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White Noise

Don DeLillo

Part III: Dylarama, Chapters 22–25

Part II: “The Airborne Toxic Event”

Chapters 26–28

Summary: Chapter 22

At the supermarket, Jack pushes Wilder in a shopping cart. A storm is on its way, and the threat and excitement seem to permeate the store. Jack notes that the elderly shoppers seem particularly anxious and confused.

In the generic-food aisle, Jack runs into Murray, who tells Jack that Dimitros Costakis, Murray’s Elvis rival from the American environments department, has drowned in the ocean off Malibu. Jack suddenly becomes aware of the “dense environmental texture” that surrounds him: the sounds of cars, the noise of maintenance systems, and the shuffling shoppers’ feet. As Jack pushes Wilder around in the cart, he thinks about how many of the houses, parks, and roads in Blacksmith need maintenance and repair. As long as the supermarket remains clean, bright, and well stocked, however, Jack believes there is reason for optimism.

That evening, Jack drives Babette to her posture class. On the way, they stop to watch the sunset. Sunsets have become much more beautiful and brilliant since the toxic event, possibly as a result of all the Nyodene D. having been released into the air. On the way back home, Babette says she’s going to start teaching a nutrition class called Eating and Drinking. The world has gotten complicated for adults, Babette says, and a class like this will prove soothing to students, assuring them that an authoritative figure—who can instruct them on the right and wrong ways to be doing things—still exists in the world.

Lying in bed, Jack takes great comfort in being physically intimate with Babette and resolves never to tell her about the SIMUVAC man’s diagnosis.

Summary: Chapter 23

Jack increases the length and frequency of his German classes as the conference approaches. His pronunciation is still problematic, despite his skill with vocabulary and grammar. At one point, Dunlop reaches into Jack’s mouth and adjusts his tongue, which Jack calls a “strange and terrible moment, an act of haunting intimacy.”

Dogs and men in Mylex are still patrolling the town. Over dinner, the family discusses the toxic event. Heinrich claims that the authorities aren’t reporting everything they know to the public, then goes on to declare that toxic spills don’t represent the biggest threat to human beings. The world is full of dangerous domestic radiation, coming from power lines, televisions, and microwaves. The girls look at Heinrich admiringly, but Jack wants to argue with his son. He wants Heinrich to understand that as he matures, he will develop a more balanced, restrained perspective on the world. Babette wonders aloud if Heinrich is being taught these morbid scientific facts in school, and then the entire family tries to remember random facts they once learned in classes.

With the residents of Blacksmith continuing to suffer from spells of déjà vu, various counseling hotlines have been set up. Jack notes that without a greater metropolis nearby, people in the suburbs are left feeling lonelier, without a context or focal point at which to direct their fears, dread, and hate.

Summary: Chapter 24

Jack discovers a plastic bottle of pills labeled Dylar taped to the bottom of the bathroom radiator. He takes the container to Denise, who tells him she had discovered Babette’s secret medication in December and that no pharmacist has ever heard of it. Jack calls Babette’s doctor, Hookstratten, only to learn that he didn’t prescribe it for Babette. He then calls his own doctor, who hasn’t heard of the drug either but thinks that the name sounds like an island in the Persian Gulf. Jack decides to take the drug to a colleague at the college to have it analyzed.

Later that night, Jack goes to say goodnight to Heinrich. Heinrich tells him about his new friend, Orest Mercator, who is training to break the Guinness record for sitting in a cage full of poisonous snakes. Heinrich also expresses his concern that he’s balding prematurely. When he returns to bed, Babette is standing at the window and staring out, not seeming to notice him at all.

Summary: Chapter 25

Jack takes the Dylar pill to Winnie Richards, a brilliant young neurochemist at the College-on-the-Hill. Jack notes that she’s elusive and seems quite shy. Winnie agrees to analyze the contents of the bottle over the next forty-eight hours.

Later, Jack confronts Babette about how she is growing increasingly distant and introverted, an accusation that Babette evades. He also brings up the Dylar, which Babette denies knowing about.

That afternoon, Jack goes to find Winnie Richards. He’s been having a hard time finding her; when he finally catches a glimpse of her, he has to run to catch her. When he does, he asks her if she’s been hiding from him. She says she has not been hiding from him in particular, then says, “Isn’t this what the twentieth century is all about? . . . People [hiding] even when no one is looking for them?” Winnie then tells Jack about Dylar. She describes how efficiently the tablet operates, disseminating the medicine in a careful and controlled manner, then self-destructing when it has depleted itself. Winnie tells Jack the drug is a type of psychopharmaceutical that she has never encountered before.

Analysis

Throughout White Noise, the elderly citizens of Blacksmith hover at the edge of the novel’s action, an unnumbered, largely mute, anonymous entity. Babette teaches and reads to some of them, but we never actually meet any of the senior citizens Babette works with. Even the Treadwells, who were at the center of a highly dramatic event in the first section of the novel, never appear in the direct action of the story; we only hear about them through Jack, Babette, or the newspapers. Whenever Jack goes to the supermarket, it seems to be full of old people, muttering and shuffling and looking increasingly disoriented. Since none of these elderly people are differentiated or given an individual voice, their sounds blend together, joining the blur of white noise that surrounds Jack.

If children are particularly open and receptive to the codes and mysteries buried in the white noise, then the elderly seem to represent the opposite condition. The elderly are also highly sensitive to the forces that lurk within modern life, but they are threatened and terrorized by those energies. The pitiful Treadwells are the extreme example of this predicament, as they are unable to process the seemingly mundane experience of navigating a shopping mall. To the Treadwells, the mall becomes an alien landscape, full of danger and peril. In another novel, this scenario could represent an amusing, somewhat absurd anecdote. In White Noise, however, Gladys Treadwell actually dies from the experience, suggesting that the “lingering dread” that afflicts her wields some true power. The elderly characters of White Noise are undone and traumatized by change, even a change as small as the reorganization of supermarket shelves. Babette’s posture class and her new class on eating and drinking attempt to stabilize reality and make it understandable for the old. The classes are a return to the seemingly essential, bodily facts of life that, unlike the brightly lit aisles of the supermarkets, are never in danger of changing.

The SIMUVAC man’s prognosis has increased Jack’s vulnerability and sensitivity. Jack now sees himself as a man destined to die, and that knowledge is reflected in his passing thoughts and actions. This is true even though Jack, as a mortal human being, has always been destined to die, and the SIMUVAC diagnosis hasn’t appreciably affected his life expectancy. He looks at his son and wistfully wishes for Heinrich a life much like his own. He retreats into his wife’s body and stays awake late into the night, watching the children sleep. His search for comfort seems desperate, touching, and infantile. His comments about the absence of a large metropolis also reflect his increasing sense of isolation. We all must die alone, and Jack is beginning to accept that knowledge.

The mystery around Dylar continues to grow, and, for the first time, Jack begins to actively search for the drug’s origin. He asks Denise not to say anything to Babette about his discovery of the Dylar, which means he has begun to keep secrets from his wife. This secrecy marks the beginning of a plot, which, once started, will be beyond Jack’s ability to control. Winnie Richards, known for her stealthy maneuvers, also signifies that the narrative is beginning to move toward a plot marked by secrecy and covert actions. Even Babette, who has been known thus far for her open, loving manner, has changed into a quiet, somber, cryptic figure.

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