Crowding Out Death

This review originally appeared in The New York Times, January 13, 1985

The fiction of Don DeLillo is no longer the well-kept secret of a dedicated following. In such novels as Ratner’s Star, Great Jones Street and The Names, Mr. DeLillo has dealt not so much with character as with culture, survival and the subtle, ever-increasing interdependence between the self and the national and world community. The he-man against the elements, the outlaw, the superhero exit only as myths in the modern world; we are nature’s elements, a technologically oriented people nonetheless caught in the sieve of history. There are suspense and an urgent intelligence to Mr. DeLillo’s writing, a sense of the widening gyre and the tight-drawn net. White Noise, his eighth novel, is the story of a college professor and his famiy whose small Midwestern town is evacuated after an industrial accident. In light of the recent Union Carbide disaster in India that killed over 2,000 and injured thousands more, White Noise seems all the more timely and frightening – precisely because of its totally American concerns, its rendering of a particularly American numbness. The novel opens with the September 1st arrival of students at the aforementioned college. Like a reductive version of the Conestoga wagon trains of old, station wagons “arrive in a long shining line.” Laden with stereos, radios, personal computers, hair-dryers and hair-styling irons rather than the tools of physical survival, the station wagons disgorge young pioneers who feed on Kabooms and Dum-Dum pops, Waffelos and Mystic mints. The mothers are “crisp and alert,” the fathers “distant but ungrudging.” “This assembly, . . . more than formal liturgies or laws, tells the parents they are . . . a nation,” observes Jack Gladney, professionally known as J.A.K. Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill and the originator of Hitler studies in North America. An evening in front of the television set moves Gladney to “read deeply in Hitler well into the night.” The voice guiding us through White Noise is Gladney’s, and it is one of the most ironic, intelligent, grimly funny voices yet to comment on life in present-day America.

This is an America where no one is responsible or in control; all are receptors, receivers of stimuli, consumers. Some join Simuvac, which signs up local school children as volunteer victims in simulated evacuations (“Some people,” Gladney tells his daughter in response to a question about the Nazis, “put on a uniform and feel bigger, stronger, safer”). Gladney and his wife, Babette, live with four of the children of their previous marriages in a rambling house filled with “possessions that carry a sorrowful weight…the unused objects of earlier marriages, gifts of lost in-laws,” things that have “a darkness attached to them, a foreboding.” Babette, a low-key and adaptable faculty wife who reads tabloids to the blind and teaches senior citizens’ classes in posture, is distinguished by her forgetfulness and her preoccupation with death.

Their son Heinrich (Gladney, who wanted to “shield him, make him unafraid,” thought the German name “had an authority that might cling to him”) is 14, moody and introspective. His hairline is already receding. He exchanges chess moves through the mail with an imprisoned mass murderer and has little faith in the self-determination of human beings. “How can I be sure what I want . . . It’s all this activity in the brain and you don’t know what’s you and what’s some neuron that just happens to fire…Isn’t that why Tommy Roy killed those people?”

Their daughter Denise is 11, a “hard-nosed kid” who leads “a more or less daily protest against parental habits that she considers wasteful or dangerous.” She points out the warning on her mother’s packages of sugarless gum and is the first to notice Babette’s surreptitious consumption of a drug called Dylar, which Denise finds is unlisted in her much perused copy of the Physicians’ Desk Reference. Steffie is slightly younger than Denise, a sensitive child who, while watching television with her family, “becomes upset when something shameful or humiliating seems about to happen to someone on the screen” and stands outside the room while Denise gives a running commentary on the action. And there is Wilder, the 3-year-old son who seldom speaks but, asleep or awake, is a constant reassurance to his parents, simply because he is there.

