In White Noise, the characters themselves announce the themes—death, the nature of reality, government conspiracies, the possibility of happiness in contemporary America—and then analyze them through their thoughts and especially through their conversations throughout the novel. White Noise is, therefore, as much a symposium or colloquy as it is a traditional realistic novel.
The various themes and conflicts in the novel can be summed up in one question: Why are modern people so unhappy? No character in the novel suffers from hunger or poverty. The novel begins and ends, in fact, in a context of material comfort and plenitude. The opening scene of parents helping their sons and daughters unload their belongings in preparation for the first days of college makes Jack uneasy and leads Babette to think of death. The last scene takes place in a supermarket with shelves laden with items that the characters certainly have the wherewithal to purchase; because the shelves have recently been rearranged, however, the shoppers are unsettled to the point of neurosis and desperation.
One problem with American life may be that people mistakenly believe that their problems are idiosyncratically modern and American. They try to invent new remedies, such as psychoanalysis, space-age drugs, and self-indulgent material goods, for afflictions that are not new at all. White Noise is replete with imagery connecting the present and the...
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