Summary: Chapter 12
Jack and Howard Dunlop have a German lesson. Jack describes how Dunlop sounds as if he were violating the laws of nature when he speaks German. Jack tries to tease some personal information out of the reticent Dunlop, who volunteers the information that he also teaches Greek, Latin, sailing, and meteorology. Dunlop turned to meteorology after his mother’s death and found the study of weather patterns deeply comforting.
Jack finds Bob Pardee, Denise’s father and Babette’s ex-husband, at his house when he returns from his lesson. Bob takes the three older children out to dinner while Jack drives Babette to her tabloid-reading appointment at Old Man Treadwell’s. A few minutes after dropping her off, Babette comes back to the car and says Mr. Treadwell and his elder sister are missing. They report the disappearance to the police, then go to meet Bob and the kids at a donut shop. Jack sees Babette look carefully and sympathetically at Bob, as if she were trying to comprehend the four dramatic years they spent together.
The next day, the police begin to drag the river in search of the Treadwells.
Summary: Chapter 13
While Heinrich watches the proceedings at the river, word comes that the Treadwells have been discovered at the local shopping mall, where they’d been for four days. Two of those days were spent huddled in a kiosk, while the sister foraged for scraps of food from garbage cans. No one knows how the two of them got there or why they didn’t call for help. Jack surmises that the Treadwells were most likely overwhelmed by the vast strangeness of the mall and overcome by their own helplessness.
Before the Treadwells were found in the mall, the police called in a psychic named Adele T. to help locate them. She didn’t help the police at all in that search, but she did lead them to two kilos of heroin, stashed away in an airline bag with a handgun. Though Adele has helped the police find evidence of many criminal activities, she has always done so when she was looking for something else.
Summary: Chapter 14
Denise comes into Jack’s bedroom and asks him what they are going to do about Babette’s memory lapses. She tells Jack that she found a bottle of medication buried in the trash. The drug is called Dylar, but Denise can’t find references to the drug anywhere. Jack tries to reassure Denise, telling her that everyone takes something. Denise doesn’t seem comforted, but she drops the subject.
Denise asks Jack why he gave Heinrich that name. Jack explains that he thought the name had an air of authority and that Heinrich was born shortly after Jack started Hitler studies. Jack admits that there is something in the German language and culture that he needs, something that makes him feel stronger and bigger. Steffie comes into the room, and Jack and the girls go through the German-English dictionary together, looking for words that are similar in both languages. Heinrich rushes into the room and tells them that there’s footage of a plane crash on TV, and the girls run out with him. Later that night, the family gathers around the television for the weekly Friday ritual. Jack and the children are absorbed by the footage of calamity, disaster, and tragedy.
At work on Monday, Murray complains that he’s having trouble establishing himself as the department’s Elvis expert. Alfonse Stompanato, the department chairman, believes that Dimitros Cotsakis has more authority on the subject, because Cotsakis interviewed Presley’s family immediately following Elvis’s death and has already appeared on television as an expert on the Elvis phenomenon. Jack offers to stop by Murray’s lecture to lend his own influence and prestige to Murray’s campaign.
Jack joins the New York émigrés for lunch. Jack describes Alfonse Stompanato, a forceful, charismatic, domineering man. Jack asks Alfonse why people are fascinated by watching catastrophes on television. Alfonse says that it’s because people are bombarded by information every day, and only catastrophes can break through that constant flow of data. We crave catastrophes to get our attention, Murray argues, as long as they happen somewhere else. He continues by saying that people suffer from brain fade, and their senses have gotten weary from misuse.
The New York émigrés engage in a kind of storytelling battle, as they compare personal anecdotes about moments when they brushed their teeth with their fingers or used dirty, run-down toilet facilities. Alfonse then challenges each professor to relate where he was when James Dean died. Each man has a quick answer, except for Nicholas Grappa, who is ridiculed for hesitating.
In earlier chapters, Jack has already demonstrated that his interest in Hitler specifically, and German culture generally, represents more than a simple academic preoccupation. His discussion of his son Heinrich’s name reveals even more about Jack’s investment in Germanic studies. Jack notes that he wanted to give his son a name with force and power, which German culture represents to Jack. The name Heinrich also calls to mind Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the German police who was responsible for the Final Solution, the systematic extermination of Jewish people during World War II. Himmler is a figure surrounded by intrigue, secret plots, and, of course, death. Despite—or, perhaps, because of—the grotesqueness of a figure like Himmler, his persona also has an undeniable force and strength behind it. Heinrich Himmler is certainly a character who demands to be reckoned with.
As Jack notes, some people carry guns, while others wear a uniform in order to feel stronger and safer. Jack also seeks safety and security, and he finds these things in the German culture’s emphasis on strength and in the towering, monumental figure of Adolf Hitler, which he metaphorically wraps around himself like a protective mantle. Jack is not the only character in White Noise who uses his studies to ward off death. In fact, all of the principle adult characters in the novel up to this point are teachers, and, to some degree, their subjects all relate to death—either as a direct engagement with it or an attempt to avoid it. For example, Howard Dunlop, Jack’s German teacher, turns to meteorology after his mother’s death as a way of finding solace in the world. Even Babette’s posture classes are an attempt to keep death away: her elderly students train their bodies to be rigorous and upright, as if this would help instill a new health and vigor in them.
The Treadwells’ ordeal in the mall, like Jack’s experience in the supermarket, again parodies consumer culture. However, while the supermarket proves both rejuvenating and fascinating to people like Jack and Murray, the shopping mall ends up being a terrifying place. The mall is so vast and overwhelming that it literally swallows the individual. The supposed consumers end up consumed themselves. The Treadwells are old, and to them the scale of the mall is more than they can bear. Unable to participate as consumers, they huddle in a kiosk, scavenging for food as if they were homeless in a city. Throughout the novel, everyday, mundane events, objects, and locations become imbued with a mystical or supernatural force, rendering otherwise recognizable entities as alien and strange. This process of defamiliarization can sometimes lead to a sublime, transcendent experience, but just as often it proves harrowing.
When the police bring in a psychic to help find the Treadwells, Jack notes, “the American mystery deepens.” The police approach the psychic searching for one thing and instead find another, but they never find the connection they were searching for. For someone like Jack, who obsessively searches out connections in order to create meaning, mystery itself represents a dark, powerful force. Mystery appears in the absence of connections. It defies logic and thwarts efforts to create a cohesive meaning around one’s life. And, of course, mystery is almost always part of plot. The mysteriously beautiful sunsets continue to captivate Jack and the family, and as Jack notes, they are either ominous or spectacles of pleasure—and perhaps both.
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