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Jack attends Murray’s Elvis lecture. When he walks in,
Murray is making a point about the close relationship between Elvis
and his mother. Jack interjects that Hitler too adored his mother.
Jack and Murray engage in a back-and-forth volley, trading anecdotes
about their respective cultural icons. Murray relates how Elvis
fell apart when his mother, Gladys, died, and Jack counters with
a description of the elaborate, expensive funeral Hitler held for
his mother, Klara. Alfonse Stompanato enters the room and settles
down to watch. Murray discusses Elvis’s death, particularly the
way the man had deteriorated into a haze of bloated, grotesque excess.
Jack describes the surging crowds who gathered on the occasion of
Hitler’s death. He argues that the crowds gathered not so much to
honor Hitler, but simply to be a crowd. Losing one’s individual
identity in a crowd, Jack says, is a way of forming a shield against
death. After this extended passage, the lecture ends. Murray looks
at Jack thankfully, and Jack notices, as students gather around
him, that they have become a crowd. Jack says that, for once, he
doesn’t need a crowd around him, because, in the classroom, death
is strictly a professional matter. In the classroom, Jack is comfortable
with the concept of death.
At 2 p.m. one afternoon, Wilder
begins crying and won’t stop. Jack and Babette decide to take Wilder
to the doctor, who tells them to give him an aspirin and put him
to bed. Jack proposes going to the emergency room, but Babette insists
on going to teach her posture class. While Babette is in class,
Jack waits in the car with Wilder. As he holds Wilder, Jack becomes
absorbed in the sound of the boy’s wailing. He seems to find something
ancient, eternal, and primal within the noise. As they drive home
from the class, Wilder stops crying. At home, everyone tiptoes around
him, cautious and awestruck.
The family takes a trip to the Mid-Village Mall. During
the drive, Denise casually tries to confront Babette about Dylar,
but the conversation jumps rapidly from tangent to tangent, and
Denise is ultimately unsuccessful.
At a huge hardware store in the mall, Jack runs into Eric
Massingale, who teaches computers at the College-on-the-Hill. Eric remarks
that Jack looks so harmless off campus, without the dark glasses
and all his professorial regalia. The encounter puts Jack in the
mood to shop. He and his family roam the mall, as Jack shops voraciously.
With each purchase, Jack feels he becomes stronger and more powerful.
They return home, and each family member retreats to his
or her own room, wanting to be alone.
Jack goes to the airport in Iron City to pick up his daughter
Bee, who is coming in for a visit. Instead of his daughter, Jack
finds her mother, Tweedy Browner, waiting for him at the arrivals
area. Tweedy tells him that Bee will arrive in two hours on a flight
from Indonesia, where she’s been staying with her stepfather, Malcolm Hunt.
Tweedy will head to Boston the following day and has come to spend
some time with Bee before she goes.
Jack and Tweedy drive around Iron City, discussing their
past and current marriages. Tweedy expresses her unhappiness with
her inscrutable new husband, Malcolm, a diplomat who runs deep cover
operations in foreign countries. When Malcolm is working undercover,
Tweedy says, he doesn’t just disappear in the here and now. He disappears
so completely, it’s almost as if he never existed in the first place.
Tweedy worries that she doesn’t truly know the man she married and
that maybe the part of his life spent undercover is more real to
him than the part of his life he spends with her. Jack tells Tweedy
that Janet Savory, Heinrich’s mom, lives at an ashram now and goes
by the name Mother Devi. Tweedy tries to wax nostalgic about her
and Jack’s marriage, but Jack thwarts her attempt.
After driving around Iron City for a while, Jack and Tweedy
go back to the airport. Before Bee’s flight arrives, passengers
from another flight come staggering into the airport. As a crowd
gathers, one of the passengers tells Jack the details of the near
crash they just survived. The plane had lost power in its engines
and began hurtling toward the ground. A voice over the intercom
shouted desperately that they were falling from the sky. That was
followed by another calmer voice, which explained that they had
not been prepared for this in flight school. The second voice narrated,
coolly and precisely, what would happen to the passengers upon impact.
