At once hilarious and horrifying, Don DeLillo’s White Noise dramatizes a contemporary American family’s attempt to deal with the mundane conflicts of day-to-day life while grappling with the larger philosophical issues of love, death, and the possibility of happiness in an uncertain world. The novel is divided into three sections. All incidents, images, and exchanges among characters in the first section, “Waves and Radiation,” culminate thematically in the second section, “The Airborne Toxic Event.” The third section, “Dylarama,” chronicles not only the direct effects of the “event” but also the indirect but even more profound changes in the way the characters subsequently see themselves and their world.
The novel’s first-person narrator is Jack Gladney, a college professor specializing in studies of Adolf Hitler. Many of the other characters are also in some sense observers of contemporary culture: Murray Jay Siskind, an Elvis Presley specialist; Jack’s other colleagues in the popular culture department; his son Heinrich, who translates technical information to his father and the reader; and his daughter Steffie, whose obsession with health has made her into an expert in drugs and medical matters. The bulk of the novel is less a sequence of important events than a series of dialogues concerning various interests and obsessions.
Immediately after the opening chapter, with its description of incoming college students—luggage, stereos, tennis rackets, and other equipment in tow—Jack goes home and discusses with his wife Babette what he has just witnessed. In the middle of the discussion, Babette remarks that she can hardly imagine people with such material wealth being concerned with death. The comment seems irrelevant to the subject at hand, and neither she nor Jack pursues it. DeLillo has subtly introduced a theme that will grow larger over the course of the novel, that of death, and how one can live in full knowledge of its inevitability.
The remainder of part 1 follows much the same pattern, with Jack and someone else discussing a phenomenon that at first may seem only mildly interesting (the ominously beautiful sunsets, some strange pills of Babette’s that Jack discovers) but that involve associations that acquire greater power through repetition (the environment, conspiracies of one kind or another, and, always, death).
The action begins to accelerate in part 2, in which a train derailment unleashes a noxious drifting cloud. The fact that no one knows much with certainty about the cloud—or if “they” know, they are not telling—adds to Jack’s and his family’s anxiety. Eventually, they leave their home and join a caravan of refugees fleeing the toxic event zone. Jack is briefly exposed to the cloud. The family finally is quarantined alongside hundreds of others in a large barracks. Nine days later they are allowed to return home.
In part 3, Jack and his family must deal with the physical and emotional effects of the toxic event. For Jack, the most tangible effect is a “nebulous mass” discovered during an X-ray examination. The mass may mean nothing or it may mean, eventually, death. Jack is equally worried about Babette after he finds a cache of Dylar tablets. He learns that the drug is designed to treat a peculiar neurosis, the excessive fear of death. After confronting Babette, Jack also finds that she has been “purchasing” the experimental drug by having sex with the sleazy Willie Mink. Jack confronts Willie, then shoots him, but not fatally.
The novel ends, appropriately, with very little resolved. Mink is in the hospital but apparently thinks he has shot himself. Babette still fears death, as does Jack, and the sunsets are still ominously glorious.
White Noise probably succeeded mostly for its dramatization of a topical issue: the danger to the environment—and to humankind—represented by the many substances continually issuing from chemistry laboratories. While death from...
(The entire section is 1,592 words.)