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White Noise

Don DeLillo

Chapters 33–35

Chapters 29–32

Chapters 36–38

Summary: Chapter 33

Wilder wakes Jack up one night and leads him to the bedroom window, where Jack sees a white-haired man sitting in his backyard. Panicked at first, Jack goes outside and discovers that the man is Babette’s father, Vernon Dickey, who has dropped by unannounced. Vernon, a tough-looking handyman with a bad smoker’s cough, makes Jack feel incompetent and unmanly for not being able to fix things around the house.

Jack brings Vernon inside for coffee. Jack tells Vernon that Babette worries about him, and Vernon mentions that a woman wants to marry him. Jack tells us that Vernon’s way with women has always made Babette nervous and uncomfortable. Babette comes down to the kitchen and, after some initial awkwardness, happily settles into the task of caring for her father. Vernon stays with the family for some time, causing both exasperation and amusement.

One night, Jack wakes up to the sound of TV coming from Denise’s room. He goes into her room and tries to find the Dylar Denise has taken. When she wakes up, he tries to coax her into giving him the pills, but Denise tells him that she already threw them away. After leaving her room, Jack finds Vernon sitting awake in the kitchen. Telling Jack that they need to talk, Vernon takes him out to his car, where he gives Jack a loaded gun. Jack wants to give it back, but Vernon won’t take it. Instead, he describes to Jack all the dangerous things that would necessitate having a firearm handy. Jack notes that a gun is the “ultimate device for determining one’s competence in the world” and that this particular one is German made.

The next morning, Vernon decides to leave. As he’s about to pull away, he launches into a long speech, directed at the crying Babette. He tells her not to worry about his limp or his cough or his smoking or the women or his financial situation or the shakes he gets. The only thing Babette should worry about, he says in a deadpan way, is his car. Babette finds the bit about the car funny, but Jack notes that she still seems worried and defensive about her father.

Summary: Chapter 34

The arrival of spiders marks the change in seasons. On one of their strolls through campus, Jack and Murray walk into town, where the main street reminds Jack of the Law of Ruins and Albert Speer’s plan to build a structure for Hitler that would collapse romantically. At home, Jack begins to rummage through the garbage in a frantic, futile search for the Dylar, picking his way through the crushed, material objects that make up his family life. He goes in for another physical with Dr. Chakravarty, who lectures him briefly on the patient/doctor relationship before telling Jack that his potassium levels seem off. He tells Jack he should go to Autumn Harvest Farms—where they have all of the latest, gleaming instruments—for further tests. After returning home, Jack begins to throw things away again. He sees a connection between his mortality and all of the material objects he has filled his life with.

Summary: Chapter 35

Babette listens to talk radio, and Jack interrupts her in order to question her about how she’s feeling and how she’s dealing with her fear of dying. Babette says that being with Wilder helps the most, and she likes him more the less he talks. Denise frantically tries to get her mother to wear sunscreen when she runs, but Babette deflects her daughter’s attention.

Jack takes Heinrich and Orest Mercator out for dinner in the hope of hearing more about Orest’s take on death. Orest’s responses make little sense, and the conversation veers off into meaningless tangents that offer Jack no comfort. At the end of dinner, Jack’s thoughts leap to Babette’s affair with Mr. Gray, and as soon as he returns home, he questions her about it again. Babette doesn’t believe that Jack wants to find Mr. Gray in order to get himself a supply of Dylar and remains convinced that Jack wants personal revenge.

Steffie prepares for a visit to her mother in Mexico. She asks Jack what he would do if her mother kidnapped her. Jack tries to assure her that nothing of the sort will happen.

A SIMUVAC simulation of a noxious odor occurs, followed a few days later by a real noxious odor that settles over the town. Instead of evacuating, however, people try to ignore the smell. After several hours, the odor finally goes away.

Analysis

Vernon Dickey’s brief intrusion into Jack’s life serves two functions, forwarding both the plot of Jack’s story as well as the development of Jack’s character. Vernon gives his son-in-law a loaded gun, and, without giving Jack any specific reasons to be afraid, describes the various kinds of threats that face a family man in the modern world. The presence of a loaded gun in this novel—which is highly concerned with narrative plots, despite its apparent lack of one—calls to mind Anton Chekhov’s famous rule about guns and dramatic structure. In the Russian playwright’s classic formulation, a loaded gun hung on the wall during the first act of a play must be fired by the third act. The gun becomes a narrative instigator, a catalyst that triggers the rest of the plot to spring into action. This gun will, in fact, be fired by the end of the novel, apparently proving Jack’s theory that all plots lead deathward. It remains unclear, however, whether Jack merely gets enmeshed in a larger plot, which inevitably hurtles toward violence, or whether he himself creates the fatal plot. Just as Denise and Steffie may have begun exhibiting symptoms of Nyodene D. exposure based on radio reports they overheard, Jack may be unconsciously acting under the suggestion of his own formulation.

Vernon also serves as a character foil for Jack. Vernon is physical rather than intellectual; he works with his hands and is capable of making spur-of-the-moment decisions. More important, Vernon seems unwilling to entertain any discussion of fears of dying. His farewell speech to the family, though comic in tone, nevertheless expresses a resolution and strength of character that seems beyond Jack. Vernon, like the Attila the Hun of Jack’s imagination, manages to look death in the face without flinching. In his calm, stoic acceptance of his condition, Vernon also contrasts with the other elderly people in White Noise, who fret and mumble anxiously and never manage to express themselves as individuals.

Jack continues to prepare and brace for death. He is still unwilling to face it directly, but he continues to seek meaning and connections in his life, just like the spiders spinning their webs. Previously, Jack took comfort in the trappings of the material, consumerist world. He felt happier and stronger after purchasing massive quantities of merchandise from the grocery store and mall. Now, he sees mortality in all of the products that fills his life. He throws things away, as if this shedding might also relieve him of the burden of mortality. He seeks answers from Heinrich’s friend, Orest Mercator, but gets nothing satisfactory from the teen daredevil. As his mind anxiously explores connections and patterns, his thoughts return, disastrously, to his wife’s affair with the mysterious Mr. Gray.

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