DeLillo’s novels are also characteristically postmodern in the anxious, skeptical way they treat the question of knowledge. Philosophically, postmodernism contends that real, definitive knowledge is impossible and that truth is forever shifting and relative. Complex and intricately woven,... read more (warning: may contain spoilers)
DeLillo’s novels are also characteristically postmodern in the anxious, skeptical way they treat the question of knowledge. Philosophically, postmodernism contends that real, definitive knowledge is impossible and that truth is forever shifting and relative. Complex and intricately woven, DeLillo’s novels string together a never-ending web of connections that ultimately frustrate any attempt to draw definite conclusions. Throughout White Noise, Jack Gladney, the narrator, constantly connects seemingly random events, dates, and facts in an attempt to form a cohesive understanding of his world. Behind that attempt lies a deep-seated need to find meaning in a media-obsessed age driven by images, appearances, and rampant material consumption.
White Noise describes an academic year in the life of its narrator, Jack Gladney, a college professor in a small American town. The novel itself can be hard to follow, since Jack spends much of his time detailing seemingly inconsequential conversations, and several events in the novel have no direct impact on the action of the story. Despite these tangents, a general plotline emerges from the narrative.
Jack teaches at a school called the College-on-the-Hill, where he serves as the department chair of Hitler studies. He lives in Blacksmith, a quiet college town, with his wife, Babette, and four of their children from earlier marriages: Heinrich, Steffie, Denise, and Wilder. Throughout the novel, various half-siblings and ex-spouses drift in and out of the family’s home. Jack loves Babette very much, taking great comfort in her honesty and openness and what he sees as her reassuring solidness and domesticity.
Jack invented the discipline of Hitler studies in 1968, and he acknowledges that he capitalizes on Hitler’s importance as a historical figure, which lends Jack an air of dignity and significance by association. Over the course of his career, Jack has consciously made many decisions in order to strengthen his own reputation and add a certain heft to his personal identity: when he began the department, for example, he added an initial to his name to make it sound more prestigious. Yet he is continually aware of the fact that his aura and persona were deliberately crafted, and he worries about being exposed as a fraud. To his great shame, Jack can’t speak German, so when a Hitler conference gets scheduled at the College-on-the-Hill, Jack secretly begins taking German lessons.
Hitler studies shares a building with the American environments department, which is mainly staffed by what Jack refers to as the “New York émigrés,” a tough, sarcastic group of men obsessed with American popular culture. Jack befriends one of these professors, a former sportswriter named Murray Jay Siskind. Murray has come to Blacksmith to immerse himself in what he calls “American magic and dread.” Murray finds deep significance in ordinary, everyday events and locations—particularly the supermarket, which he claims contains massive amounts of psychic data.
The majority of the novel is structured around two major plot points: the airborne toxic event, and Jack’s discovery of his wife’s participation in an experimental study of a new psychopharmaceutical called Dylar.
One day, Jack finds his son Heinrich on the roof of the house, watching a billowing cloud of smoke rise into the sky. Heinrich tells him that a train car has derailed and caught on fire, releasing a poisonous toxic substance into the air. The entire town of Blacksmith is ordered to evacuate to an abandoned Boy Scout camp. While at the evacuation camp, Jack learns that he’s been exposed to Nyodene D., a lethal chemical. The technician tells Jack that the chemical lasts thirty years in the human body and that in fifteen years they’ll be able to give him a more definitive answer about his chances for survival. Perhaps due to the vagueness of this explanation, Jack becomes preoccupied with the idea that he has now been marked for death. The townspeople remain evacuated from their homes for nine more days. After the toxic cloud disappears, the sunsets in Blacksmith become shockingly beautiful.
Meanwhile, Babette’s daughter Denise discovers a vial of pills, labeled Dylar, which her mother has been taking in secret. Babette evades both Denise’s and Jack’s inquiries, so Jack takes a pill to Winnie Richards, a scientist at College-on-the-Hill. After analyzing the pill, Winnie tells Jack that the drug is an incredibly advanced kind of psychopharmaceutical. Jack finally confronts Babette about the pills. In tears, she tells him that Dylar is an experimental, unlicensed drug, which she believes can cure her of her obsessive fear of dying. In order to get samples of the drug, Babette admits to having had an affair with the Dylar project manager, a man she refers to only as Mr. Gray. In return, Jack confesses to Babette about his fatal Nyodene D. exposure. His fear of death now greater than ever, Jack goes in search of Babette’s remaining Dylar pills, only to find that Denise has thrown them all away.
Jack begins to have problems sleeping. He goes in for frequent medical checkups and becomes preoccupied with clearing all the unused clutter out of his home. He stays awake late into the night to watch the children sleep. One evening, Wilder wakes him up, and Jack finds his father-in-law, Vernon Hickey, asleep in the backyard. Vernon, a tough, aging handyman, has come by for a surprise visit. Before he leaves, Vernon secretly gives Jack a handgun. Shortly afterward, Jack confides in Murray about his acute death fixation. Murray proposes the theory that killing someone else can alleviate the fear of death. Jack begins to think of the gun at odd moments, eventually bringing it to class with him one afternoon.
