Explore the relationship between death (in its various conceivable forms) and consumption (notably: eating and buying) in the "real" postmodern world.
White Noise by Don DeLillo is a social commentary on many things, including excessive materialism and the fear of death.
The novel begins and ends with displays of materialism. Jack Gladney is a college professor who once again watches a great throng of parents dropping their kids off for the fall semester. The list of items which those students are unloading from their cars is extensive: sleeping bags, sporting equipment, refrigerators, electronics, computers, hot plates, backpacks, stereos and junk food. It’s a lot of “stuff.”
This scene of excessive consumerism is mirrored at the end of the novel, when everything in the supermarket has been rearranged, causing the shoppers great distress and fear. The people are panicked and angry because they cannot buy all they want to buy.
In between, food (and its cousin, consumerism) is an ever-present character in the novel. Babette is constantly worrying about her weight and thus about food. She worries about eating “unhealthy” foods, about not buying healthy food because she should, about ignoring that food sitting in her refrigerator and about wasting that food when she doesn’t eat it. The Gladneys often buy bags and bags of brightly colored food while Murray buys only a few generically packaged items. The Treadwells nearly die in an empty cookie kiosk at the mall, eating out of trash cans to survive, and the entire town of Blacksmith has gotten overweight because they have been in a “fever of eating.”
Gladney and his family go on a manic shopping spree:
There was always another store, three floors, eight floors...I shopped with reckless abandon…. I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it...I began to grow in value and self-regard. I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I'd forgotten existed. Brightness settled around me. I traded money for goods. The more money I spent, the less important it seemed. I was bigger than these sums.
Just as food, eating and materialism are integral parts of the Gladneys’ lives, so is the hovering presence of death. Talk of and fear of death are both pervasive; Babette even trades sexual favors for a pill meant to alleviate her excessive fear of death. They both try to cover their fears by consuming (both food and other things), but the fear is always just below the surface—and bubbles up consistently in the novel.
Both elements are inextricably woven into their lives, and as the mall episode demonstrates, Jack tries to find his worth in “things” as a substitute for things that really matter. He and Babette both try to keep death at bay: one by constantly worrying about what she does and doesn’t eat and one by buying things he doesn’t need or even want. That’s also a familiar way of life for a modern materialistic society that’s more concerned about the temporal than about the eternal and is seeking to bury its own fears about what happens after death.
As for a real-life application, perhaps the concept of white noise, represented in many ways, is the most obvious and universal. We are surrounded by human noise as well as the noises made by technology and other artificial things; Babette and Jack even wonder if death is just a kind of prolonged, horrible white noise. Both death and white noise permeate their lives, and the same is true for us. White noise in the modern world, then, is not a distraction as much as it is the canvas on which life is painted.
In an information society, there is much left open to interpretation and therefore "real" becomes a subjective word, based on differing perspectives and understandings which in turn create a less tangible, every day existence. In White Noise, DeLillo introduces the reader to the possibilities of living according to a changing set of standards and rules as the "real" world fades away and the physical senses no longer determine events or prompt reaction. The act of eating, a sociable event which encourages families to share is now nothing more than the physical act and "nothingness" has replaced meaningful conversation.
Overeating dominates many of the issues and it is the very self-indulgent lifestyle that is, in fact, responsible for the loss of identity and search for a new reality, where death does not bring finality. The new belief is that it should be possible to overcome death, just like disease. Babette is a victim of circumstance and her food obsession stems from her fixation with her weight. She is always conflicted between what she wants and what she ought to buy, wasting food and unhealthy options. The whole town, in a “fever of eating,” is now overweight. Babette has even taken an experimental drug and her own overwhelming fear of dying has even changed her personality. The conversations between Babette and Jack and their concerns about who might die first, pervade their existence and ability to find meaning. Now their seemingly honest relationship is built on untruths and obsessions.
Shopping and eating should provide Jack with outlets for his obsession with death and its limitations and he seeks to find self worth as, "the more money I spent, the less important it seemed." However, his initial interest in shopping cannot replace how he really defines himself through the endless possibilities of death as a mystery. In the process, he then loses his own perception, even though he is aware that his obsession with death is causing him to miss out. His inability to accept Winnie's advice and move on means he cannot appreciate anything, not even the "postmodern sunset" as he wonders: "Why try to describe it?" There is real irony in the indisputable fact that "The higher you go, the closer you get to the sun. So the warmer it gets" which contrasts with the reality of cooler, freezing temperatures at higher altitudes.
People become less accountable as they believe in the power of technology in creating reality. When every piece of information becomes as important as the next piece, it becomes almost impossible to find real meaning in anything. Jack's search for himself is fruitless as he is unable to separate himself from the consumerism, which translates as "white noise," that surrounds him. The test of his character never materializes as, despite preparing to meet his fears in the face of looming disaster and the "airborne toxic event," nothing ultimately changes.
As everything real, such as family, relationships and education, ceases to create and maintain communities, there is no alternative from the "noise" and the possibility: "What if death is nothing but sound?" The over-stimulation of the senses cannot be avoided and there is no apparent alternative.