Children, in the America of “White Noise,” are in general more competent, more watchful, more in sync than their parents; emotionally, they constitute a kind of early-warning system, The novel’s first short section informs us that “homemade signs concerning lost dogs and cats are posted on telephone poles all over town” – signs often handwritten by children. Indeed, the children seem the only ones still attuned enough to the natural world to be concerned about dogs and cats. But children are not merely guardians of the heart; they are the targeted audience, the frequency to which the advertising industry and the vast construct of the media are tuned. The professors at the College-on-the-Hill speak of a “society of kids” and tell their students they are “already too old to figure importantly in the making of society. . . . It is only a matter of time before you experience the vast loneliness and dissatisfaction of consumers who have lost their group identity.”

Group identity is a White Noise in itself, the white noise of history. “Crowds came to hear Hitler speak,” Gladney points out in his classes, “crowds erotically charged, the masses he once called his only bride. . . .There must have been something different about hose crowds. What was it? . . . Death. Crowds came to form a shield . . . to become a crowd is to keep out death.” Academia is trying, too; Hitler studies shares a building with the popular culture department, officially known as American environments, “an Aristotelianism of bubble gum wrappers and detergent jingles.” Murray J. Siskind, a shining, somewhat shunned star of the department, is a former sportswriter from New York who studies American culture with the doomed glee of a Dr. Strangelove and the reverence of a Buddhist monk. “You’ve established a wonderful thing here with Hitler,” he tells Gladney. “You created it, you nurtured it. . . . He is now your Hitler. I marvel at the effort. It was masterful, shrewd and stunningly peemptive. It’s what I want to do with Elvis.” If white noise heralds death, Murray maintains, it also hints at the secrets of the (technologically transformed) universe, a modern music of the spheres.

White Noise finds its greatest distinction in its understanding and perception of America’s soundtrack. White noise includes the ever-present sound of expressway traffic, “a remote and steady murmur around our sleep, as of dead souls babbling at the edge of a dream.” Television is “the primal force in the American home, sealed-off, self-contained, self-referring . . . a wealth of data concealed in the grid, in the bright packaging, the jingles, the slice-of-life commercials, the products hurtling out of darkness, the coded messages . . . like chants. . . . . Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it.” Television, Murray Siskind asserts, “practically overflows with sacred formulas.” White noise includes the bold print of tabloids, those amalgams of American magic and dread, with their comforting “mechanism of offering a hopeful twist to apocalyptic events. ” fast food and quad cinemas contribute to the melody, as do automated teller machines. Nowhere is Mr. DeLillo’s take on the endlessly distorted, religious underside of American consumerism better illustrated than in the passage on supermarkets.

Jack Gladney: “Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright. . . . The place was awash in noise. . . The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and the coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all . . . a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.”

Murry Siskind: “Everything is concealed in symbolism. . . . The large doors slide open, they close unbidden. Energy waves, incident radiation . . . code words and ceremonial phrases. It is just a question of deciphering. . . . Not that we would want to. . . . This is not Tibet. . . . 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. . . . We don’t have to cling to life artificially, or to death. . . . We simply walk toward the sliding doors. . . . Look how well-lighted everything is . . . sealed off . . . timeless. Another reason why I think of Tibet. Dying is an art in Tibet . . . Chants, numerology, horoscopes, recitations. Here we don’t die, we shop. But the difference is less marked than you think.”

Americans in White Noise do well to study their supermarkets closely, since death is edging nearer, anonymous, technical, ironically group-oriented. Menacing signs appear – reports of various toxic waste disasters are broadcast frequently; the local grade school is evacuated (“Investigators said it could be the ventilating system, the paint or varnish, the foam insulation, the rays emitted by microcomputers”), and a man dies during the inspection of a second-floor classroom.

Finally, after “a night of dream-lit snows,” an “airborne toxic event” originates in a rail accident at a nearby train yard. The dark billowing cloud is full of Nyodene D, a chemical familiar to Heinrich (“It was in a movie we saw in school on toxic wastes. These videotaped rats”). The radio quotes a series of symptoms ranging from sweaty palms to déjà vu (“Death in the air,” Murray explains, “liberates suppressed material”) to coma. “I’m the head of a department,” Gladney tells Heinrich, “I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event. That’s for people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the county, where the fish hatcheries are.”