As people prepared for a crash landing, the plane suddenly regained
control. As the officers and flight attendants transitioned back
into their smooth corporate mode, everyone wondered why they had
ever been afraid in the first place. Jack finds Bee and Tweedy,
and Bee asks where the media had been during the plane crisis. Jack
tells her that Iron City has no media, and Bee responds with incredulity
that the passengers, then, must have gone through the ordeal for
As they travel back to Blacksmith, Tweedy tells Jack that
all children should have the opportunity to fly alone early in their
youth. Barring any unforeseen accidents, Tweedy proclaims, an airplane
is one of the last remaining bastions of manners and good living.
In its rhythms and its intensity, the face-off between
Jack and Murray in the lecture hall resembles a boxing match more
than an academic exchange. This battle for dominance, however, remains carefully
staged at every point. Before Jack walks into the room, he puts
on dark glasses and adopts a serious expression. Murray’s hands
tremble in a “stylized” way, and Jack consciously “attempt[s] to
loom” in the background when he enters, creating an aura of menace
and power around him. When he reaches a dramatic moment in his speech,
Jack stares at the carpet and silently counts to seven, letting
the tension in the room build. Throughout, Jack describes his and
Murray’s actions in terms drawn from performance. For example, Murray
doesn’t lecture, he delivers a “thoughtful monologue.” Jack and
Murray remain constantly aware of the other’s presence, like two
dancers. Neither professor seems terribly concerned with factual
information about his respective subject. Instead, they trade stories,
anecdotes, and myths—not unlike the New York émigrés, who similarly
battle with stories in the lunchroom. Murray and Jack remain more
invested in the auras and imagery surrounding Elvis and Hitler than
in the actual, historical figures. In this, Elvis and Hitler come
to resemble the Most Photographed Barn in America, another entity
whose surrounding aura of importance seems more significant than
the object itself.
The scene in the lecture hall also develops the notion
that Hitler studies helps Jack ward off the fear of death. While
performing his role as professor and expert, Jack remains “secure
in [his] professional aura of power, madness and death.” In the
classroom, death becomes something Jack can analyze, theorize, and
thereby control. His authority over the subject of death allows
him to distance himself from the reality of his own death, a force
that continually threatens to overwhelm him.
The security Jack finds in his identity as a professor,
however, disintegrates when the trappings of his authority are removed.
At the mall, one of Jack’s colleagues fails to recognize him, revealing
again just how fragile Jack’s sense of identity is. After being
told that he looks completely harmless without his gown and glasses,
Jack goes on a spending spree, and the purchases he makes reaffirm
his authority and power. Of course, the power he claims for himself
as a consumer remains as superficial as the power he has at the
College-on-the-Hill, since both depend on illusion and performance.
The experience at the mall seems almost positive, as it draws Jack’s
family around him, transforming them, perhaps for the first time,
into a cohesive unit. Together, they move and shop, nearly ecstatic
in their appetites. The experience proves temporary, perhaps even
destructive, since the moment they get home each goes into seclusion.
Consuming has not brought them together. If anything, it has isolated the
family members from one another.
Wilder’s mysterious, extended crying fit is an important
symbolic act in the novel. According to Murray, children are more
open to the mysterious, hidden energies and codes that filter through
the world’s white noise. Wilder, at six years old, has an extremely
limited vocabulary. Indeed, the reader hasn’t heard a single word
out of the boy, a notable fact given how voluble and talkative the
rest of the family is. When Wilder breaks out into a forceful torrent
of noise, the sound of the boy’s crying strikes Jack as something
ancient, mournful, and foreign. The noise is unintelligible, but
somehow Jack recognizes it. To Jack, Wilder’s crying seems like
an expression of the primal, unnamed, unspoken force he has always
sensed lurking at the periphery of his awareness. In this scene,
Wilder resembles the Delphic oracles, ancient Greek priestesses
who, under the influence of vapors, would deliver cryptic messages
from the gods. When Jack looks at Wilder in the car, he notes “a
complex intelligence” operating “behind that dopey countenance.”
Wilder’s crying, though not intelligible in any recognizable sense,
imports something significant to Jack. Like so much else in the
novel, Wilder’s noise strikes Jack as simultaneously terrifying