White Noise

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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...

(This entire section contains 1875 words.)

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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 on his television watching, television is a matter of waves and radiation, a “primal force in the American home,” a source of “coded messages and endless repetitions, like chants, like mantras.” Just as television comes alive as a primal force, technology emerges as a “species of beast” in the form of the local hardware store. It is a “vast space” filled with a “great echoing din” and people speaking a spectrum of languages: “English, Hindi, Vietnamese, related tongues.”

Yet by far the most impressive sound in White Noise is the seven-hour outburst of crying that overwhelms the Gladneys’ young son Wilder. His unexplainable grief is terrible and exhausting to them all. The conclusion to his outpouring is cathartic to the whole family:It was as though he’d just returned from a period of wandering in some remote and holy place, in sand barrens or snowy ranges—a place where things are said, sights are seen, distances reached which we in our ordinary toil can only regard with the mingled reverence and wonder we hold in reserve for feats of the most sublime and difficult dimensions.

The ubiquitous noise in the background of the Gladneys’ lives represents perhaps the insistent whispering in the depths of consciousness that death conquers all. Fear of death is never far from Jack’s mind, or from Babette’s, either. Jack wakes up one morning at 3:51 “in the grip of a death sweat,” and when he reads the obituaries he notes the age of the deceased. He observes, “The power of numbers is never more evident than when we use them to speculate on the time of our dying.” In one passage, Babette considers the possibility that death is only sound which goes on and on. Jack’s description of this death sound as “uniform, white” is chilling and definitive.

All of Jack’s anxieties are intensified in part 2, “The Airborne Toxic Event,” when a poisonous cloud of Nyodene Derivative is accidentally released into the air. Everyone is evacuated from Blacksmith for nine days, an episode of tensions in people’s lives that DeLillo develops with convincing psychological realism. The event forces everyone’s apprehensions about death out into the open, spurring Murray on to a lyric lecture about the nature of modern death and a theory that people are now experiencing incidents of which they have long ago had precognitions that have been repressed. Now that “death is in the air” it is “liberating suppressed material,” Murray explains. The toxic event becomes an inescapable memento mori that wears down everyone’s spirits.

The third part, “Dylarama,” is the story of Babette’s obsession with a new drug, Dylar, supposedly capable of alleviating death fears. When Jack and Denise, Babette’s daughter, both find evidence of her drug use, they snoop around until Jack finds a capsule, which he then has analyzed by a neurochemist. Dylar turns out to be a potent experimental drug manufactured illegally with human volunteers as guinea pigs. Its manufacturer claims that it works on the part of the brain in which the fear of death originates, and Babette is so desperate in her misery that she allows the distributor to sleep with her in payment for two bottles of the capsules.

The toxic-waste cloud has also changed Jack’s life while Babette has been experimenting with Dylar, for computer studies of his medical history indicate that he is doomed. Although he shows no symptoms yet, he is convinced that the poisons have done their work on his body and that he can do nothing but wait helplessly for their effects to bloom. Faced with this challenge to his self-control, he is especially loving and understanding with Babette when he finally forces her to tell him the story of her Dylar experiments and adulteries under duress. When he confesses to her his own computer-predicted fate, they console each other in their human misery. Thus, the two incidents—the toxic-gas leak and the Dylar experiment—converge in White Noise in the mutual love of the emotionally exhausted Gladneys.

A long philosophical discussion of death with Murray gives Jack a new perspective on his plight. Murray argues that all humans must repress their fear of death if they are to cope with it. He explains to Jack that there are two kinds of people in the world—killers and diers—and that the killers try to accumulate strength from their victims. Murray admits that is he speaking theoretically, but he argues for the existence of “a fund, a pool, a reservoir of potential violence in the male psyche.” Their discussion leads, in effect, to Murray’s advising Jack to become a killer rather than a dier, and, with this advice to guide him, Jack undertakes to say goodbye to himself by ransacking the house for possessions to throw away.

Jack’s resolve to act violently coincides with the visit of his father-in-law, an aging roustabout who leaves him a small pistol, thus providing him with a convenient agent of death. Furthermore, he is briefed on Dylar by his neurochemist friend, learning in the discussion the name—Willie Mink—of his wife’s lover and the motel in which he can be found. He has also had a recent and comprehensive physical examination which hints at a “nebulous mass” that he interprets as the result of Nyodene Derivative poisoning. Jack, then, is intellectually and psychologically prepared for an act of violence that will, he hopes, not only assuage his death fears but also offer him a satisfying blood revenge on the man who has cuckolded him.

Jack executes his plan in a surrealistic fashion, beginning with the theft of his neighbor’s car and a reckless drive to the motel, where he finds Mink. He does not reveal himself to Mink as Babette’s husband but instead represents himself as someone who wants Dylar for himself. In the mad motel-room denouement, Jack manages to shoot Mink twice, but when he puts the gun in Mink’s hand to make the affair look like a suicide, Mink straightens up and shoots Jack in the wrist. The bizarre conclusion finds Jack driving them both to the emergency room of a nearby hospital and surreptitiously returning the neighbor’s blood-stained car.

White Noise has the characteristically bright surface of DeLillo’s novels, with language that is always inventive and often poetic. The wry comic dialogues of Orest Mercator and Murray Jay Siskind are also standard DeLillo features, coming from individuals whose yearnings seem very real and whom DeLillo never savages or patronizes. The Gladneys are all exceptionally likable people who retain the reader’s sympathy throughout, and their harrowing tale achieves a deep archetypal attraction that makes White Noise an exceptionally satisfying novel.

