Part 1, Chapter 11 Summary
Jack Gladney wakes up in a sweat at 3:51 a.m., riddled with paralyzing fear. He moves close to his wife’s warm body and finally falls asleep again. This time he is awakened by the smell of burnt toast, a smell Steffie loves. It is her treasured scent.
Babette and Steffie are in the kitchen; Gladney joins them. He feels old, as he will turn fifty-one next week. Steffie’s mother, Donna Breedlove, is about the same age as Babette and a contract agent for the CIA. When the phone rings and Steffie is distracted by a computer-generated marketing survey, Gladney tells his wife that Steffie’s mom used to pit people against one another and speak in foreign languages to create intrigue.
After a delicious meal (cooked by Siskind on his two-burner hot plate), the Gladneys move from the metal folding chairs to the bunk bed for their coffee. As a sportswriter, Siskind was always traveling; now he is happy to have a place he considers home, even if it is small, dark, and plain.
Gladney asks if he ever hears noises from the insane asylum next door; he does not. Siskind wishes his guests had brought their kids as he is convinced that it is children who are shaping the future of society. Even his young college students already are becoming irrelevant to advertisers and “mass-producers of culture.” Children are the only “true universal.”
Siskind asks Babette how many children she has. Wilder and Denise are hers and they live with the Gladneys; her eight-year-old son, Eugene, is living in the Australian outback with his father, who is doing research there.
Gladney notes that since Eugene is growing up without a television, the boy might be worth interviewing. He is a “sort of wild child, a savage plucked from the bush, intelligent and literate but deprived of the deeper codes and messages that mark the species as unique.”
Whereas some people believe that television is a form of great evil, Siskind has spent hours watching and taking notes and finds the medium a mystical, primal force in American homes. It is a mystic grid filled with concealed data in the form of colorful packaging, commercial jingles, diverse products, and untold “sacred formulas” that will help viewers overcome their weariness, agitation, and disgust with their worlds. His students disagree, believing television to be nothing but junk mail; that is why they are more interested in movies.
When Babette asks, Siskind says he was married once, briefly, and knows he must seem like a very odd fellow now. None of his lifestyle choices would preclude a woman in his life, however.
On their walk home, Babette bemoans the fact that she seems to be forgetting everything. When Gladney asks her about any substance she might be taking that contributes to this, as Denise suspects, Babette only says she is not sure because she has a problem with her memory. She hopes her life lasts forever.