White Noise by Don DeLillo: A Book Review
White Noise by Don DeLillo
You know it’s postmodernism when I have to preface the post with
“where do I even begin with this one?”
White Noise is Don DeLillo’s 8th novel, published in 1985, and one of his most popular. It is the book that skyrocketed DeLillo into fame, and Time Magazine listed the book in its Best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005. It is widely regarded as an example of postmodernism.
The book is divided fairly evenly into three parts. Part one is 20 chapters, part two is one long chapter, and part three is 19 chapters, making the book an even 40. It’s set up in sort of a “before, during, and after” model. The second part, entitled “The Airborne Toxic Event,” served as inspiration for the band that shares the same name.
Summary (spoilers ahead)
The story is told from Jack Gladley’s first-person point of view.
Part One – “Waves and Radiation”
The first twenty chapters act as an expository introduction into Jack Gladley’s life in the small town of Blacksmith in the Midwest somewhere, during the 1980’s. Jack, a professor of Hitler Studies at the local college, and Babette are a seemingly normal husband and wife, except that they’re a bit obsessed with death and talk about it often. They are both terrified of dying, Babette specifically, somewhat satirically rationalizing that she can’t die until her children are grown up and out of the house. Neither one wants to be the first of the two to die, and frequently throughout the pages Jack wonders who will die first. But together, they take care of their rambunctious and, at times, weirdly creepy kids. Their son Heinrich, fourteen, is contrarian, insanely smart, and loves to debate, often engaging Jack into deep, sophisticated conversations in which he uses logic and deductive reasoning to support his claims. Their daughter Denise, an oddly intelligent and inquisitive twelve-year-old, spies on her mother who secretly takes some kind of medication. Steffie is the quintessential nine-year-old, curious and strange–she has this weird habit of burning her toast because she likes the smell–but overall she gets along well with her siblings. And their youngest, Wilder, age two, well, at one point he cries for a week straight seemingly for no reason. Jack and Babette take him to the doctor who finds nothing wrong, and then on the ride home, Wilder suddenly stops crying and is totally fine.
Murray is by far the oddest character. He is the loquacious colleague and friend of Jack’s, as well as the Gladley household in general as he spends a lot of time there. He studies car crashes, and is also trying to start a course curriculum at the college centered around Elvis Presley. He likes to studies children too because children have yet to be corrupted by society. But most notably, Murray often goes on wild diatribes about strange, esoteric and philosophical opinions or concepts. Like for instance, at one point, Murray talks to Jack about television–how it’s all waves and radiation, but also the medium of primal force in the American home. He says “It’s like a myth being born right there in our living room, like something we know in a dream-like and preconscious way…TV offers incredible amounts of psychic data…The medium practically overflows with sacred formulas if we can remember how to respond innocently and get past our irritation, weariness and disgust.” Jack and Babette frequently run into him during their outings about town, most often at the supermarket (it’s almost like Murray never leaves). And of course, Murray always launches into another wild diatribe. One on occasion at the supermarket, to Jack and Babette, Murray says, “Tibetans believe there is a transitional state between death and rebirth. Death is a waiting period, basically. Soon a fresh womb will receive her soul. In the meantime, the soul restores to itself some of the divinity lost at birth…That’s what I think of whenever I come here [the supermarket]. This place recharges us spiritually, it prepares us, it’s a gateway or pathway. Look how bright. It’s full of psychic data.” (Like wtf). Besides television and supermarkets, Murray also covers in his roller-coaster tangents topics like death, media, and of course “psychic data.”
A few strange things start happening.
Denise and Steffie’s elementary school evacuates all the students for a week because “kids were getting headaches and eye irritations, tasting metal in their mouths [and] a teacher rolled on the floor and spoke foreign languages.” Men in “Mylex” suits, a kind of hazmat suit, and respirator masks are brought in to investigate. Well one of them dies mysteriously.
The Treadwells, an elderly pair of brother and sister, (Mr. Treadwell is blind and Babette frequently reads to him) go missing for four days until they are found in an abandoned cookie shack in the Mid-Village Mall. Then Ms. Treadwell dies a few days later.
