Denise and Steffie’s grade school is evacuated because children and teachers are exhibiting mysterious symptoms like headaches, eye irritations, and the taste of metal in their mouths. One teacher starts rolling on the floor and speaking in foreign languages. The school closes for a week while inspectors do a sweep of the building. The inspectors’ suits are made of Mylex, a substance that confounds their detection equipment, rendering the results ambiguous and inconclusive.
While the girls are home from school, Jack, Babette, Wilder, and the girls take a trip to the supermarket. There, they run into Murray once again, and Jack notes that he’s seen Murray in the supermarket as many times as he’s seen him on campus. Jack listens to the din of the supermarket and thinks he can detect a strain of noise coming from within the human clamor: something dull and unlocatable, just beyond his perception.
Jack and Steffie walk down the aisles, and she tells Jack that Denise has been reading the Physician’s Desk Reference to find information about a drug Babette has been taking. Jack says he knows nothing about any drug.
In another part of the store, Murray helps Babette push her loaded cart and talks about the Tibetan philosophy of death. He tells Babette that he finds that the noises, colors, and psychic energy of the supermarket spiritually recharge him. Supermarkets contain untold amounts of hidden symbolism, he tells her, and reading the symbols is only a matter of learning how to peel back the layers of inscrutability. Babette nods, smiles, and shops her way through Murray’s lecture on dying. Wilder disappears briefly into someone else’s cart but is quickly recovered.
As they check out, Murray awkwardly invites Jack and Babette over for dinner, which they accept. In the parking lot, Jack and Babette hear a rumor that one of the Mylex-suited investigators died during the school inspection.
As Jack observes the student body at the College-on-the-Hill, Jack feels that he can actually see the college’s high tuition reflected in the students’ bearing and the particular ways they sit, stand, and walk. To Jack, the students’ mannerisms signal a shared membership in some kind of secret fellowship, determined by their economic status.
At home, Denise chastises her mother for her gum-chewing habits. Denise lists the many potentially harmful effects of gum, such as its tendency to cause cancer in rats. Denise tells her mother that she can’t chew gum anymore and, in the course of their argument, brings up the memory lapses that Babette has been having recently.
Upstairs, Jack finds Heinrich studying moves for a chess game he plays via mail with a convicted killer named Tommy Roy Foster. Heinrich describes their correspondence and tells Jack that Foster committed the crime because he wanted to go down in history. Now, however, Foster realizes that shooting a few random people in a tiny town wasn’t enough to guarantee him fame, and if he could do it all again, he would just assassinate one famous person. Jack comments that he won’t go down in history, either, and Heinrich comments that Jack, at least, has Hitler, while Tommy Roy Foster has nothing. Jack and Heinrich discuss the fact that Heinrich’s mother wants him to visit her that summer at the ashram where she lives. Jack asks Heinrich if he wants to go, and Heinrich responds that he can’t tell. He might want to go, but then that desire might just be the result of a random misfiring neuron in his brain.
The next morning, Jack goes to the ATM to check his balance. He finds comfort in the fact that his own accounting has been corroborated and validated by the bank’s computer system.
Jack wakes up suddenly in the middle of the night, gripped by a powerful fear. The clock reads 3:51, and Jack wonders if the number might be significant. Perhaps, he wonders, some numbers are threatening, while others are life-affirming.
The next morning, Jack wakes up to the smell of burnt toast. Jack says that Steffie often burns her toast because she loves the smell. When he goes downstairs, he finds Steffie and Babette in the kitchen. Jack remarks that he’ll be fifty-one the following week. Babette asks how being fifty-one feels, and Jack says that it’s no different from fifty. Except, Babette points out, one number is odd and the other is even.
Steffie asks about her mother, Dana Breedlove. Dana is a contract agent for the CIA who conducts covert drop-offs in Latin America. Later, when Steffie is distracted by a telemarketer’s phone call, Jack tells Babette that Dana liked to plot and was often getting him entangled in domestic and faculty battles. He remarks that she would speak English to him but that when she was on the phone she’d speak Spanish or Portuguese.