Nevertheless, Gladney finds himself joining an exodus familiar from disaster movies, directed by amplified voices over loudspeakers. Cars crawl toward a Boy Scout barracks in a heavy snowfall, creating a third lane on the grassy incline at the edge of the expressway. Other evacuees walk (“There was a family completely in plastic, a single large sheet of transparent polyethylene. They walked beneath their shield in lock step”). Gladney gets out of the car to pump gas and sees the event itself – lighted by the search beams of helicopters – passing over columns of cars “like some death ship in a Norse legend, escorted across the night by armored creatures with spiral wings.”

Later, at the barracks, Simivac is in operation. “Are you saying you saw a chance to use the ral event in order to rehears the simulation?” Gladney asks. “You have to make allowances for the fact that everything we see tonight is real,” the worker agrees. “But that’s what this esercise is all about.” Gladney is asking for reassurance about his two-minute exposure to the cloud and is told he is “generating big numbers . . . your whole data profile. I tapped into your history. I’m getting bracketed numbers with pulsing
stars. . . . ”

“Am I going to die? . . . ”

“Not in so many words.”

“How many words does it take?”

“It’s not a question of words. It’s a question of years. We’ll know in fifteen years. In the meantime we definitely have a situation. . . . I wouldn’t worry. . . . I’d go ahead an live my life. . . . ”

“But you said we have a situation.”

“I didn’t say it. The computer did. . . . “

“It’s like we’ve been flung back in time,” Heinrich says of the barracks. “Name one thing you could make. . . . We think we’re so great and modern. . . . Could you rub flints together? Would you know a flint if you saw one? . . . What is a nucleotide? You don’t know, do you? . . . What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. . . . But nobody actually knows anything.”

After nine days, the Gladneys return home. Normalcy resumes. Men in protective suits and German shepherd dogs “trained to sniff out toxic material” patrol the town. Sunsets last for hours; silent crowds watch the spectacular colors from overpasses. Gladney secretly visits a think tank diagnostic center that confirms the presence of Nyodene D in his blood.

Babette admits to taking Dylar, moved by her constant anxieties to answering a tabloid ad: “Fear of Death? Volunteers wanted for secret research.” Following test after test, she is judged one of three most fearful finalists, but the “small firm doing research in psychobiology” decides not to use human subjects. Desperate, Babette makes a private arrangement with the project manager, a shadowy figure she will reveal to Gladney only as “Mr. Gray.” For several months, she has met him in a motel room, offering herself (“It was a capitalist transaction”) in exchange for drugs.

Gladney, “scheduled to die” himself, is moved equally by rage and fear. He tells Babette he wishes to contact Gray only to get Dylar. In fact, he evolves a plan to kill Gray, and the book reaches its least convincing twist with a comic near-murder. Gladney takes his victim to a hospital and has a conversation about belief with a nun called Sister Hermann Marie: “Your dedication is a pretense?” “Our presence is a dedication,” she responds. “As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe . . . Nuns in black. . . . Fools, children. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. . . . There is no truth without fools.” “I don’t want to hear this,” Gladney protests. “This is terrible.” “But true,” she answers.

What good is my truth?” Heinrich asks Gladney early in the novel. “My truth means nothing. . . . Is there such a thing as now? ‘Now’ comes and goes as soon as you say it.” Babette has observed of her husband that it is his nature “to shelter loved ones from the truth. Something lurked inside the truth.” It is in documenting such epidemic evasiveness and apprehension, such lack of connection to the natural world and to technology, such bewilderment, that White Noise succeeds so brilliantly. “The nature of modern death is that it has a life independent of us, ” Mr. DeLillo asserts. This truth, in itself, has indeed forever altered “man’s guilt in history and in the tides of his own blood.” What belief can correspond to a fact so irrevocable? White Noise offers no answers, but it poses inescapable questions with consummate skill.