author]


Works Cited:

Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1985.

DeLillo, Don. Cosmopolis. New York: Picador. 2003.

__. Falling Man. New York: Picador. 2007.

__. White Noise. New York: Picador: 1985.

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From The Goon Squad. London: Corsair. 2010.

__. Look At Me. London: Corsair. 2001.

Epstein, Josh. Sublime Noise: Musical Culture and the Modernist Writer. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. 2014.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. New York: Penguin. 2005.

Franzen, Jonathan. The Corrections. London: Fourth Estate. 2001.

Gibson, William. Pattern Recognition. London: Penguin. 2003.

Greif, Mark. ‘‘The Death of the Novel’ and Its Afterlives: Toward a History of the ‘Big, Ambitious Novel.’ boundary 2 36: 2 (2009): 11-30.

Huelsenbeck, Richard. ‘En Avant Dada: A History of Dadaism’ (1920) in Modernism: An Anthology. Edited by Lawrence Rainey. Oxford: Blackwell: 462-477.

Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. Chatto & Windus: 1946.

Kosko, Bart. Noise. London: Viking. 2006.

O’Neill, Joseph. Netherland. London: Harper Perennial. 2008.

Perl, Jeffrey M. ‘Introduction: Mezza Voce Quietism?’ Common Knowledge 16: 1 (2010): 22-30.

Raban, Jonathan. Surveillance. New York: Vintage. 2006.



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