Bee, Jack and Babette’s twelve-year-old daughter, who has been living in South Korea the past two years, comes home for a brief visit. Her flight, on its last stretch of distance, suddenly fails. The engines of airplane completely malfunction, and the plan descends into free-fall for about four miles. Everyone on the plane freaks out thinking that they are all about to plummet to their deaths, but then suddenly out of nowhere, the engines kick back into gear, and the pilots regain control. Bee arrives safely and is picked up by Jack and her mother, Tweedy Browner.
And Part One concludes with the Jack, Murray, and the kids at home surrounding the television. Babette has gone to teach her class at a local church. Suddenly on the news, Babette’s face shows up, which throws all the kids and Jack for a loop at first. He says, “A strangeness gripped me, a sense of psychic disorientation…her appearance on the screen made me think of her as some distant figure from the past, some ex-wife and absentee mother, a walker in the mists of the dead. If she was not dead, was I?” Then they realize that her class was simply being televised by the local cable station, and perhaps she hadn’t known about it or simply didn’t mention it to them. What’s also odd is that the volume for the news program is muted, but only on that channel.
Part Two – “The Airborne Toxic Event”
Part two begins with a catastrophic event: a train derails down the street from the Gladley’s household. From the upstairs window, Heinrich with a pair of binoculars can make out a giant hole in the side of the train car, out of which is seeping a massive, black cloud. The black cloud floats into the air and begins moving. Soon, the police arrive, block off the area, and investigate. On the radio, announcements of a chemical spill are broadcast. Then air-raid sirens start blaring, and the police drive through the streets with a megaphone commanding people to evacuate. The Gladley’s jump in their car and set off towards the Boy Scout camp on the outskirts of town. It is a frenzy outside, people scrambling to flee the ominous cloud of poison, traffic getting backed up, all the while snow continuing to fall.
In the car, Jack catches a glimpse of Babette taking a pill, which he inquires about to which she responds awkwardly that it was only a life-saver. Up the street, they pass through a giant car wreck and Steffie begins saying how she has “seen this” before. She is experiencing déjà vu. Heinrich had told Jack that one of the initial side-effects of Nyodene Derivative, the presumed chemical, was déjà vu along with sweaty palms and nausea. However, later those symptoms were retracted and replaced with coma, convulsions, and miscarriage. In the car, Jack begins to wonder about Steffie and whether or not she is actually experiencing the symptoms of the chemical waste (there’s a great passage here where Jack ponders the possibility of falsely perceiving an illusion–like if whether there’s a true déjà vu and a false déjà vu). They stop for gas, only Jack getting out of the car, and they see that the gas station is abandoned. Back on their way, the chemical black cloud passes over ahead of them. Cars stop to watch, the Gladley’s are silent in awe at the horror and beauty of the formless mass. “It is surely possible to be awed by the thing that threatens your life, to see it as a cosmic force, so much larger than yourself, more powerful, created by elemental and willful rhythms…This was a death made in the laboratory, defined and measurable, but we thought of it at the time in a simple and primitive way, as some seasonal perversity of the earth like a flood or tornado, something not subject to control.”
They arrive at the boy scout camp. The seven, large barracks are filled with people from town. The Gladley’s set up camp in the corner of one, and Heinrich begins to speaking to others about what he knows about the “airborne toxic event.” Apparently he knows a lot, having learned a bit from school, and in no time, a giant crowd has gathered around the young boy to listen to him speak. Jack and Babette watch from afar before they both get caught up in eerie conversations with two Jehovah’s witnesses. Steffie approaches Jack and says that she is worried that he has been exposed to the chemical because he had gotten out of the car to get gas when they stopped. Jack Gladley stands in line to go through processing. When he approaches the table, a man behind a computer inquires about his personal information as well as the prolonged exposure to the chemical waste. Jack gives him all the details, but also Jack notices that somehow this official–part of a simulated evacuation committee who are using this occurrence as an experiment–has access to Jack’s entire background, his personal history and data. The official won’t disclose what data he has, and Jack is left wondering what exactly they know about him. Babette reads to a group of blind people, one of whom is Mr. Treadwell. She reads scientific articles about experiments dealing with hypnosis and reincarnation, then switches to the tabloids covering UFOs and bigfoots, Atlantis, conspiracies about Elvis Presley, Lyndon B Johnson, and Mark David Chapman. Jack goes outside to get some fresh air and, of course, who does he run into but Murray. Murray is talking with two prostitutes–makes a deal for $25 to give one the Heimlich maneuver–but Jack strikes up a conversation and tells him how he thinks he’s going to die since he’s been exposed to the chemical. Back inside, Jack joins his sleeping family and notices that Steffie is talking in her sleep; he makes out one tiny phrase: Toyota Celica.
