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White Noise

Don DeLillo

Chapters 15–18

Chapters 12–14

Chapters 19–20

Summary: Chapter 15

Jack attends Murray’s Elvis lecture. When he walks in, Murray is making a point about the close relationship between Elvis and his mother. Jack interjects that Hitler too adored his mother. Jack and Murray engage in a back-and-forth volley, trading anecdotes about their respective cultural icons. Murray relates how Elvis fell apart when his mother, Gladys, died, and Jack counters with a description of the elaborate, expensive funeral Hitler held for his mother, Klara. Alfonse Stompanato enters the room and settles down to watch. Murray discusses Elvis’s death, particularly the way the man had deteriorated into a haze of bloated, grotesque excess. Jack describes the surging crowds who gathered on the occasion of Hitler’s death. He argues that the crowds gathered not so much to honor Hitler, but simply to be a crowd. Losing one’s individual identity in a crowd, Jack says, is a way of forming a shield against death. After this extended passage, the lecture ends. Murray looks at Jack thankfully, and Jack notices, as students gather around him, that they have become a crowd. Jack says that, for once, he doesn’t need a crowd around him, because, in the classroom, death is strictly a professional matter. In the classroom, Jack is comfortable with the concept of death.

Summary: Chapter 16

At 2 p.m. one afternoon, Wilder begins crying and won’t stop. Jack and Babette decide to take Wilder to the doctor, who tells them to give him an aspirin and put him to bed. Jack proposes going to the emergency room, but Babette insists on going to teach her posture class. While Babette is in class, Jack waits in the car with Wilder. As he holds Wilder, Jack becomes absorbed in the sound of the boy’s wailing. He seems to find something ancient, eternal, and primal within the noise. As they drive home from the class, Wilder stops crying. At home, everyone tiptoes around him, cautious and awestruck.

Summary: Chapter 17

The family takes a trip to the Mid-Village Mall. During the drive, Denise casually tries to confront Babette about Dylar, but the conversation jumps rapidly from tangent to tangent, and Denise is ultimately unsuccessful.

At a huge hardware store in the mall, Jack runs into Eric Massingale, who teaches computers at the College-on-the-Hill. Eric remarks that Jack looks so harmless off campus, without the dark glasses and all his professorial regalia. The encounter puts Jack in the mood to shop. He and his family roam the mall, as Jack shops voraciously. With each purchase, Jack feels he becomes stronger and more powerful.

They return home, and each family member retreats to his or her own room, wanting to be alone.

Summary: Chapter 18

Jack goes to the airport in Iron City to pick up his daughter Bee, who is coming in for a visit. Instead of his daughter, Jack finds her mother, Tweedy Browner, waiting for him at the arrivals area. Tweedy tells him that Bee will arrive in two hours on a flight from Indonesia, where she’s been staying with her stepfather, Malcolm Hunt. Tweedy will head to Boston the following day and has come to spend some time with Bee before she goes.

Jack and Tweedy drive around Iron City, discussing their past and current marriages. Tweedy expresses her unhappiness with her inscrutable new husband, Malcolm, a diplomat who runs deep cover operations in foreign countries. When Malcolm is working undercover, Tweedy says, he doesn’t just disappear in the here and now. He disappears so completely, it’s almost as if he never existed in the first place. Tweedy worries that she doesn’t truly know the man she married and that maybe the part of his life spent undercover is more real to him than the part of his life he spends with her. Jack tells Tweedy that Janet Savory, Heinrich’s mom, lives at an ashram now and goes by the name Mother Devi. Tweedy tries to wax nostalgic about her and Jack’s marriage, but Jack thwarts her attempt.

After driving around Iron City for a while, Jack and Tweedy go back to the airport. Before Bee’s flight arrives, passengers from another flight come staggering into the airport. As a crowd gathers, one of the passengers tells Jack the details of the near crash they just survived. The plane had lost power in its engines and began hurtling toward the ground. A voice over the intercom shouted desperately that they were falling from the sky. That was followed by another calmer voice, which explained that they had not been prepared for this in flight school. The second voice narrated, coolly and precisely, what would happen to the passengers upon impact. As people prepared for a crash landing, the plane suddenly regained control. As the officers and flight attendants transitioned back into their smooth corporate mode, everyone wondered why they had ever been afraid in the first place. Jack finds Bee and Tweedy, and Bee asks where the media had been during the plane crisis. Jack tells her that Iron City has no media, and Bee responds with incredulity that the passengers, then, must have gone through the ordeal for nothing.

