Summary: Chapter 26
One night in bed, Jack demands to know more about Dylar. Without telling him any details, Babette explains that she has a condition that she can’t get rid of. One day, while reading the National Enquirer to Mr. Treadwell, she saw an ad from a pharmaceutical company seeking volunteers for secret research. After undergoing a series of tests, the firm finally said the drug, Dylar, was too dangerous for human testing. Babette, however, made a private arrangement with the project manager—whom she refers to as “Mr. Gray”—and slept with him in order to obtain the drug. After breaking into tears, Babette finally says that she’s taking Dylar in order to suppress her unshakeable fear of death. Jack tries to convince her that perhaps she’s suffering from a fear of something else, but Babette insists that it is death she fears. They both admit that they are far more scared of dying than they have ever previously admitted to each other. They hold onto each other for a long time, not speaking.
Later, Babette explains how Dylar isolates the particular neurotransmitters that control the fear of death and how, despite having taken almost all her pills, she has yet to experience any relief from her fear. She tells Jack that Mr. Gray sent her a tape in the mail, saying that the drug might work better on a more suitable candidate. Jack finally tells Babette what the SIMUVAC man told him, that he is “tentatively scheduled to die.” He concludes that he’s no longer dealing with a vague and ambiguous terror, but a true, tangible fact. Babette beings sobbing and beating Jack, wordlessly. After she falls asleep, Jack washes his face in the bathroom and discovers that the bottle of Dylar hidden under the radiator cover is gone.
Summary: Chapter 27
Jack goes in for his second checkup since the toxic event. On his way to the supermarket, he passes a SIMUVAC disaster simulation. He sees Steffie lying in the street, playing the role of a victim. A man’s voice comes over a loudspeaker. He welcomes everyone on behalf of Advanced Disaster Management, a consulting firm that executes simulated evacuations. The man explains how the simulation will proceed, and Jack decides that he doesn’t want to watch.
On the front steps of their house, Jack meets Heinrich and Heinrich’s friend, Orest Mercator, both of whom are participating in the simulation. Jack asks Orest why he would want to risk his life sitting in a cage of deadly snakes for the sake of a Guinness record. Orest repeatedly declares that the snakes won’t bite—and that at least he’ll go quickly if they do.
Inside the house, Jack confronts Babette about the missing Dylar, which she swears she didn’t move. Jack then tries to find out where he can find Mr. Gray, but Babette explains that she promised to keep Mr. Gray’s identity a secret. Jack goes to pick up Denise from school, because he knows she must have taken the bottle of Dylar. Denise refuses to hand over the remaining pills, which Jack admits is probably for the best. He says, though, that he can’t help thinking about Dylar and wondering if it would counteract the Nyodene D. in his bloodstream.
Summary: Chapter 28
Steffie’s mother has invited her to Mexico City for Easter. Steffie says that she can’t go, since she has already volunteered for another simulation. Jack describes his two marriages to Steffie’s mother, Dana Breedlove, a secret agent who also reviewed fiction for the CIA—long novels with embedded codes. Jack notes that all of his previous wives had some connection to the intelligence community and were highly secretive. Jack claims that Babette represents the exact opposite of these women and, until Dylar, shared everything with him.
At the college, Jack has lunch with Murray and the New York émigrés. Elliot Lasher and Nicholas Grappa engage in a verbal battle much like the one Jack witnessed the last time he had lunch with these professors. Jack watches as Alfonse Stompanato gears up to deliver his own speech, this time about the importance of internists in New York.
Later, Jack and Murray walk across campus discussing Murray’s current seminar on car crashes. Murray finds the grandiosity of filmed car crashes indicative of a certain “can-do” American attitude. Though his students disagree with him, Murray finds these scenes innocent and celebratory, if one can manage to look past the violence.
Babette’s dual confessions, about her infidelity and her use of Dylar, bring together several of the most important elements of the novel, particularly the themes of death and plots. Jack has always insisted on the total honesty of his relationship with Babette. For him, their ability to share everything was not only a sign of a healthy, loving relationship but also a relief from his own fear and anxiety. Their openness was the antithesis to the conspiracies, intrigue, and secrecy that marked his previous marriages. Now, however, it is revealed that Babette has been lying, and the aura of sincerity that Jack has fostered so carefully, and remained so invested in, seems like a sham. Subsequently, their marriage presents as ineffectual a shield against his fear as Jack’s study of Hitler and German culture. That Babette’s infidelity was rooted in an uncontrollable fear of dying is especially important, since it signals the convergence of Jack’s fear of dying and his fear of plots. In fact, Babette’s secret actions carry several clichéd elements of a thriller novel—the definitive literary genre involving plots about death. The shadowy figure, the seedy motel room, and the illegal drugs are deliberate, self-conscious plot conventions.
The conversation between Jack and Babette highlights the degree to which death consistently underlies the novel. Death is linked to the supermarket, to the tabloids, to the conversations of the New York émigrés, and now, even more explicitly, to sound. Death is the white noise of the book. It mirrors the never-ending hums and sounds to which Jack is so sensitive. Life is always tinged with death, and Jack, in his daily experience of the world, seems unable to forget that.
The drug Dylar, whose very name echoes dying, is part of the technological advances that created Nyodene Derivative and SIMUVAC and that now reduces all human actions and desires to chemical impulses located in the brain. The drug’s claim to eliminate the fear of death seems absurd, but in a world where drugs can regulate nearly every emotion and where human beings are no more than the sum total of their data, it appears to be the logical conclusion of the proliferation of psychopharmaceutical drugs. This type of technology embodies a frightening dehumanization that inevitably isolates the individual. The drug has failed Babette, which suggests that perhaps our fears are not only unique to each of us but are also unavoidable.
In the post–airborne toxic event world, SIMUVAC has gone from using a real event as preparation for a simulated event to simulating a simulation. The admonition made by the SIMUVAC coordinator that reality should not interfere with the course of the simulation suggests that artificial appearances have become more important than reality. The tension between what is real and what is artificial is stressed again when Jack meets Orest Mercator and they discuss Orest’s plan to sit in a cage with venomous snakes. Jack repeatedly asserts that the snakes are real, that he is real, and that death is real. After watching the distressing SIMUVAC simulation, in which authentic reality seems to regress further and further into the distance, Jack’s need to profess and defend the existence of some kind of tangible, intelligible reality becomes increasingly desperate.
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