Jack wakes to a frenzy, again. Horns blare from police cars and ambulances, the air-raid sirens are blasting. Wind has caught the chemical cloud and now it’s moving towards the boy scout camp. Everyone is to evacuate immediately and head to Iron City where shelter and food will be provided for them. The Gladley’s jump into their car and set off through the snow and chaos, the billowing black cloud trailing just behind them. They are all wearing medical masks. As Jack is driving recklessly through the streets, taking shortcuts on land and through forests, nearly getting stuck in a ditch, Heinrich is in the backseat leading a scientific/philosophical conversation on about body parts. They arrive early in the morning. It is a scene not unlike what the boy scout camp had been. Jack sees a man with a television and notices that there is no news coverage of the airborne toxic event. He is anxiously puzzled by this; “don’t we deserve some attention for our suffering, our human worry, our terror? Isn’t fear news?” And part two concludes with the man with the television looking at Jack and telling him, “I saw this before.”
Part Three – “Dylarama”
Post airborne toxic event, life resumes back to normal save the men in Mylex suits with German shepherds who prowl the town scanning for chemical residue. Jack runs into Murray at the supermarket, ups his German lessons, and still worries about the omen of his early death due to the exposure of the Nyodene D. Heinrich, one night at the dinner table, claims that the real threat is not chemical spills but the radiation that emits from television and radio (cue mid-80’s paranoia about electromagnetic radiation). Jack finds the pills that Babette has been taking, some medication called Dylar, hidden strapped inside a radiator. He calls her doctor, consults Denise who’s been doing her own research on Dylar, and even takes a pill to his neuro-chemist colleague, Winnie Richards, to be analyzed, no one can tell him what it is–it is an unknown medication of intelligent design, possibly a psycho-pharmaceutical, but nothing that is on the market or known in the realm of medicine. And furthermore, no one can tell him what it does.
While going to bed one night, Jack confronts Babette about the drug. She tells him that she signed up for an experimental research study testing out the new drug; it is designed to give relief to people suffering from “fear of death.” Babette reveals that she has been suffering from the uncontrollable bouts of anxiety and depression all inspired by her fear of death. She also reveals that she’s been sleeping with the doctor/scientist, who she calls Mr. Gray, who headed the study. Jack is stunned by the news, more so than the adultery the severity of her fear, a fear that he shares too. They then get into somewhat of a contest over their own fears, citing examples of the seriousness of their own conditions. They grow close during this exchange and end up making love. Afterward, Jack reveals to Babette the news of how he is scheduled to die (to die first out of the two) due to the exposure to the chemical cloud, something that he has been keeping secret from her. She cries and cries. After she has fallen asleep, Jack gets up and goes to the radiator where he finds that the bottle of Dylar is missing.
Denise has taken the pill bottle, Jack finds out. He tries to get her to surrender it but is unsuccessful, though he claims it doesn’t matter because Babette has stopped taking the drug as it has stopped working (to which Denise says she’s going to throw it away). Jack then tries to weed out more information about this Mr. Gray from Babette, saying he wants to meet him, not because he’s having an affair with his wife, but because he wants to start taking Dylar. Babette refuses to give him any information on Mr. Gray nor the corporation he works for. At the university, Jack runs into (or I should say runs after) Winnie Richards and tells her what he has found out about the Dylar. They enter into an interesting conversation, somewhat eye-opening for Jack, about death and the fear of death. Winnie says, “Fear is self-awareness raised to a higher level…If death can be seen as less strange and unreferenced, your sense of self in relation to death will diminish, and so will your fear.” She tells him to forget about the medicine.