On his way home from campus, Jack runs into Winnie Richards, who tells him that she read an article on the project manager responsible for Dylar. She tells Jack the man’s name, Willie Mink, and the approximate location of the motel he’s now living in. Armed with his gun, Jack finds Willie Mink, disheveled and half-crazy, in the same motel room where Mink conducted his affair with Babette. Jack plans to kill him, and, after a brief conversation, he pulls out his gun and shoots Mink twice. In an attempt to make it look like a suicide, Jack places the gun in Mink’s hand, only to be shot in the wrist by Mink a moment later. Overcome by a sense of humanity, Jack drives Mink to the nearest hospital—which is run by atheist German nuns—and saves his life.
Jack returns home and watches the children sleep. Later that day, Wilder rides his tricycle across the highway and miraculously survives, an event that finally allows Jack to let go of his fear of death and obsession with health and safety hazards. Jack, Babette, and Wilder take in the spectacular sunsets from the overpass. Jack closes the novel with a description of the supermarket, which has rearranged its aisles, throwing everyone into a state of confusion.
“The kitchen and the bedroom are the major chambers around here, the power haunts, the sources. She and I are alike in this, that we regard the rest of the house as storage space for furniture, toys, all the unused objects of earlier marriages and different sets of children, the gifts of lost in-laws, the hand-me-downs and rummages. Things, boxes. Why do these possessions carry such sorrowful weight?”Jack (J. A. K.) Gladney
“I was in situation with a woman in Detroit. She needed my semen in a divorce suit. The irony is that I love women. I fall apart at the sight of long legs, striding, briskly, as a breeze carries up from the river, on a weekday, in the play of morning light. The second irony is that it's not the bodies of women that I ultimately crave but their minds. The mind of a woman. The delicate chambering and massive unidirectional flow, like a physics experiment. What fun it is to talk to an intelligent woman wearing stockings as she crosses her legs. That little staticky sound of rustling nylon can make me happy on several levels. The third and related irony is that it's the most complex and neurotic and difficult women that I'm invariably drawn to. I like simple men and complicated women.”Murray Jay Siskind
“I'd ask you to visit my room, but it's too small for two people unless they're prepared to be intimate.”Murray Jay Siskind
“Man’s guilt in history and in the tides of his own blood has been complicated by technology, the daily seeping falsehearted death.”At the beginning of Chapter 6, Jack considers his son’s premature hair loss and wonders if he or Heinrich’s mother might be responsible for their son’s thinning hair, by having unwittingly consumed toxic foods or raising the boy in the proximity of industrial waste.
“Just because it's on the radio doesn't mean we have to suspend belief in the evidence of our senses.”Jack (J. A. K.) Gladney
“All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots.”Jack’s closing statement to his seminar at the end of Chapter 6 reverberates throughout the novel. The statement initially refers to the assassination attempt on Hitler, but it quickly takes on a larger significance once it becomes clear that death is Jack’s greatest fear.
“We embraced, fell sideways to the bed in a controlled way, then repositioned ourselves, bathing in each other's flesh, trying to kick the sheets off our ankles. Her body had a number of long hollows, places the hand might stop to solve in the dark, tempo-slowing places.”Jack (J. A. K.) Gladney
“But I don't want you to choose anything that has men inside women, quote-quote, or men entering women. 'I entered her.' 'He entered me.' We're not lobbies or elevators. 'I wanted him inside me,' as if he could crawl completely in, sign the register, sleep, eat, so forth. Can we agree on that? I don't care what these people do as long as they don't enter or get entered.”Babette (Baba)
“The German tongue. Fleshy, warped, spit-spraying, purplish and cruel. One eventually had to confront it. Wasn't Hitler's own struggle to express himself in German the crucial subtext of his massive ranting autobiography, dictated in a fortress prison in the Bavarian hills? Grammar and syntax. The man may have felt himself imprisoned in more ways than one.”Jack (J. A. K.) Gladney
“When he switched from English to German, it was as though a cord had been twisted in his larynx. An abrupt emotion entered his voice, a scrape and gargle that sounded like stirring of some beast's ambition. He gaped at me and gestured, he croaked, he verged on strangulation. Sounds came spewing from the base of his tongue, harsh noises damp with passion. He was only demonstrating certain basic pronunciation patterns but the transformation in his face and voice made me think he was making a passage between levels of being.”Jack (J. A. K.) Gladney
“Tibetans try to see death for what it is. It is the end of attachment to things. This simple truth is hard to fathom. But once we stop denying death, we can proceed calmly to die and then go on to experience uterine rebirth of Judeo-Christian afterlife or out-of-body experience or a trip on a UFO or whatever we wish to call it.”Murray Jay Siskind
“To die in an apartment instead of a house can depress the soul, I would imagine, for several lives to come.”Murray Jay Siskind