Jack and Babette go to Murray’s house for dinner that evening, and Murray cooks them a Cornish hen on his hot plate. Murray expounds on his theories about television. He describes how his students think television is worthless junk, but Murray insists that television is a primal and important force in American life. If you can open yourself up to television, Murray says, you can observe all kinds of incredible things concealed in the grid of buzzing dots and blips.
As Jack and Babette walk home after dinner, Babette brings up the memory lapses that Denise claims to have witnessed. Jack tries to reassure her that they are probably nothing. They discuss the pills Denise says she has seen, and Babette says she doesn’t think she is taking anything that could account for memory loss.
In these chapters, the novel begins to move into threatening territory. However, the accumulating dread still isn’t attached to a particular event or cause. Instead, this dread, continuously hovering in the distance, seems to linger around Jack. Menace seems to lurk around every corner, often in seemingly innocuous places. Gum chewing, according to Denise, can have fatal consequences, and the supermarket, according to Murray, resembles the Tibetan holding place for the dead. The mysterious ailment that afflicts the girls’ school represents the novel’s first real brush with danger. However, the threat passes almost as soon as it appears, dissolving away with nearly no consequences—except for the anonymous inspector, rumored dead.
Throughout White Noise, ominous situations arise, only to be quickly deflated. But, as is the case with the dead, Mylex-suited inspector, discomfort and uneasiness never truly dissipate. This tendency will be most clearly demonstrated in the airborne toxic event of Chapter 21, in which Jack finds himself exposed to a chemical that will surely prove lethal, but probably not for several decades, at which point Jack will already be well into old age. This evaluation confirms Jack’s suspicions that he has been marked for death, yet it keeps the actual realization of Jack’s death at bay. Jack lives under the shadow of an unnamed threat yet can never be truly sure of the nature of that threat.
Heinrich’s relationship with Tommy Roy Foster represents another threatening element in these chapters, confirming Jack’s earlier suspicions that Heinrich “brings a danger to him.” Heinrich’s relationship to Tommy Roy Foster is typical of the relationship Jack’s family has to danger, in that Foster remain distant and separate from Heinrich, safe behind bars and only communicating through letters. Like the unnamed menace that seems to hover around Jack, Foster makes his presence felt without actually being present, tangible, or visible. While he discusses Foster with Jack, Heinrich is the first to note the way Jack’s interest in Hitler is more than simply academic. Heinrich remarks that Tommy Roy Foster won’t “go down in history,” since he only killed some anonymous civilians. Jack, however, “has Hitler,” while Foster has nothing. Just as Foster would capitalize on a famous victim’s personal glory, Jack capitalizes on Hitler’s fame to bolster his own identity. The fact that Heinrich equates his father with a convicted mass-murderer foreshadows the events of the final chapter, when Jack attempts murder. In a more general way, it also suggests the voracious way Jack consumes Hitler’s mythos in order to strengthen himself.
Finally, these chapters develop the theme of codes and code-breaking more fully. Throughout the novel, characters analyze texts, symbols, and images to divine deeper meanings. Denise pores over the Physician’s Desk Reference in an attempt to diagnose her mother’s illness. Murray is an extreme case of this tendency, as he claims to find evidence of codes everywhere—from television transmissions to the colors and shapes of food packaging in the supermarket. To Murray, the entire modern world pulses with hidden messages and secret languages, and the act of decoding is a source of endless fascination and wonder to him. Jack also thinks he sees codes working all around him, but he isn’t sure whether they are benign or malicious. He notes, for example, that he wakes up at exactly 3:51 and frantically tries to grasp the meaning of this mysterious number. He wonders if he should find significance in the fact that 3:51 ends in an odd digit or in the fact that he will be fifty-one on his next birthday. Jack would like to believe that the world operates in such systematic, precise ways, because such regularity would lend his life shape and meaning. However, as the novel progresses, whether the world is, in fact, methodical becomes increasingly less clear.