One night, Jack awakes to his youngest Wilder staring inches away from his face. He gets up and looks out the window to find an eerie old man sitting his backyard. He believes the man is Death (this whole scene and passage is probably my favorite in the whole book), but upon further investigating, he discovers it’s actually his father-in-law, Vernon Dickey. He stays for a few days, and one of these nights, Jack enters Denise’s room while she sleeps. He looks for the bottle of Dylar but she awakes and tells him she’s thrown it away–into the trash compactor actually. Jack acquiesces, goes downstairs and finds Vernon up and smoking. Vernon takes Jack out to his car and gifts him a gun. Jack reluctantly accepts the weapon and stashes it away in his bedroom.
After Vernon leaves, Steffie jumps on a plane and goes to Mexico to visit her brith mother, and it’s around this time that Jack grows increasingly paranoid about his health, often contemplating his own death. On a walk, Jack consults Murray about his overwhelming anxiety. Murray proposes an idea with how to deal with it: kill somebody. Murray says, “Violence is a form of rebirth. The dier passively succumbs. The killer lives on…The killer, in theory, attempts to defeat his own death by killing others. He buys time, he buys life…Be the killer for a change. Let someone else be the dier. Let him replace you, theoretically, in that role. You can’t die if he does. He dies, you live…Kill to live.” Later, Jack runs into Winnie Richards, and she tells him about an article she read in a science magazine that detailed the mysterious corporation that produced Dylar. She revealed that the man previously known to Jack as Mr. Gray is actually named Willie Mink and he works in Iron City. Jack decides that he is the man that is to be killed, so Jack steals his neighbors’ car and sets off on a joy ride to find and kill Willie Mink.
He finds Willie Mink, has an odd conversation with him, Mink who clearly heavily intoxicated from the Dylar, and Jack proceeds to shoot him multiple times in the gut. However, things don’t really go as planned, a plan which, by the way, he repeats to himself over and over and over again. After a series of slapstick, physical engagements, and sustaining a gunshot himself, Jack drags Willie Mink into his car and brings him to a hospital run by nuns, but nuns who are, in a way, posing as nuns, whose religion dedication is actually a “pretense.”
Part three ends with a few vignettes, one of which is Wilder riding his bicycle into the heavy traffic crossing the freeway as two elderly onlookers watch in horror. He safely makes it to the other side, but begins crying when he realizes that they have been yelling at him. DeLillo concludes the book with a description of the supermarket, wherein all of the items have been rearranged which sends customers into a frenzy, “There is a sense of wandering now, an aimless and haunted mood, sweet-tempered people taken to the edge,” and how “everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks…tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial…miracle vitamins, cures for cancer, remedies for obesity…cults of the famous and the dead.”
Aside from throwing commentary on our addictive vices ie drugs, television, radio, and the dynamic of life entering into a postmodern digital age, DeLillo confronts head-on concepts like American consumerism, anxiety of death, and an impending apocalypse (which overshadows the real threat which connects back to our addictive vices). He buries such nuances under layers of ambiguity in dialogue and in prose, but every so often these magical subtleties jump right out of the page.
In the first part of the novel i.e. the chronicle of Jack’s home and work life in summation, many aspects of the “family life” are totally satirized. Also the exchanges between Jack and his colleagues, including (especially) Murray, as well as his students, are also super satirized. And when I say satirized, what I mean is that the events–actions of individuals, responses, behaviors–and the dialogues between characters fluctuate from being subtle and seemingly unimportant to being completely outrageous and extremely emphasized. Things go from 0 to 100 real quick. It’s this strange motion or quick movement in combination with un-expectance and surprise of turns of events or conversations–and specifically in regards to conversations, often strong, absurd analogies, wild tangents, insane attention to detail and specificity, and just streams of thoughts and words that seem very un-commonplace–that creates this kind of elevated atmosphere that is, in a way, very comical.
