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White Noise

Don DeLillo

Chapters 6–8

Part I: Waves and Radiation, Chapters 1–5

Chapters 9–11

Summary: Chapter 6

Jack worries that Heinrich has a receding hairline. He wonders if this is his fault as the boy’s father or if toxins in the air are to blame. As Jack drives Heinrich to school, Jack tries to initiate a mundane conversation about the weather. Heinrich refuses to entertain Jack’s attempt and parries each of Jack’s comments with a deadpan philosophical retort. As he watches Heinrich walk away from the car, Jack is suddenly seized by a desperate love for his son, whom he feels has a strange way of attracting danger to himself.

In a movie theater on campus, Jack prepares a screening of a documentary for his Advanced Nazism seminar. In the film, which has no narrator, Jack has collected excerpts from Nazi propaganda films, featuring long shots of marches, meetings, and massive crowd scenes. At the end of the screening, a student asks Jack about the plot to kill Hitler. Jack surprises himself by responding, “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots.” Later, he wonders if he actually believes his own proclamation.

Summary: Chapter 7

Twice a week, Babette teaches a posture class for the elderly in a church basement. Jack speculates that her students feel they can ward off death through proper grooming, and he always finds himself surprised by the faith Babette’s students put in her exercises. Jack walks Babette home from class, and when they arrive they fall into bed. They discuss what they’ll do that evening, and Babette offers to read him something sexy. Jack considers how open and honest their relationship is. Jack and Babette tell each other everything, and, in that retelling, Jack believes they not only draw closer to one another but also manage to distance themselves from painful events in their past. Jack goes off in search of a trashy magazine from which Babette can read him letters. Instead, he finds several old family albums. Jack and Babette look through the albums for hours, and as they flip through the images, Jack once again finds himself wondering, “Who will die first?”

Summary: Chapter 8

Embarrassed by his inability to speak German, despite his position as chair of Hitler studies, Jack secretly begins taking lessons from a man named Howard Dunlop, a reclusive, taciturn man who lives in Murray’s boarding house. Jack has a hostile relationship with the German language, and he describes it as a harsh, strange entity. When Dunlop speaks German, it seems to Jack that Dunlop transforms into an entirely different being. Jack finds the language distasteful, but the College-on-the-Hill is hosting a Hitler conference the following spring, and it would be incredibly shameful if it were revealed that the chairman of the department couldn’t speak German.

After the lesson, Jack stops by Murray’s room and invites him over for dinner. Murray puts away his copy of American Transvestite and puts on his corduroy jacket. On their way out of the house, Murray comments that his landlord is a great handyman, then laments the landlord’s bigotry. Jack asks Murray why he thinks his landlord is a bigot, and Murray responds that people who can fix things are always bigots.

Back at Jack’s house, a flurry of noise and activity awaits the two men, as Denise runs the trash compactor, Heinrich talks on the phone, Babette enters the house from running, and Steffie repeats a radio program’s admonishment to boil tap water before drinking. In the middle of all this sound, Wilder sits, happy and silent.

Analysis

Jack surprises himself with the comment that “all plots tend toward death,” but the aphorism becomes a resonant refrain in White Noise, much like the repeated question “Who will die first?” On the one hand, plots, schemes, secrets, and conspiracies comprise a running motif throughout the novel. Murray and the other American environments professors purport to find secret codes in the white noise of popular culture. Jack notes that all his former wives were secretive and anxious and involved in espionage and foreign intelligence. Babette, on the other hand, is open, guileless, and wholesome. Jack takes great comfort in her honesty and forthrightness and often compares her to his guarded ex-wives. In marrying Babette, Jack has rejected plots in favor of plain dealings. His surprising comment suggests that by rejecting his plotting ex-wives and embracing an open life with Babette, Jack feels as if he is pushing away death itself, an important move given his oft-expressed fear of death.

The word plot also resonates in a literary sense. At this point, White Noise exhibits no conventional sense of plot. If anything, the narrative actively resists forming itself into a plot, as the novel circles and ambles with no clear direction. Yet if it is true that all plots tend toward death, then perhaps Jack’s persistent fear of dying is actively keeping the novel from settling into a schematic, logical plot structure. Language often features in White Noise as a coping mechanism. Like the din of technology and human activity, language helps alleviate the fear and anxiety at the heart of the human condition. As the narrator of the novel, Jack has the tools of language and storytelling at his disposal. If death is what he fears, and all plots lead to death, then naturally Jack’s own narrative would try to avoid having a plot.

The role of the German language in these chapters develops a few different themes. The fact that Jack, despite being an expert in Hitler studies, cannot speak German presents an embarrassing contradiction to his carefully constructed academic persona. Of course, a strong command of German would be necessary in order to truly study the documents and artifacts of Nazi Germany. The fact that Jack lacks this skill further demonstrates Jack’s interest in the cultural myths that surround Hitler in Jack’s English-speaking world, rather than in the historical despot himself. In addition, the German language is presented as a dark, foreboding entity, but one that is ambiguous about the danger it evokes. When Howard Dunlop begins to speak German, Jack notes that there is a “scrape and gargle that sounded like the stirring of some beast’s ambition” and that there were “harsh noises damp with passion.” The language represents something primordial and primitive to Jack, something that he discerns as lying at the very base of human existence. Jack’s inability to connect with German may suggest his inability, as a modern man living in a mechanized age, to connect with a primal, natural state of being. As the novel progresses, Jack will become increasingly aware of a nameless, ancient sound lying behind the white noise of modern life.

Jack’s concerns about the potential toxins in the environment and the air of danger that surrounds his son foreshadow some of the events that will occur later in the novel. In addition, these concerns add an element of depth and humanity to both Jack and Heinrich, which highlights their emotional bond as father and son. Jack’s moment of concern comes directly after he and Heinrich have engaged in a highly theoretical, comically absurd argument about the weather. Straightforward and heartfelt, Jack’s desire to protect his son contrasts with the ironic, abstracted attitude he previously displayed. While much of the novel functions more as collections of witty dialogue than as dialogue between fully-realized characters, moments like these highlight the fact that White Noise remains deeply concerned with the emotional dimensions of the human condition.

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