Literary Techniques

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DeLillo gains his comic effects in White Noise by the constant juxtaposition of traditional expectations about meaning — of language, of relationships, of professions — with the contemporary phenomena of popular culture, all effectively devoid of the kind of significance assumed to have been part of life "before." Jack Gladney, robed in traditional academic garb, is representative of this. Even he is uncomfortably aware that "Hitler Studies" is hardly consistent with older notions of valid academic disciplines or curricula. When everything is supposed to be significant, when even the most trivial phenomena demand "equal time" and attention, then those things that had seemed important lose importance and meaninglessness becomes the norm. DeLillo evokes the image of a supermarket line in the concluding paragraphs of the novel: "A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead." That passage is a microcosmic example of DeLillo's comic technique, as well as an effective summary of the world of White Noise.

Literary Precedents

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White Noise may be said to be an amalgam of a number of recognizable contemporary fictions. It is a satire of academic life as were Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution (1954), Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe (1952) and John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy (1966); although the apocalypticism of White Noise is a different kind altogether from Barth's version). The disruptive impact of the arrival of the mysterious cloud — revealing the underlying negative characteristics of the academic pastoral — is reminiscent of any number of "catastrophes," though none of the others is worthy of comparison. (Some interesting comparisons might develop by juxtaposing Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins, 1971, however.) Gladney's badly botched effort to murder the man responsible for his wife's deteriorating mental and physical state, and its comic aftermath, might suggest a comparison with the many versions and imitations of the film Death Wish. It is part of DeLillo's genius that he is able to transform such common materials through his satiric vision into stories and images frighteningly strange and distressingly familiar.

Bibliography

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Aaron, Daniel. “How to Read Don DeLillo.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (Spring, 1990): 305-319. Aaron provides a general survey of the salient elements in DeLillo’s fiction. He addresses various themes and concerns under such headings as “catastrophe” and “conspiracy.” White Noise figures prominently in his examples.

Bonca, Cornel. “Don DeLillo’s White Noise: The Natural of the Species.” College Literature 23 (June, 1996): 25-44. Bonca examines White Noise as one of a few postmodern novels that has the ability to reach students and encourage them to explore the effects of mass media and the idea of death. Bonca describes his experiences teaching the White Noise and discusses recent critical work on the novel.

Caton, Lou. “Romanticism and the Postmodern Novel: Three Scenes from DeLillo’s White Noise.” English Language Notes 35 (September, 1997): 38-48. Caton examines the novel’s depiction of romantic attitudes despite the critical view of the novel as skeptical about an orderly universe. Catton asserts that White Noise questions the notion that people have never been confronted with the philosophical crises that they face at the end of the twentieth century.

DeCurtis, Anthony. “ An Outsider in This Society’: An Interview with Don DeLillo.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (Spring, 1990): 281-304. Especially important and interesting because DeLillo is generally so reluctant to speak or write about himself. Most of the interview focuses on Libra, then recently published. The last several pages, however, largely concern White Noise.

Edmunson, Mark. “Not Flat, Not Round, Not There: Don DeLillo’s Novel Characters.” Yale Review 83 (April, 1995): 107-124. Discusses how DeLillo’s characters reflect the modern self and challenge Freudian notions. Edmundson analyzes this method in several of DeLillo’s books, including White Noise.

Goodheart, Eugene. “Some Speculations on Don DeLillo and the Cinematic Real.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (Spring, 1990): 355-368. Goodheart notes that DeLillo characteristically puts the “existence of the self into question.” This old theme is made fresh by the use of cinematic techniques that make the characters, even in their own eyes, two-dimensional. White Noise is discussed at length.

Keesey, Douglas. Don DeLillo. New York: Twayne, 1993. A thorough introductory study of DeLillo that covers DeLillo’s major works and includes a chapter devoted to White Noise.

King, Noel. “Reading White Noise: Floating Remarks.” The Critical Quarterly 33 (Autumn, 1991): 66-83. King begins with a theoretical discussion of the term “postmodern.” He concludes that White Noise is at once a “quite traditional novel” and a meditation of the postmodern. The novel shows modern times as an age of “distorted communication and information.”

LeClair, Tom. In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997. LeClair asserts that DeLillo should be acknowledged as one of America’s leading novelists. In this study, LeClair examines eight of DeLillo’s novels in detail from the perspective of systems theory.

Lentricchia, Frank, ed. Introducing Don DeLillo. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991. A collection of critical essays which are a solid overview of DeLillo’s art, and the social and intellectual context of his writings.

Lentricchia, Frank, ed. New Essays on “White Noise.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. This collection of essays provides an overview of DeLillo and his novel.

McClure, John A. “Postmodern Romance: Don DeLillo and the Age of Conspiracy.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (Spring, 1990): 337-353. McClure addresses the concept of the conspiracy, prevalent in DeLillo’s fiction. Historical currents are the stuff of romance; DeLillo’s modern heroes locate romance in espionage and conspiracy. McClure discusses DeLillo in a context of such writers as Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, and Graham Greene.

Peyser, Thomas. “Globalization in America: The Case of Don DeLillo’s White Noise.” CLIO 25 (Spring, 1996): 255-271. Although White Noise is often seen as “obstinately domestic,” Peyser argues that DeLillo presents a disturbing vision of a globalized America whose cultural and territorial boundaries exist in theory only.

Saltzman, Arthur. “The Figure in the Static: White Noise.” Modern Fiction Studies 40 (Winter, 1994): 807-826. An analysis of DeLillo’s technique of flooding the main characters with information and cultural debris without compromising plot.

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