Also within this proverbial atmosphere is an eerie sense of impending “something.” There is something undefinable within these sequences of events, like an undertone of something foreboding or baneful. It almost feels like a Twilight Zone episode, especially with the overall aura of the small town clashing with the mysterious events that start taking place. [Also, quick side-note, it also kind of reminds me of Stranger Things (possibly because I recently watched the third season) because of the heavy ‘80’s vibe, not only in the description alone, but also in conjunction with this notion of an impending “something”]. All the talks about death, and a growing paranoia in Jack are probably what contribute to this overall sensation.
Throughout the entire novel, sprinkled into the texts are little one-liners that come from the radio or television, often unexpectedly. They occur so often that, collectively they can almost be thought of as another character in the story. Their presence–the voices from the television or radio–is constant, and always serves as a contrasting interruption to a scene–as if to disrupt a moment to insert an advertisement or bit about some talk show which seemingly pulls the dialogue back to reality. While in its own way, it is subtle accoutrement to hyper-realism, DeLillo, I think, is further adding another layer to his commentary on American consumerism, possibly citing the subtlety and subliminal mechanism of advertisement and the commercial world and how they seep into our daily lives. And DeLillo is saying how this is a BAD thing. In part two, he goes as far as to describe the ominous, deadly, black cloud of chemical waste that is hovering over the town sending people fleeing and scattering like fearful rats as: “…the cloud resembled a national promotion for death, a multimillion-dollar campaign backed by radio spots, heavy print and billboard, TV saturation.”
Probably the greatest undercurrent running throughout the novel, the force that confronts and changes both Jack and Babette, of course, is death. It’s always an interesting thing to think about. As the story unfolds, Jack grows further entrenched in his fear of death, while Babette seems to move away, then closer, then away…her relationship with death is certainly a roller coaster. Nonetheless, the questions posed about death are exceedingly poignant. In the face of the chemical cloud, Jack and Babette, as well as the rest of the town, are forced to resort back to their primitive states and survival instincts (they’re forcibly removed from the commercial reality they’re used to). However, despite Jack’s actions and thought processes surrounding his own paranoia, many of the great points brought up about death involve Murray. In the last few chapters, Murray and Jack, on a walk, begin talking about death.
Murray tells Jack, “Nothing is stronger than death [not even love] ...We all fear death to some extent. Those who claim otherwise are lying to themselves.” Then Murray asks Jack, “Doesn’t our knowledge of death make life more precious?” Now, what would most people say to that? Knowing that our lives will eventually end certainly presents life in a different light, if even just to contrast it to something, just simply knowing that there is a limit to “something” affects that “something,” makes it more tangible and fleeting. Most people would probably say yes, life is made more precious in the acknowledgement and acceptance of our eventual deaths. But Jack replies, “What good is a preciousness based on fear and anxiety? It’s an anxious quivering thing.” Murray responds, “True. The most deeply precious things are those we feel secure about. A wife, a child. Does the specter of death make a child more precious?” Jack, “No.” It’s interesting that after so many pages filled with the anxiety and fear about death, that Jack, instead of using that fear to motivate and guide him, twisting and molding his anxiety to benefit himself, in a way, succumbs to the darkness and can’t find the light. That myopic infection has spread to his outlook on life, philosophically, and morally. And the thing is, he’s not wrong! It’s still very logical, and pulls in a direction that not only is a bit unexpected, but is eye-opening too.
Regardless of the literary analysis and its postmodern themes, this novel is still very much worth reading. On the surface, it is a fantastic story about how a family in a small town with seemingly normal but at times quirky inhabitants deal with a catastrophic event. It also mixes in a bit of mystery/suspense/detective plot-lines which are always fun. On top of that, DeLillo’s description is top-notch and his prose is absolutely fantastic. He’s able to really paint a portrait of the ‘80’s in a way that’s relatable and at the same time lucid and encompassing. It’s no wonder why this book launched him into literary fame. GO READ IT.