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White Noise

Don DeLillo

Important Quotations Explained

Chapters 39–40

Key Facts

1. 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. Jack begins with a specific, particular observation but soon brings the problem of Heinrich’s thinning hair into a wider, universal context. Heinrich’s relatively insignificant hair loss illustrates the novel’s greater concern with the way technology has unwittingly changed fundamental aspects of life. Jack’s individual genes might be responsible for Heinrich’s balding, but, given the pervasiveness of chemicals in the modern world, it’s impossible to determine who or what, exactly, is at fault. Man’s culpability is no longer obvious in many situations, since to some degree technology has begun to operate outside of man’s control. Technology has not only blurred the lines between what we are and are not accountable for, but it has also eroded away, like Heinrich’s hairline, some essential part of our lives. This passage sets the stage for the airborne toxic event and for Jack’s eventual confrontation with his own technologically induced death, via Nyodene D.

2. 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. Plot can be defined as “a secret plan”—as in, the plot to assassinate Hitler—but the word can also refer to a novel’s pattern of significant events. In most narratives, the central plot has a momentum, bringing the characters toward some kind of ending or resolution. Jack believes that all plots bring their characters toward death. We might take this formulation metaphorically, in the sense that the ending of a novel is, in some way, the moment when a novel dies. But Jack seems to interpret this comment literally, believing that he himself will die if he gets enmeshed in a plot. This explains, then, why the narrative seems to take a meandering, circuitous shape, actively resisting any major plot development. Details accumulate and characters develop, but not until the third section of the novel does an actual plot become evident. Once it does, however, the intrigue, mystery, and action quickly pile up, and the narrative moves toward death, just as Jack believed it would.

3. The system was invisible, which makes it all the more impressive, all the more disquieting to deal with. But we were in accord, at least for now. The networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies.

At the close of Chapter 10, Jack goes to an ATM and finds that the bank computer corroborates his personal accounting. For Jack, this represents a significant victory, arrived at by hard work and good fortune. The vast, complicated network of technology that underlies everything from the supermarket scanners to the ATM machines has, to some degree, validated Jack and his sense of personal identity. The data have told him that he is indeed who he thinks he is. The value Jack places on such a seemingly small thing reflects both the importance of numbers and technology in defining identity, as well as Jack’s deep-seated insecurity about what that identity is. He seeks confirmation wherever he can, and if the ATM can confer a temporary sense of security, then he is all the happier and stronger for it. However, the quote also hints that this accord won’t always be the case, and that at some point in the future, the networks and the technology they represent will turn against Jack.

4. “What if death is nothing but sound?”
“Electrical noise.”
“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. Throughout the novel, Jack’s acute awareness of the noise that surrounds him has been an integral part of his character and narrative style. For Jack, life is made up of a never-ending hum of sounds, which emanate from the radio, television, traffic, air, and the people in his life. He hears sound wherever he is, which, given his fear of death, is now understandable. Jack’s fear of dying has been the principal motive behind many of his life choices, from his study of Hitler to his failed marriages. We can see now that this fear also relates to his very perception of reality as an assemblage of sounds. To some degree, Jack already lives in the white noise of death he is so afraid of.

5. 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. In the wake of the airborne toxic event, all the sunsets have become beautiful and spectacular. They are yet another part of a postmodern world that, in its never-ending repetition, makes the pleasure of any individual experience impossible to convey. The sunset is spectacular and beautiful, but those qualities are diminished if all sunsets are spectacular and beautiful. The experience still matters, but the words that are left to describe it have been flattened out and emptied of any meaning by repetition. An almost passive resignation inflects Jack’s rhetorical question, “Why try to describe it?” In the modern world, words can’t capture the sublime beauty, though romantic images can be invoked.

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