White Noise

By Don DeLillo

White Noise hisses between radio stations, on the TV, between life and death. It permeates the airwaves. It’s the death knell that slips into the caverns, the subterranean passages that “distinguish words from things.” The unimaginable weight of death presses on Jack Gladney’s shoulders. He is a professor, the head of Hitler Studies at the College-On-The-Hill, located somewhere in the Midwest of the US. He has been married five times, and with his current wife, Babette, they live with four young representatives of their previous failed marriages, Heinrich, Denise, Steffie, and Wilder. Gladney can’t speak German.

White Noise, Don DeLillo’s eighth novel was published in 1985. Most things from 1985 are old now. But like fashion, hairstyles, fads and music they can be resurrected, given a new label, become new again. This is partially due to our keen sense of nostalgia, our ceaseless urge to retell old stories in new ways, to perhaps ground ourselves in the now through what came before. But what if there is more to it? What if in fact you are a materialistic zombie that only knows your hat from your arse because mass commercial culture has made the distinction for you? At this point do you really think that you contain even a teardrop of an original thought? Do you think of yourself as part of a counter-culture? How do you identify yourself then? Stripped down, are the means you use to identify yourself truly any different from the mainstream? Or do you really believe that you get your information from a subversive channel, one where white noise divides you from the others and gives you agency?

Gladney finds peace in the supermarket. He runs into a friend in the isle, Murray Siskind. Murray’s basket is full of generic, non-brand food and drink items, packaged in white, void of the colour schemes, lovable designs, and clear windows we love to stare into to form an emotional attachment with our food. “It’s the new austerity,” Murray says to Jack. “Flavorless packaging. It appeals to me. I feel I’m not only saving money but contributing to some kind of spiritual consensus. It’s like World War III. Everything is white.” They leave the supermarket together having completed their individualised personal grocery lists.

Gladney and Babette are terrified of death. It consumes them. “Who will die first?” They ask one another. They agree that Babette will, not because she is physically any weaker, but she is afraid to be alone, and for Jack there exists a strange gentlemanly repose in being able to comfort Babette in that way. Then the Airborne Toxic Event happens.

At first it was classified as a “feathery plume”, then a “black billowing cloud”. The family has trouble keeping up with the toxin’s damaging symptoms. Sweaty palms, vomiting, déjà vu – why must the TV and the radio do this, change their minds? The family needs to be told what to do. However, Gladney doesn’t seem worried. “These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor people and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters … I’m a college professor. Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods?” Upon evacuation he is exposed to the toxic cloud while filling his gas tank. A representative of SIMUVAC is on sight to judge Gladney’s mortality. It doesn’t look good for Gladney. But first he has to know why an organisation that specialises in simulated evacuations is on hand for a real event. “We know that [it’s real]. But we thought we could use it as a model.” Gladney responds, “A form of practice? Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?” “We took it to the streets,” the representative says. Gladney has been exposed. Death is inside him now. The simulation is the ideal. White noise.

With his death internalised the narrative refocuses on the fear of death that both Gladney and Babette share. She has been sleeping with a scientist that invented Dylar, a drug that cures the fear of dying. Gladney wants the drug, but also to kill its creator.

The contradiction of killing your dealer is juxtaposed by our own longing to escape the mediums we choose to define us. DeLillo’s White Noise identifies the flimsy fabric that makes up the simulated reality we call real. Gladney’s son asks him early in the novel: “WHAT good is my truth? My truth means nothing. … Is there such a thing as now? ‘Now’ comes and goes as soon as you say it.” It has been a long time since 1985, but what has changed, maybe only the speed of acceleration of our society’s entropy, the breaking down of identity?

Listen to your friends when they tell you that you think too much. It’s safer that way. Keep your fear of death to yourself. Love the noise that defines you.
This article first appeared in Issue 12, 2012.
Posted 7:58pm Sunday 20th May 2012 by Josef Alton.