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Jack and Howard Dunlop have a German lesson. Jack describes how
Dunlop sounds as if he were violating the laws of nature when he
speaks German. Jack tries to tease some personal information out
of the reticent Dunlop, who volunteers the information that he also
teaches Greek, Latin, sailing, and meteorology. Dunlop turned to
meteorology after his mother’s death and found the study of weather
patterns deeply comforting.
Jack finds Bob Pardee, Denise’s father and Babette’s ex-husband, at
his house when he returns from his lesson. Bob takes the three older
children out to dinner while Jack drives Babette to her tabloid-reading
appointment at Old Man Treadwell’s. A few minutes after dropping
her off, Babette comes back to the car and says Mr. Treadwell and
his elder sister are missing. They report the disappearance to the
police, then go to meet Bob and the kids at a donut shop. Jack sees
Babette look carefully and sympathetically at Bob, as if she were
trying to comprehend the four dramatic years they spent together.
The next day, the police begin to drag the river in search
of the Treadwells.
While Heinrich watches the proceedings at the river, word
comes that the Treadwells have been discovered at the local shopping
mall, where they’d been for four days. Two of those days were spent
huddled in a kiosk, while the sister foraged for scraps of food
from garbage cans. No one knows how the two of them got there or
why they didn’t call for help. Jack surmises that the Treadwells
were most likely overwhelmed by the vast strangeness of the mall
and overcome by their own helplessness.
Before the Treadwells were found in the mall, the police
called in a psychic named Adele T. to help locate them. She didn’t
help the police at all in that search, but she did lead them to
two kilos of heroin, stashed away in an airline bag with a handgun.
Though Adele has helped the police find evidence of many criminal
activities, she has always done so when she was looking for something
Denise comes into Jack’s bedroom and asks him what they
are going to do about Babette’s memory lapses. She tells Jack that
she found a bottle of medication buried in the trash. The drug is
called Dylar, but Denise can’t find references to the drug anywhere.
Jack tries to reassure Denise, telling her that everyone takes something.
Denise doesn’t seem comforted, but she drops the subject.
Denise asks Jack why he gave Heinrich that name. Jack
explains that he thought the name had an air of authority and that
Heinrich was born shortly after Jack started Hitler studies. Jack
admits that there is something in the German language and culture
that he needs, something that makes him feel stronger and bigger.
Steffie comes into the room, and Jack and the girls go through the
German-English dictionary together, looking for words that are similar
in both languages. Heinrich rushes into the room and tells them
that there’s footage of a plane crash on TV, and the girls run out
with him. Later that night, the family gathers around the television
for the weekly Friday ritual. Jack and the children are absorbed
by the footage of calamity, disaster, and tragedy.
At work on Monday, Murray complains that he’s having trouble establishing
himself as the department’s Elvis expert. Alfonse Stompanato, the
department chairman, believes that Dimitros Cotsakis has more authority
on the subject, because Cotsakis interviewed Presley’s family immediately
following Elvis’s death and has already appeared on television as
an expert on the Elvis phenomenon. Jack offers to stop by Murray’s
lecture to lend his own influence and prestige to Murray’s campaign.
Jack joins the New York émigrés for lunch. Jack describes Alfonse
Stompanato, a forceful, charismatic, domineering man. Jack asks
Alfonse why people are fascinated by watching catastrophes on television.
Alfonse says that it’s because people are bombarded by information
every day, and only catastrophes can break through that constant
flow of data. We crave catastrophes to get our attention, Murray
argues, as long as they happen somewhere else. He continues by saying
that people suffer from brain fade, and their senses have gotten
weary from misuse.
The New York émigrés engage in a kind of storytelling
battle, as they compare personal anecdotes about moments when they brushed
their teeth with their fingers or used dirty, run-down toilet facilities.
Alfonse then challenges each professor to relate where he was when
James Dean died. Each man has a quick answer, except for Nicholas
Grappa, who is ridiculed for hesitating.
In earlier chapters, Jack has already demonstrated that
his interest in Hitler specifically, and German culture generally,
represents more than a simple academic preoccupation. His discussion
of his son Heinrich’s name reveals even more about Jack’s investment
in Germanic studies. Jack notes that he wanted to give his son a
name with force and power, which German culture represents to Jack.
The name Heinrich also calls to mind Heinrich Himmler, the chief
of the German police who was responsible for the Final Solution,
the systematic extermination of Jewish people during World War II.
Himmler is a figure surrounded by intrigue, secret plots, and, of
course, death. Despite—or, perhaps, because of—the grotesqueness
of a figure like Himmler, his persona also has an undeniable force
and strength behind it. Heinrich Himmler is certainly a character
who demands to be reckoned with.
As Jack notes, some people carry guns, while others wear
a uniform in order to feel stronger and safer. Jack also seeks safety
and security, and he finds these things in the German culture’s
emphasis on strength and in the towering, monumental figure of Adolf
Hitler, which he metaphorically wraps around himself like a protective mantle.
Jack is not the only character in White Noise who
uses his studies to ward off death. In fact, all of the principle
adult characters in the novel up to this point are teachers, and,
to some degree, their subjects all relate to death—either as a direct
engagement with it or an attempt to avoid it. For example, Howard
Dunlop, Jack’s German teacher, turns to meteorology after his mother’s
death as a way of finding solace in the world. Even Babette’s posture
classes are an attempt to keep death away: her elderly students
train their bodies to be rigorous and upright, as if this would
help instill a new health and vigor in them.
The Treadwells’ ordeal in the mall, like Jack’s experience
in the supermarket, again parodies consumer culture. However, while
the supermarket proves both rejuvenating and fascinating to people
like Jack and Murray, the shopping mall ends up being a terrifying
place. The mall is so vast and overwhelming that it literally swallows
the individual. The supposed consumers end up consumed themselves. The
Treadwells are old, and to them the scale of the mall is more than
they can bear. Unable to participate as consumers, they huddle in
a kiosk, scavenging for food as if they were homeless in a city. Throughout
the novel, everyday, mundane events, objects, and locations become
imbued with a mystical or supernatural force, rendering otherwise
recognizable entities as alien and strange. This process of defamiliarization
can sometimes lead to a sublime, transcendent experience, but just
as often it proves harrowing.
When the police bring in a psychic to help find the Treadwells, Jack
notes, “the American mystery deepens.” The police approach the psychic
searching for one thing and instead find another, but they never
find the connection they were searching for. For someone like Jack,
who obsessively searches out connections in order to create meaning,
mystery itself represents a dark, powerful force. Mystery appears
in the absence of connections. It defies logic and thwarts efforts
to create a cohesive meaning around one’s life. And, of course,
mystery is almost always part of plot. The mysteriously beautiful
sunsets continue to captivate Jack and the family, and as Jack notes,
they are either ominous or spectacles of pleasure—and perhaps both.