“Who will die first? She says she want to die first because she would feel unbearably lonely and sad without me, especially if the children were grown and living elsewhere. She is adamant about this. She sincerely wants to precede me. She discusses the subject with such argumentative force that it's obvious she thinks we have a choice in the matter. She also thinks nothing can happen to us as long as there are dependent children in the house. The kids are a guarantee of our relative longevity. We're safe as long as they're around. But once they get big and scatter, she wants to be the first to go. She sounds almost eager. She is afraid I will die unexpectedly, sneakily, slipping away in the night. It isn't that she doesn't cherish life; it's being left alone that frightens her. The emptiness, the sense of cosmic darkness.”Jack (J. A. K.) Gladney
“The power of the dead is that we think they see us all the time. The dead have a presence. Is there a level of energy composed solely of the dead? They are also in the ground, of course, asleep and crumbling. Perhaps we are what they dream.”Jack (J. A. K.) Gladney
“The sound came from our own red brick firehouse, sirens that hadn't been tested in a decade or more. They made a noise like some territorial squawk from out of the Mesozoic. A parrot carnivore with a DC-9 wingspan. What a raucousness of brute aggression filled the house, making it seem as though the walls would fly apart. So close to us, so surely upon us. Amazing to think this sonic monster lay hidden nearby for years.”Jack Gladney
“Maybe when we die, the first thing we'll say is, 'I know this feeling. I was here before.'”Murray Jay Siskind
“German shepherds still patrolled the town, accompanied by men in Mylex suits. We welcomed the dogs, got used to them, fed and petted them, but did not adjust well to the sight of costumed men with padded boots, hoses attached to their masks. We associated those outfits with the source of our trouble and fear.”Jack (J. A. K.) Gladney
“There was no large city with a vaster torment we might use to see our own dilemma in some soothing perspective. No large city to blame for our sense of victimization. No city to hate and fear. No panting megacenter to absorb our woe, to distract us from our unremitting sense of time—time as the agent of our particular ruin, our chromosome breaks, hysterically multiplying tissue.”Jack (J. A. K.) Gladney—signs of deep-reaching isolation
“What if death is nothing but sound?”
“You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful.”
“Uniform, white.”Babette and Jack’s conversation about the substance of death in the middle of Chapter 26 is the first and only time that white noise becomes specifically equated with death.
“Look past the violence.”
“Exactly. Look past the violence, Jack. There is a wonderful brimming spirit of innocence and fun.”Jack and Murray's conversation at the end of Chapter 28.
“Another postmodern sunset, rich in romantic imagery. Why try to describe it? It’s enough to say that everything in our field of vision seemed to exist in order to gather the light of this event.”In Chapter 30, Jack chases Winnie Richards to the top of a hill where they both pause to stare at one of the magnificent sunsets looming on the horizon.
“Routine things can be deadly, Vern, carried to extremes. I have a friend who says that's why people take vacations. Not to relax or find excitement or see new places. To escape the death that exists in routine things.”Jack (J. A. K.) Gladney
“What people in exodus fear most immediately is that those in positions of authority will long since have fled, leaving us in charge of our own chaos.”Jack Gladney
“The greater the scientific advance, the more primitive the fear.”Jack Gladney
The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation.Highlighted by 124 Kindle customers
What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation.Highlighted by 120 Kindle customers
Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.”Highlighted by 119 Kindle customers
“Because we’re suffering from brain fade. We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information.”Highlighted by 118 Kindle customers
What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. It changes and grows every second of every day. But nobody actually knows anything.”Highlighted by 118 Kindle customers
“For most people there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set. If a thing happens on television, we have every right to find it fascinating, whatever it is.”Highlighted by 100 Kindle customers
“I don’t know what your personal involvement is with this substance,” she said, “but I think it’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need? Doesn’t it give a precious texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry of a final line, a border or limit.”Highlighted by 91 Kindle customers
“All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.”Highlighted by 75 Kindle customers
It seemed to me that Babette and I, in the mass and variety of our purchases, in the sheer plenitude those crowded bags suggested, the weight and size and number, the familiar package designs and vivid lettering, the giant sizes, the family bargain packs with Day-Glo sale stickers, in the sense of replenishment we felt, the sense of well-being, the security and contentment these products brought to some snug home in our souls—it seemed we had achieved a fullness of being that is not known to people who need less, expect less, who plan their lives around lonely walks in the evening.Highlighted by 66 Kindle customers
The power of the dead is that we think they see us all the time. The dead have a presence. Is there a level of energy composed solely of the dead? They are also in the ground, of course, asleep and crumbling. Perhaps we are what they dream. May the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to a plan.Highlighted by 51 Kindle customers
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