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White Noise

Don DeLillo

Part II: “The Airborne Toxic Event”

Chapters 19–20

Part III: Dylarama, Chapters 22–25

Summary: Chapter 21

Jack finds Heinrich on the roof, looking through a pair of binoculars at a distant black cloud of smoke. Heinrich informs Jack that a train car has been derailed. Later, they both return to watch the cloud. Heinrich says that the burning chemical in the air is Nyodene Derivative, or Nyodene D., a toxic substance that causes lumps in rats. The radio has already listed nausea, skin irritation, and sweaty palms as potential symptoms of exposure. Jack tries to reassure Heinrich that the smoke won’t come toward them and continues to act comfortable and indifferent. He sits down to pay the bills, even as rumors of increasing danger come in over the radio and phone. Sirens begin to blare through the neighborhood, but Jack declares that such things can’t happen in a town like theirs. New symptoms are reported on the radio, and the cloud is given a new name: the airborne toxic event. Heinrich tries to get his father to acknowledge the danger, but Jack declares that he is a college professor, not to mention the chair of a department, and can’t imagine someone like him fleeing something like an airborne toxic event. The family anxiously gathers for dinner as the air raid warnings grow closer.

Soon, a fire captain’s car drives by, announcing an evacuation. The family packs up their things, gets into the car, and heads toward an abandoned Boy Scout camp, as directed. Traffic is backed up on the roads, and some people are choosing to leave the town by foot, wrapped in plastic, with their children and belongings packed in suitcases and stuffed in shopping carts. Jack notes that the situation has an epic quality. Jack sees Babette swallow something and questions her about it, but she evades his questions. Over the radio, increasingly severe symptoms of toxic exposure are being announced. Sweaty palms and vomiting are replaced by persistent feelings of déjà vu, which are eventually supplanted by comas, convulsions, and miscarriages. Steffie and Denise exhibit some of the symptoms, but Jack wonders if they are truly being affected or are merely being influenced by the radio reports. Heinrich points out that the car is low on fuel, so Jack pulls up to a filling station and gets out to fill the tank.

Back on the road, Army helicopters light up the billowing dark mass that Jack likens to “some death ship in a Norse legend, escorted across the night by armored creatures with spiral wings.” The family arrives at the camp, where rumors about government cover-ups, disappearing helicopters, and long-range effects of Nyodene D. begin to circulate. Jack watches as Heinrich stands at the center of a circle of people, telling them everything he knows about the airborne toxic event. Heinrich flourishes under the attention, joking and speaking easily with the crowd.

A technician checks Jack for signs of Nyodene D., which he may have been exposed to while pumping gas. A man from SIMUVAC, which stands for Simulated Evacuation, explains the toxin’s deadliness to Jack, but only in vague, abstract terms. He tells Jack that SIMUVAC is using their experience here, at the airborne toxic event, in order to prepare for a disaster simulation. The man tells Jack that Nyodene D. lives in the system for thirty years and that, in fifteen years, they’ll be able to give him more detailed information about its effects. Jack finds himself wishing he had his academic gown and glasses. When he returns from the SIMUVAC table, Jack finds Babette reading tabloids to some blind people. She’s reading an article in which a young girl, believed to be the reincarnation of a KGB assassin, discusses how she didn’t fear death in her past life.

Jack and Heinrich discuss what knowledge people could pass on if they were hurled back in time. Heinrich notes that he and Jack don’t actually know anything about modern technology and couldn’t tell the ancient Greeks anything about their world. In the parking lot, Jack finds Murray talking to prostitutes huddled in a car. He tells Murray about his SIMUVAC experience, how he now has the seed of death planted inside of him. The two of them talk about death in the modern era and about how death always adapts to our technological advances. One of the prostitutes agrees to let Murray perform the Heimlich maneuver on her for twenty-five dollars. Rumors of disaster and death accumulate, and Jack marvels at the power of the imagination in such circumstances. He takes comfort in knowing that German shepherds are protecting them. He watches the children sleep and is surprised and touched when Steffie mutters “Toyota Celica” in her sleep.

After falling asleep, Jack wakes up to an announcement that the toxic cloud has shifted with the wind and is heading toward them. People scramble to their cars, creating pandemonium. As they flee the camp, they come back across the massive toxic cloud, surrounded by helicopters. They reach Iron City at dawn, where they’re led to an abandoned karate studio. Rumors of microorganisms capable of eating the toxins in the clouds spread, and Jack acknowledges that this sounds like something right out of a tabloid. Babette notes that every new advance in technology makes her even more scared. A man holding a TV walks into the center of the room. He tells everyone that there are no reports on what is happening and that the media and TV in general have failed to respond to them. He asks, “Even if there hasn’t been great loss of life, don’t we deserve some attention for our suffering?” Jack and his family return home nine days later.