As they travel back to Blacksmith, Tweedy tells Jack that all children should have the opportunity to fly alone early in their youth. Barring any unforeseen accidents, Tweedy proclaims, an airplane is one of the last remaining bastions of manners and good living.

Analysis

In its rhythms and its intensity, the face-off between Jack and Murray in the lecture hall resembles a boxing match more than an academic exchange. This battle for dominance, however, remains carefully staged at every point. Before Jack walks into the room, he puts on dark glasses and adopts a serious expression. Murray’s hands tremble in a “stylized” way, and Jack consciously “attempt[s] to loom” in the background when he enters, creating an aura of menace and power around him. When he reaches a dramatic moment in his speech, Jack stares at the carpet and silently counts to seven, letting the tension in the room build. Throughout, Jack describes his and Murray’s actions in terms drawn from performance. For example, Murray doesn’t lecture, he delivers a “thoughtful monologue.” Jack and Murray remain constantly aware of the other’s presence, like two dancers. Neither professor seems terribly concerned with factual information about his respective subject. Instead, they trade stories, anecdotes, and myths—not unlike the New York émigrés, who similarly battle with stories in the lunchroom. Murray and Jack remain more invested in the auras and imagery surrounding Elvis and Hitler than in the actual, historical figures. In this, Elvis and Hitler come to resemble the Most Photographed Barn in America, another entity whose surrounding aura of importance seems more significant than the object itself.

The scene in the lecture hall also develops the notion that Hitler studies helps Jack ward off the fear of death. While performing his role as professor and expert, Jack remains “secure in [his] professional aura of power, madness and death.” In the classroom, death becomes something Jack can analyze, theorize, and thereby control. His authority over the subject of death allows him to distance himself from the reality of his own death, a force that continually threatens to overwhelm him.

The security Jack finds in his identity as a professor, however, disintegrates when the trappings of his authority are removed. At the mall, one of Jack’s colleagues fails to recognize him, revealing again just how fragile Jack’s sense of identity is. After being told that he looks completely harmless without his gown and glasses, Jack goes on a spending spree, and the purchases he makes reaffirm his authority and power. Of course, the power he claims for himself as a consumer remains as superficial as the power he has at the College-on-the-Hill, since both depend on illusion and performance. The experience at the mall seems almost positive, as it draws Jack’s family around him, transforming them, perhaps for the first time, into a cohesive unit. Together, they move and shop, nearly ecstatic in their appetites. The experience proves temporary, perhaps even destructive, since the moment they get home each goes into seclusion. Consuming has not brought them together. If anything, it has isolated the family members from one another.

Wilder’s mysterious, extended crying fit is an important symbolic act in the novel. According to Murray, children are more open to the mysterious, hidden energies and codes that filter through the world’s white noise. Wilder, at six years old, has an extremely limited vocabulary. Indeed, the reader hasn’t heard a single word out of the boy, a notable fact given how voluble and talkative the rest of the family is. When Wilder breaks out into a forceful torrent of noise, the sound of the boy’s crying strikes Jack as something ancient, mournful, and foreign. The noise is unintelligible, but somehow Jack recognizes it. To Jack, Wilder’s crying seems like an expression of the primal, unnamed, unspoken force he has always sensed lurking at the periphery of his awareness. In this scene, Wilder resembles the Delphic oracles, ancient Greek priestesses who, under the influence of vapors, would deliver cryptic messages from the gods. When Jack looks at Wilder in the car, he notes “a complex intelligence” operating “behind that dopey countenance.” Wilder’s crying, though not intelligible in any recognizable sense, imports something significant to Jack. Like so much else in the novel, Wilder’s noise strikes Jack as simultaneously terrifying and transcendent.

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