Jack Gladney is chairman of the department of Hitler studies at College-on-the-Hill, but he feels insecure because he can neither speak nor read German. He lives harmoniously with his wife, Babette, and with his kids, her kids, and their kids. They are a likable, bright family, and the children are especially vulnerable and appealing. Uneasy about a conference on Hitler studies soon to be hosted by his department, Jack studies German with an eccentric autodidact who has studied meteorology by correspondence and “got a degree to teach the subject in buildings with a legal occupancy of less than one hundred.”
Howard Dunlop, the self-taught meteorologist, makes up a comic trio along with Murray Jay Siskind, Jack’s friend who rummages around in the debris of popular culture, and the imaginative teenager Orest Mercator, obsessed with spending a record time in a cageful of black mambas. Readers of earlier novels by Don DeLillo, especially End Zone (1972) and Ratner’s Star (1976), will quickly recognize in these three characters a special kind of amiable looniness that DeLillo is adept at creating. Such characters in his fiction are always charming, guileless, and original. Dunlop, the German teacher, for example, besides German, teaches Greek, Latin, and ocean sailing, as well as the weather classes in small buildings. When Jack gets to know Dunlop better, he learns that Dunlop became obsessed with weather patterns and data as a relief from the shock he suffered at his mother’s death. This insight helps Jack to understand Dunlop, and it fits him into the main theme of the novel: the insidious, debilitating, omnipresent sense of one’s eventual death.
Murray Jay Siskind’s life has another kind of pathos. He has come to the College-on-the-Hill to escape the city’s heat and the sexual entanglements that he claims torment him there. He lives in a crumbling house near an insane asylum, sharing his address with seven other boarders whose spiritual malaise appears in a variety of dark guises. He craves winning the minds of women, especially those whose sensibilities are complex, neurotic, and difficult. Murray reads the ads in Ufologist Today, takes Jack to see the most photographed barn in America, and hires a prostitute on whom he wants to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Despite Murray’s inventive ways of coping with life, his loneliness is apparent. His efforts to develop a “vulnerability that women will find attractive” produce only a “half sneaky look, sheepish and wheedling.”
Jack’s son Heinrich introduces him to Orest Mercator, whom Jack tries to dissuade from his mad hope to spend sixty-seven days in a cage with poisonous reptiles. Orest appears only briefly in White Noise, but his bravado about death is touching, and it captures well the courage and the aspiration for self-realization that characterize the children in the novel.
Jack’s own struggles with the German language are comic, and his well-meant but futile earnestness is at once sad, funny, and very human. Preparing for the Hitler conference, he compiles long lists of words that are the same in both German and English. The result is a conference speech that is bewilderingly narrow in the range of its diction but spotted with allusions to Adolf Hitler’s dog, whose name, Wolf, is the same in both German and English. After this “disjointed and odd” speech, as Jack calls it, he spends much time trying to hide from the Germans at the conference. His summation of his misery when forced into hearty social intercourse catches exactly the discomfiture of many people in the presence of fluent bilingual speakers: “All I could do was mutter a random monosyllable, rock with empty laughter. I spent a lot of time in my office, hiding.”
One somber theme of the novel is prefigured in its title, White Noise. Sounds from various sources fill up the background everywhere, with a steady hiss that dominates all frequencies like white noise. Part 1, “Waves and Radiation,” abounds in noise and discussions of noise. When Jack goes to the supermarket in Blacksmith, the little town where he lives, he realizes that the cavernous interior is “awash in sound . And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.” The remark fills out the earlier observation by his son Heinrich that sensory perceptions are often deceiving and that there are sounds “out there” that go unheard.
For Murray, who spends hours taking notes...
(The entire section is 1875 words.)