DeLillo: The White Noise of Civilization

Supermarket: metaphor for the White Noise of popular culture and product “branding”

It’s September and the year is 1984. Students are moving into college dorms.

They bring with them their entertainment: stereo sets, radios, personal computers, cartons of phonograph records and cassettes.

Today, of course, there would be no phonographs or cassette players and the essentials would include MP3 players, portable TVs, and a cell phone.

The college is in the fictional town of Blacksmith in the heartland of the country; snow in winter, humid heat in summer, and a few really nice days in spring and fall.

This is what the author tells us about the townsfolk:

When times are bad, people feel compelled to overeat. Blacksmith is full of these obese adults and children, baggy-panted, short-legged, waddling. They struggle to emerge from compact cars; they don sweat suits and run in families across the landscape; they walk down the street with food in their faces; they eat in stores, cars, parking lots, on bus lines and movie lines, under the stately trees…

The narrator of the novel White Noise by Don Dellilo is Jack Gladney, a professor who has been witnessing the spectacle of arriving students for 21 years. Jack is introspective and worries a lot. He worries about the invasion of popular culture into everyone’s life and he worries about death.

Why is Jack, a 51-year old, healthy, employed, happily married man with a loving and supporting family, preoccupied with a fear of death? The question is not answered in this novel; probably every 50 something male is worried or insecure about something. Mostly Jack worries about his death. That his fear is unfounded is one of the ironies of the novel.

Jack’s wife Babette is a homemaker who jogs up and down the football stadium steps in a sweat suit and does volunteer work with the town’s elderly population. She is a picture of health. They have 4 children living with them (2 of Jack’s and 2 of Babette’s). Jack has a third child who visits them now and then. Come to think of it, so does Babette. Seems to be a fairly typical, modern family and it is.

The book is in three parts. Part I is Waves and Radiation. Jack and his family exist in a world of white noise. There are bombarded by the waves and radiation of popular culture and day-to-day living.

There are the ever-present college rumors, conspicuous brand advertising, news broadcasts, and other conflicting and confusing signals that define the world of the 80s. Jack observes these elements and comments with a grim ironic humor that today seems more like careful observation because sources of the waves and radiation he describes are still commonplace.

Many scenes of the novel take place within the supermarket—sometimes the characters are shopping, but they also go there to meet and talk and to browse and discover new products. The supermarket, with its juxtaposition of products and advertising images, exemplified the white noise of 1985.

Today, we have the supermarket, of course, but we also have the 24/7 TV news cycle and the constant presence of cell phones and MP3 players. Strangely enough the ironic environment of White Noise seemed normal to me and not unlike what I experience at the mall or supermarket.

Towards the end of the first part of the novel, the plot begins to unfold when Babette’s teen-age daughter Denise finds a prescription bottle buried in the trash under the kitchen sink. The name of the medication was Dylar, which is not described in Denise’s copy of The Physicians Desk Reference. Denise and Jack discuss the medicine and Jack decides to get to the root of the question using the resources of the college.

Part II, The Airborne toxic Event starts with a bang. Heinrich, the 14-year old nerd of the Gladney family, notices the flashing lights of emergency vehicles converging on railroad yard and Babette announces to the family:

“… the spill from the tank car was 35,000 gallons. People were told to stay out of the area. A feathery plume hung over the site. She also said the girls were complaining of sweaty palms.”

Babette thinks that the family should be concerned about the billowing cloud, and Jack tries to alleviate her anxiety:

“These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters. People in low-lying areas get the floods, people in shanties get the hurricanes and tornadoes. I’m a college professor. Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in on of those TV floods? We live in a neat pleasant town near a college with a quaint name. This things don’t happen in places like Blacksmith.”

Well, as the story turns out, the cloud will come their way and they must evacuate. Bad things can happen to good people.

Bhopal Gas Tragedy resolved after 26 years. Guilty.

Contemporary readers of White Noise were aware of the dangers of toxic spills. They would remember the Bhopal Toxic Gas Disaster that took place the year before the novel was published:

“On the night of December 2–3, 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. A leak of methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals from the plant resulted in the exposure of hundreds of thousands of people. The official immediate death toll was 2,259 and the government of Madhya Pradesh has confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas release.”
— Wiki

“Over 25 years after a deadly methyl isocyanate gas leak from the Union Carbide plant on the night of Dec 2-3, 1984, killed thousands of people, all eight accused in the case were Monday held guilty by a local court. Amongst the eight is Warren Anderson, former chairman of the Union Carbide Corporation, US, who is still absconding.”
Current News India, 9/27/2011

The story of the Gladneys evacuation due to this toxic spill is engaging and has some poignant and comic scenes. The novel became known at publication for it’s sympathetic treatment of the topic, which surprised the author whose previous novels enjoyed limited success.

Fortunately, the Gladneys are unharmed by the spill and the story continues with Part III Dylarama, in which Jack will uncover the mystery of Dylar and will save his marriage from a sinister plot. The plot is pretty thin, but no one reads DeLillo for his plots.

This is a great book with many insights into family dynamics, college life and the role of the media and advertising in shaping everyday life. For a 25-year-old novel it is surprisingly fresh and current. You may look at supermarkets differently after reading the novel.

White Noise was the winner of the National Book Award for 1985.

In 1999, DeLillo became the first American recipient of the Jerusalem Prize, awarded to writers “whose work expresses the theme of the freedom of the individual in society”. He is in the company of international winners Milan Kundera, Mario Vargas Llosa, V. S. Naipaul, Graham Greene, Simone de Beauvoir and Jorge Luis Borges. Susan Sontag and Arthur Miller are the other American winners of this prize.

Day 75: White Noise, Don DeLillo (1985).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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