Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.
The characters in Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise are always making amusing and unsettling observations like the one above. Jack Gladney, the main character, discusses with his friends and his family such big issues as consumerism, the media, violence, and the state of the world. Their hilarious and thought-provoking musings are mixed with conversations about how often the characters have brushed their teeth with their finger or what country llamas come from. It’s all a lot of fun to read, but after a while, the deluge of commentary became tedious for me. Much of the satire—a professor of Hitler studies who can’t speak German, yet another list of consumer products—started to seem obvious and shallow. Like so much white noise. Aha!
Although I think the characters’ reflections about society and the preposterous incidents each make a point about our lives today, the larger point perhaps lies in the barrage of commentary itself. The characters’ observations about life and death distance them from life and death. Jack is a Hitler scholar and so should be confronted with death all the time, but it remains theoretical, just like those California mud slides. Death and disaster end up on the same level of consciousness as a commercial jingle.
However, when an airborne toxic event” leaves Jack with a potentially lethal amount of a substance called Nyodene D in his system, he must face his own death. A death that will come at some point in the future, possibly years away; the doctors have no way to tell. This specter that he’s drowned out with all that white noise of chatter has entered his life, and now he can’t help but notice it. (Or perhaps it’s death that’s the white noise, always there but unnoticed until you stop and pay attention. Everything around us distracts us from that ambient truth that’s all around us.)
Jack is completely unprepared to face death, and he spends the rest of the book trying to put it out of his mind or get the upper hand on it. The story gets more and more preposterous and Jack’s desperation increases. I went from snickering at it to rolling my eyes and back again several times.
The book raises a big question—how do we deal with death?—but it’s easy to get distracted from that big question by all the other noise. I believe that’s intentional on DeLillo’s part. Perhaps death is too big a mystery to fully pin down. It can’t be quantified or analyzed or turned into a jingle. But it need not keep us up at night either.
After the billowing cloud moves through Jack’s town, the sunsets are more beautiful than ever, probably because of the lingering substances in the atmosphere. People come out to a local overpass specifically to see the colors in the sky. Perhaps the recognition that life is finite can make what life we have even more precious and worthy of our undivided attention.