Analysis

Chapter 21, which comprises the entirety of the novel’s middle section, is the longest and most eventful chapter in the novel, and much of what has been previously foreshadowed finally comes to fruition here. In this chapter, Jack’s vague fear of death becomes authentic and confirmed, the toxins in the environment become more than just metaphorical, and the ominous sense of looming death and tragedy finally gains shape. Other recurring themes—including the power of technology, the dissemination and meaning of information, and artifice versus reality—take on greater depth and meaning here.

When the airborne toxic event strikes, most family members act characteristically. Since the airborne toxic event is tragic and potentially deadly, Heinrich is, unsurprisingly, both the first to know about it and the one who possesses the most factual information. At the Boy Scout camp, he flourishes, because his expertise in morbid subjects proves valuable and welcome. Jack, on the other hand, retreats from the potential consequences of the event and refuses to entertain even the threat of danger. He pays the bills, an act that reminds us of the power of consumerism and displays Jack’s authority as the head of the household. Jack’s authority has always provided a shield, from behind which he can avoid tragedy and death. Hisdistinguished status as a college professor and chairman of Hitler studies, as well as the placid nature of his small, quaint town, are all supposed to act as barriers to precisely this type of tragic experience. Jack’s reluctance to acknowledge the dangerous situation speaks to his fundamental belief in the security that prestige can provide.

Throughout the novel—from the Most Photographed Barn in America to Babette’s appearance on a local cable-access channel to Jack’s own vision of Hitler—there has been a tension between the real and the representation, between the authentic object and the replica. The name of the chemical substance released by the toxic cloud, Nyodene Derivative, emphasizes this notion yet again. The substance burning in the air is not Nyodene but a derivation of Nyodene, a replica of an original substance. Nyodene D., the potentially lethal synthetic creation, encapsulates the fear many people feel toward modern technology, which grants us awesome powers while simultaneously seeming to take us further away from what is real, genuine, organic, and authentic. This situation finds pointed and comic expression in the SIMUVAC technicians, who tell Jack that the real airborne toxic event will eventually be used to plan and prepare for disaster simulations. In the case of SIMUVAC, reality ultimately ends up serving the artificial.

The symptoms the children experience further blur the lines between what is genuine and what is fabricated. Denise and Steffie both suffer from sweaty palms, but it remains unclear whether the girls are suffering as a result of Nyodene D. exposure or whether their bodies are unconsciously reacting to the radio reports that detail potential symptoms. Whichever ends up being the case—whether the girls have been affected by the real thing or the report of the real thing—the fact remains that their palms are actually sweating. The episode seems to suggest that the difference between the reality and the facsimile might not be so distinct, after all. Murray Jay Siskind would certainly agree with this perspective. In the midst of a genuinely disastrous event, Murray tries pay someone to simulate choking, so that he may experience the feeling of saving someone’s life. For Murray, it doesn’t matter that the event is staged, as long as the experience seems real. In Murray’s eyes, the feeling of reality and the sense of importance are just as significant and powerful as anything else.

Déjà vu may seem like an absurd symptom of exposure to a toxic chemical, but, symbolically, the phenomenon of déjà vu speaks to the essential anxieties expressed in White Noise. In psychological terms, déjà vu is the impression that a new never-before experienced situation has actually occurred previously. Memory is a kind of replicating force that copies events and objects and reproduces them as images in our minds. However, déjà vu creates false memories, or replicas that, impossibly, have no origin. Déjà vu fools us into mistaking illusions for reality. In a world where things can be endlessly copied, distinguishing what is authentic, genuine, and original seems impossible and potentially pointless.

As Jack describes it, the airborne toxic event is simultaneously both lurid and sublime. As absurd as much of the situation seems, Jack remains intent on describing the event in epic, mythological terms. To some degree, this event has happened before, albeit in different times and circumstances, throughout the course of history. Mass evacuations, pandemonium, the fear of dying, and the specter of death were as much a part of the ancient world as they are of the modern world. The Army helicopters remind Jack of figures from Norse mythology, and the black cloud itself suggests a “death ship.” The shape of the fear may have changed, but the substance of that fear remains the same. The airborne toxic event, artificial and chemically noxious, is simply the modern shape death has taken. Throughout the novel, the most extremely advanced, modern elements of our lives are shown to have primal, ancient resonances, and the airborne toxic event proves no different.

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