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Jack worries that Heinrich has a receding hairline. He
wonders if this is his fault as the boy’s father or if toxins in
the air are to blame. As Jack drives Heinrich to school, Jack tries
to initiate a mundane conversation about the weather. Heinrich refuses
to entertain Jack’s attempt and parries each of Jack’s comments
with a deadpan philosophical retort. As he watches Heinrich walk
away from the car, Jack is suddenly seized by a desperate love for
his son, whom he feels has a strange way of attracting danger to
In a movie theater on campus, Jack prepares a screening
of a documentary for his Advanced Nazism seminar. In the film, which
has no narrator, Jack has collected excerpts from Nazi propaganda films,
featuring long shots of marches, meetings, and massive crowd scenes.
At the end of the screening, a student asks Jack about the plot
to kill Hitler. Jack surprises himself by responding, “All plots tend
to move deathward. This is the nature of plots.” Later, he wonders
if he actually believes his own proclamation.
Twice a week, Babette teaches a posture class for the
elderly in a church basement. Jack speculates that her students
feel they can ward off death through proper grooming, and he always
finds himself surprised by the faith Babette’s students put in her
exercises. Jack walks Babette home from class, and when they arrive
they fall into bed. They discuss what they’ll do that evening, and
Babette offers to read him something sexy. Jack considers how open
and honest their relationship is. Jack and Babette tell each other
everything, and, in that retelling, Jack believes they not only
draw closer to one another but also manage to distance themselves
from painful events in their past. Jack goes off in search of a
trashy magazine from which Babette can read him letters. Instead,
he finds several old family albums. Jack and Babette look through
the albums for hours, and as they flip through the images, Jack
once again finds himself wondering, “Who will die first?”
Embarrassed by his inability to speak German, despite
his position as chair of Hitler studies, Jack secretly begins taking
lessons from a man named Howard Dunlop, a reclusive, taciturn man
who lives in Murray’s boarding house. Jack has a hostile relationship
with the German language, and he describes it as a harsh, strange
entity. When Dunlop speaks German, it seems to Jack that Dunlop
transforms into an entirely different being. Jack finds the language
distasteful, but the College-on-the-Hill is hosting a Hitler conference the
following spring, and it would be incredibly shameful if it were revealed
that the chairman of the department couldn’t speak German.
After the lesson, Jack stops by Murray’s room and invites
him over for dinner. Murray puts away his copy of American
Transvestite and puts on his corduroy jacket. On their
way out of the house, Murray comments that his landlord is a great
handyman, then laments the landlord’s bigotry. Jack asks Murray
why he thinks his landlord is a bigot, and Murray responds that
people who can fix things are always bigots.
Back at Jack’s house, a flurry of noise and activity awaits
the two men, as Denise runs the trash compactor, Heinrich talks
on the phone, Babette enters the house from running, and Steffie
repeats a radio program’s admonishment to boil tap water before
drinking. In the middle of all this sound, Wilder sits, happy and
Jack surprises himself with the comment that “all plots
tend toward death,” but the aphorism becomes a resonant refrain
in White Noise, much like the repeated question
“Who will die first?” On the one hand, plots, schemes, secrets,
and conspiracies comprise a running motif throughout the novel.
Murray and the other American environments professors purport to
find secret codes in the white noise of popular culture. Jack notes
that all his former wives were secretive and anxious and involved
in espionage and foreign intelligence. Babette, on the other hand,
is open, guileless, and wholesome. Jack takes great comfort in her
honesty and forthrightness and often compares her to his guarded
ex-wives. In marrying Babette, Jack has rejected plots in favor
of plain dealings. His surprising comment suggests that by rejecting
his plotting ex-wives and embracing an open life with Babette, Jack
feels as if he is pushing away death itself, an important move given
his oft-expressed fear of death.
The word plot also resonates in a literary
sense. At this point, White Noise exhibits no conventional
sense of plot. If anything, the narrative actively resists forming
itself into a plot, as the novel circles and ambles with no clear
direction. Yet if it is true that all plots tend toward death, then
perhaps Jack’s persistent fear of dying is actively keeping the
novel from settling into a schematic, logical plot structure. Language
often features in White Noise as a coping mechanism.
Like the din of technology and human activity, language helps alleviate
the fear and anxiety at the heart of the human condition. As the
narrator of the novel, Jack has the tools of language and storytelling
at his disposal. If death is what he fears, and all plots lead to
death, then naturally Jack’s own narrative would try to avoid having
The role of the German language in these chapters develops
a few different themes. The fact that Jack, despite being an expert
in Hitler studies, cannot speak German presents an embarrassing
contradiction to his carefully constructed academic persona. Of
course, a strong command of German would be necessary in order to
truly study the documents and artifacts of Nazi Germany. The fact
that Jack lacks this skill further demonstrates Jack’s interest
in the cultural myths that surround Hitler in Jack’s English-speaking
world, rather than in the historical despot himself. In addition,
the German language is presented as a dark, foreboding entity, but
one that is ambiguous about the danger it evokes. When Howard Dunlop begins
to speak German, Jack notes that there is a “scrape and gargle that
sounded like the stirring of some beast’s ambition” and that there
were “harsh noises damp with passion.” The language represents something
primordial and primitive to Jack, something that he discerns as
lying at the very base of human existence. Jack’s inability to connect
with German may suggest his inability, as a modern man living in
a mechanized age, to connect with a primal, natural state of being.
As the novel progresses, Jack will become increasingly aware of
a nameless, ancient sound lying behind the white noise of modern life.
Jack’s concerns about the potential toxins in the environment and
the air of danger that surrounds his son foreshadow some of the events
that will occur later in the novel. In addition, these concerns add
an element of depth and humanity to both Jack and Heinrich, which
highlights their emotional bond as father and son. Jack’s moment
of concern comes directly after he and Heinrich have engaged in
a highly theoretical, comically absurd argument about the weather.
Straightforward and heartfelt, Jack’s desire to protect his son
contrasts with the ironic, abstracted attitude he previously displayed.
While much of the novel functions more as collections of witty dialogue
than as dialogue between fully-realized characters, moments like
these highlight the fact that White Noise remains deeply
concerned with the emotional dimensions of the human condition.