A disconnect exists between expectation and reality in America. There is the promised state of being, of living “the dream” as beamed through television and, more recently, through the Internet. And there is the squalid and mundane reality of everyday existence and the analog world. That disconnect finds expression in various aspects of its society: a proliferation of therapists, a preoccupation with reinvention, and language that plumbs the interstices between certainty and conjecture. (An example of this last-mentioned category is the conversational “like” when expressing an opinion or fact. “I feel like we could do without that color” or “She was, like, so angry”).
Don DeLillo is an expert at mining this territory. In numerous books, he has written about this shape-shifting reality. I’d read Libra back in 2017. Recently, I picked up “White Noise” from a free library near my place. It lay on my bedside table for the next four months, an object of duty and procrastination, until sheer boredom and rising anxiety led me to it during this quarantine (or “self-isolation” as it is being referred to currently).
A Surreal and Toxic Turn of Events
Considered DeLillo’s breakout work, White Noise won the National Book Award in 1985 and spawned an entire genre of post-modern literature. The title refers to the chorus of voices building up inside and around Jack Gladney – the book’s central character. Gladney is the department head of Hitler Studies, at a college in Blacksmith, a fictitious Midwest town. His colleagues are disaffected New York emigres: smart, stylish, and deeply unhappy at being there. Gladney himself is considered an authority on the Nazi leader because he created the world’s first department dedicated to his study. He has been married four times, twice to the same woman, and has five children. He lives with his current wife Babette and four kids –two sons 14-year-old Heinrich and 20-month-old Wilder – and two daughters, Steffi and Denise. Their lives are suburban: family responsibilities, grocery shopping, dinner parties with colleagues, charity and church.
An Airborne Toxic Event throws this humdrum existence into chaos. The event is actually a black cloud making its way to their town. It is supposed to contain harmful toxic chemicals that evoke a sense of déjà vu. News of the event begins as a side item but snowballs into a catastrophe. Emergency sirens begin sounding after breakfast one day and the entire town is shunted into special camps created to protect people from Nyodene Derivative – the toxic chemical.
Gladney is exposed to Nyodene D. for two-and-a-half minutes and is diagnosed with, of all the things, death. The diagnosis comes from an officer of SIMUVAC –short for simultaneous evacuation – at one of the camps.
“Am I going to die?” he asks the officer. “Not as such,” the officer responds and informs him that the chemical has a life span of thirty years in the human body. By that time, Gladney will be in his 80s. For most, that is the average human life span. But Gladney is filled with unhappiness and tragedy at the thought.
“That little breath of Nyodene has planted a death in my body. It is now official, according to the computer. I’ve got death inside of me. It’s just a question of whether or not I can outlive it.”
Gladney learns later that his wife shares his fears and has been taking pills to deal with it. The pills, called Dylar, are distributed as part of a research study conducted by Dr. Gray, a pseudonym given to the scientist by his wife. He is an unscrupulous researcher who sleeps with his subjects before allowing them to participate in the study. Babette herself became a participant after sleeping with him multiple times in a seedy motel.
The white noise, until now a static of an amorphous shape around Gladney, gathers form and direction after this conversation with his wife.
Events build up with speed.
His father-in-law gifts him with a gun. He has a discussion with a colleague about violence and killing as a form of rebirth for those anxious about impending death. He learns that Dr. Gray is actually Willie Mink and he is stationed at the same motel in Germantown, near Blacksmith.
Then there is a denouement. Gladney goes to the motel and shoots him with the gun but he feels guilty immediately afterwards. He calls a doctor for Mink, who is coherent even after the shooting, and hands him over to atheist German nuns. We are back in American suburbia at the novel’s end and it closes with images of Wilder, Gladney’s youngest son, learning how to ride a tricycle.
On Pandemics and White Noise
This is a strange and surreal time to be reading White Noise. The COVID-19 pandemic has silenced all of New York City. A city that, less than two months ago, shouted and cursed in more than 800 languages is now confined to homes, the ambulatory drones its only sound in some neighborhoods. Occasionally, we peer out of our windows. Facemasked, we walk through neighborhood parks and streets, eyeing each other warily, worried about becoming carriers for an unseen enemy. At 7 pm, we dutifully applaud essential workers. News bulletins inform us what we need to know: rising death tolls, government infighting over critical medical equipment, heartwarming and tragic stories of “the ones we’ve lost”. Even within the confines of our homes, the pandemic is a theatrical tragedy.
DeLillo’s Airborne Toxic Event is similar. The toxic cloud is a “black billowing cloud”; at one point in the novel, it is illuminated by seven government helicopters as it passes into the town. The image, black against light, evokes “a sense of awe that borders on religiousness”. It is full of “chlorides, benzines, phenols, hydrocarbons or whatever precise toxic content”. Face masks are distributed in camps to protect from the cloud’s toxic chemicals.
As with Libra, DeLillo is preoccupied with the nature of reality. It is not absolute and is contrived through various forces. It is sketched by and mediated through television and technology. Information is rumor and rumor is information in DeLillo’s world. We do not learn about the actual nature or effects of the toxic event. But we are informed that it has been penetrated by Air Force heroes who have detoxified it of harmful chemicals.
Or so the rumor holds.
The conversations and the surrounding white noise alters reality. The supposed chemical, its effects, and provenance bring Mylex-suited men to the town. By the novel’s end, they are still around.
The white noise also permeates households. The Gladney household talks about factoids and narratives peddled by the media and consumer culture. They produce a babel of meaningless noise, misremembered details, and circular talk.
“Dakar isn’t her name, it’s where she’s from,” Denise said. “It’s a country on the ivory coast of Africa.”
“The capital is Lagos,” Babette said. “I know that because of a surfer movie I saw once where they travel all over the world.”
“The Perfect Wave,” Heinrich said. “I saw it on TV”.
“But what’s the girl’s name?” Steffie said.
This might sound like a tragedy but there is a levity to DeLillo’s writing.
In that sense, White Noise is comedy and drama rolled into one. Gladney, his family and friends, are parodies of academic life. Their anxieties and concerns are the philosophical equivalent of navel-gazing. DeLillo followed White Noise with Libra. But the latter book revisits themes that are already present in White Noise.
Perhaps the only issue that I have of the novel are the heavy-handed interior monologues and descriptions of characters, especially Gladney. While DeLillo’s sentences and biting descriptions of his character’s preoccupations are a delight, they also move away from the plot at times and veer into philosophical discourses that do not advance the plot forward. This deliberate slowing down of the narrative can be off-putting, especially because the storyline and its implications are interesting.
But that is not a full-throated complaint, more of an observation. White Noise is an interesting and, even, satisfying satire read during these surreal times.