Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 989
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 chemical poisoning is a major theme of the novel, however, it is only subsidiary to the grim awareness of inevitable death and annihilation that seizes everyone’s consciousness in the book. White noise fills up all frequencies, creating a steady hiss. In DeLillo’s imagination, it becomes a sobering metaphor for that low, monotonous, but steady small whisper of human mortality constantly filling up the otherwise unused frequencies of an individual’s mental processes.
White Noise has all the best features of a DeLiIlo novel: crazy characters presented with wit and imagination, language that carries its conceptions gracefully, several wonderfully conceived set pieces, and a major character who at the end braces himself against the world’s madness. It also has the failure of plot that is not unexpected in a DeLillo novel.
White Noise is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Waves and Radiation,” develops the comic characterizations and dwells on the ubiquitous noises that make up the background to everyday life; the “dull and unbeatable roar” of the supermarket, the “great echoing din” of the hardware store, and, most disturbing of all, a seven-hour spell of loud crying that inexplicably overtakes the protagonist’s young son. Jack Gladney, the first-person narrator, chairs the department of Hitler studies at College-on-the-Hill.
Jack suffers much unease over his inability either to read German or to speak it, a scholarly failure that leads to a comic interlude when Jack hosts a conference on Hitler studies but hides from all the German participants. His welcoming speech includes all the words he can find that are the same in both German and English, and it features many allusions to Hitler’s dog, Wolf, whose name is the same in both languages.
Jack’s two closest colleagues are Howard Dunlop, a self-taught meteorologist, and Murray Jay Siskind, a researcher in popular culture. Howard’s correspondence school degree in meteorology authorizes him to teach that subject “in buildings with a legal occupancy of less than one hundred.” Even this eccentricity traces to a preoccupation with death, as Howard came to the subject when he found in patterns of weather data a structure that helped him cope with the trauma of his mother’s death. Murray Jay Siskind’s comic obsessions—reading the advertisements in Ufologist Today and performing the Heimlich maneuver on a prostitute, for example—are rooted in his overwhelming loneliness. He seeks to present a “vulnerability that women will find attractive” but manages only a “half sneaky look, sheepish and wheedling.” These three wounded academics are complemented by a friend of Jack’s son, the teenage Orest Mercator. Orest’s desperation appears in his obsession with spending sixty-seven days in a cage of poisonous snakes.
Part 2 is “The Airborne Toxic Event,” a sterile euphemism for the cloud of Nyodene derivative that drives everyone from the college town of Blacksmith for nine days. DeLillo invests the event with an appropriate menace and paranoia, and Jack Gladney’s exposure to the toxic gas fills the back of his mind with a white noise exactly like the hum of nuclear warfare that settles into Gary Harkness’s consciousness in End Zone. The deadly cloud forces everyone to face up to their thoughts of death, and it leads to the terrible human problem that Jack has to fight in the last section of the book.
Part 3, “Dylarama,” reveals that Jack’s wife, Babette, is overwhelmed by her fear of death. Jack learns of Babette’s terror when he finds out that she is furtively taking an experimental drug, Dylar, that is supposed to neutralize the area of the brain in which fear of death arises. To pay for the Dylar, Babette sleeps with the distributor.
Jack’s discovery of Babette’s plight coincides with his realization that, given his medical history, he is doomed by his exposure to Nyodene. Suffering himself, he confronts Babette and persuades her to tell him her own nightmares about death and to tell of her sexual betrayal. They can only comfort each other.
At this point, the plot of White Noise disintegrates in a bizarre, surreal denouement prompted by a lecture on death that Murray gives to Jack. In Murray’s interpretation of human nature, everyone must repress the fear of death to survive. Those who cope best are the killers, as opposed to the “diers.” The killers feed on the lives of the diers and gain strength from “a fund, a pool, a reservoir of potential violence in the male psyche.”
Swayed by Murray’s vision of the weak and the strong, Jack distinguishes himself from those DeLillo protagonists who seek cover under stress. Jack takes a pistol left him by his father-in-law, steals his neighbor’s car, and shows up at the hotel room of Willie Mink, the man who has sold Babette the Dylar and cuckolded Jack. The shootout that ensues is absurd: Jack shoots Mink twice, but Mink gets the gun and shoots Jack in the wrist. Jack drives them both to the emergency room and then returns his neighbor’s bloodstained car, giving up on his destiny as a killer. The novel ends as it must, with no resolution to the constant haunting awareness of the death that everyone faces.
Much of White Noise is rendered poetically through DeLillo’s careful attention to language. The comic creations, both funny and poignant, are among his best; the set pieces on the crying child, the Hitler conference, and the toxic event are excellent. The good people deserve the reader’s concern, and the bad person, Willie Mink, is straight from DeLillo’s special gallery of unsavory human predators. Most significant, perhaps, is the sense of the menacing white noise that lingers on in the reader’s consciousness.