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.
Though written in 1984 this book – or rather its criticism of the world – is probably truer today. The obsession with TV has grown and from it has spawned the obsession with the internet. We don’t need to wait for the 7 o’clock news to see disasters and pain – now we have 24 hours news channels, we have instant news on the web colored by eye witness tweets from every tragedy imaginable. Jack and Heinrich wouldn’t need to drive and watch a fire consume the old insane asylum; they’d only need to turn on a computer. The score of reality shows and the ephemeral fame they bestow on various individuals – what are they if not remedies for death – or for fear of death? If they remember you, you never die – the 21st century’s alternative to DeLillo’s Dylar, complete with the dumbing down effects. It’s all quite unnerving – and that’s why White Noise is a pretty fantastic book.
Jack Gladney is the chairman of Hitler studies (a discipline of his own creation) at some quaint American university. He’s on his 4th marriage (and 3rd wife) and has 4 children with his previous wives – 2 of whom are living with him. Babette, his wife, has a similarly complicated past and 2 children of her own living with her. A very complex household situation – but one that doesn’t cause any of the domestic drama you might expect; partly because this family life is constructed in a pretty absurd manner, and partly because the only thing that actually runs deep with these people is their own crippling fear of death. On the surface, it really looks like the perfect family, and yet they are crumbling from within. Babette, unbeknownst to her husband, tries to chase it away with pills and Jack is forced to face it when he’s exposed to a chemical spill.
The Airborne Toxic Event (which makes the band so much less weird) was definitely the most interesting part – to me at least. An unknown chemical substance is spilled nearby, creating the most fertile environment to study rumors, blind panic or the it-can’t-happen-to-me passivity (such as Jack’s) and the general hullabaloo of people suddenly having to fight for their lives.
These things happen to 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 manmade 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 one of those TV floods? We live in a neat and pleasant town, near a college with a quaint name.
Murray, a visiting lecturer who has a seminar on car crashes befriends Jack and sits on the edge of his life, analyzing and making pronouncements on where is or his family’s reactions fit within the paradigm of modern culture. He’s the man behind the curtain, the one who’s responsible for the precipitous events of the last part of the book when he tells Jack of a different cure (or method of stalling) for the fear of death.
Think how exciting it is, in theory, to kill a person. If he dies, you cannot. To kill him is to gain life-credit. The more people you kill, the more credit you store up.
Even the funnier moments (like the circular existence of ‘the most photographed barn in America’ or the disappointment of those affected that the Nyodene D spill didn’t generate more media interest – ‘Isn’t fear news?’) is tinged with DeLillo’s criticism and a vague sense of guilt that, at the end of the day, we’re all part of the fundamental problem.
Looking back – there’s so much I haven’t said: how the book is split in 3 parts each focusing on one aspect (well, you can read that on Wikipedia 😀 ); how after Babette starts taking the Dylar and its side effects become increasingly evident Jack keeps repeating things like ‘Babette wouldn’t do this; Babette wouldn’t react like this’ almost like a mantra (perhaps hoping it would magically restore them to their previous calm life); how Murray and the whole department of Modern Culture are very much like Community’s Abed (pop culture geeks, obsessed with celebrities and offering some sort of meta comments on the subject of the book itself); how Heinrich’s friend seems fearless in front of death (he wants to be locked up in a cage with 27 snakes, in order to make it in the Guinness book) but, in fact, he suffers from the same panic in front of potential nothingness etc. Thing is – it’s all so familiar, so relatable, that it all seems somehow relevant – but it’s still an intellectual exercise with no real emotional stake or involvement.