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Jack finds Heinrich on the roof, looking through a pair
of binoculars at a distant black cloud of smoke. Heinrich informs
Jack that a train car has been derailed. Later, they both return
to watch the cloud. Heinrich says that the burning chemical in the
air is Nyodene Derivative, or Nyodene D., a toxic substance that
causes lumps in rats. The radio has already listed nausea, skin
irritation, and sweaty palms as potential symptoms of exposure.
Jack tries to reassure Heinrich that the smoke won’t come toward
them and continues to act comfortable and indifferent. He sits down
to pay the bills, even as rumors of increasing danger come in over
the radio and phone. Sirens begin to blare through the neighborhood,
but Jack declares that such things can’t happen in a town like theirs.
New symptoms are reported on the radio, and the cloud is given a
new name: the airborne toxic event. Heinrich tries to get his father
to acknowledge the danger, but Jack declares that he is a college
professor, not to mention the chair of a department, and can’t imagine
someone like him fleeing something like an airborne toxic event.
The family anxiously gathers for dinner as the air raid warnings
Soon, a fire captain’s car drives by, announcing an evacuation. The
family packs up their things, gets into the car, and heads toward an
abandoned Boy Scout camp, as directed. Traffic is backed up on the
roads, and some people are choosing to leave the town by foot, wrapped
in plastic, with their children and belongings packed in suitcases
and stuffed in shopping carts. Jack notes that the situation has
an epic quality. Jack sees Babette swallow something and questions
her about it, but she evades his questions. Over the radio, increasingly
severe symptoms of toxic exposure are being announced. Sweaty palms
and vomiting are replaced by persistent feelings of déjà vu, which
are eventually supplanted by comas, convulsions, and miscarriages.
Steffie and Denise exhibit some of the symptoms, but Jack wonders
if they are truly being affected or are merely being influenced
by the radio reports. Heinrich points out that the car is low on
fuel, so Jack pulls up to a filling station and gets out to fill
Back on the road, Army helicopters light up the billowing
dark mass that Jack likens to “some death ship in a Norse legend, escorted
across the night by armored creatures with spiral wings.” The family
arrives at the camp, where rumors about government cover-ups, disappearing
helicopters, and long-range effects of Nyodene D. begin to circulate.
Jack watches as Heinrich stands at the center of a circle of people,
telling them everything he knows about the airborne toxic event.
Heinrich flourishes under the attention, joking and speaking easily
with the crowd.
A technician checks Jack for signs of Nyodene D., which
he may have been exposed to while pumping gas. A man from SIMUVAC, which
stands for Simulated Evacuation, explains the toxin’s deadliness
to Jack, but only in vague, abstract terms. He tells Jack that SIMUVAC
is using their experience here, at the airborne toxic event, in
order to prepare for a disaster simulation. The man tells Jack that Nyodene
D. lives in the system for thirty years and that, in fifteen years,
they’ll be able to give him more detailed information about its effects.
Jack finds himself wishing he had his academic gown and glasses.
When he returns from the SIMUVAC table, Jack finds Babette reading
tabloids to some blind people. She’s reading an article in which
a young girl, believed to be the reincarnation of a KGB assassin,
discusses how she didn’t fear death in her past life.
Jack and Heinrich discuss what knowledge people could
pass on if they were hurled back in time. Heinrich notes that he
and Jack don’t actually know anything about modern technology and couldn’t
tell the ancient Greeks anything about their world. In the parking
lot, Jack finds Murray talking to prostitutes huddled in a car.
He tells Murray about his SIMUVAC experience, how he now has the
seed of death planted inside of him. The two of them talk about
death in the modern era and about how death always adapts to our
technological advances. One of the prostitutes agrees to let Murray
perform the Heimlich maneuver on her for twenty-five dollars. Rumors
of disaster and death accumulate, and Jack marvels at the power
of the imagination in such circumstances. He takes comfort in knowing
that German shepherds are protecting them. He watches the children
sleep and is surprised and touched when Steffie mutters “Toyota
Celica” in her sleep.
After falling asleep, Jack wakes up to an announcement
that the toxic cloud has shifted with the wind and is heading toward
them. People scramble to their cars, creating pandemonium. As they
flee the camp, they come back across the massive toxic cloud, surrounded
by helicopters. They reach Iron City at dawn, where they’re led
to an abandoned karate studio. Rumors of microorganisms capable
of eating the toxins in the clouds spread, and Jack acknowledges
that this sounds like something right out of a tabloid. Babette
notes that every new advance in technology makes her even more scared.
A man holding a TV walks into the center of the room. He tells everyone
that there are no reports on what is happening and that the media
and TV in general have failed to respond to them. He asks, “Even
if there hasn’t been great loss of life, don’t we deserve some attention
for our suffering?” Jack and his family return home nine days later.
Chapter 21, which comprises the entirety of the novel’s
middle section, is the longest and most eventful chapter in the
novel, and much of what has been previously foreshadowed finally
comes to fruition here. In this chapter, Jack’s vague fear of death
becomes authentic and confirmed, the toxins in the environment become
more than just metaphorical, and the ominous sense of looming death
and tragedy finally gains shape. Other recurring themes—including
the power of technology, the dissemination and meaning of information,
and artifice versus reality—take on greater depth and meaning here.
When the airborne toxic event strikes, most family members
act characteristically. Since the airborne toxic event is tragic
and potentially deadly, Heinrich is, unsurprisingly, both the first
to know about it and the one who possesses the most factual information.
At the Boy Scout camp, he flourishes, because his expertise in morbid subjects
proves valuable and welcome. Jack, on the other hand, retreats from
the potential consequences of the event and refuses to entertain
even the threat of danger. He pays the bills, an act that reminds
us of the power of consumerism and displays Jack’s authority as
the head of the household. Jack’s authority has always provided
a shield, from behind which he can avoid tragedy and death. Hisdistinguished
status as a college professor and chairman of Hitler studies, as
well as the placid nature of his small, quaint town, are all supposed
to act as barriers to precisely this type of tragic experience.
Jack’s reluctance to acknowledge the dangerous situation speaks
to his fundamental belief in the security that prestige can provide.
Throughout the novel—from the Most Photographed Barn in America
to Babette’s appearance on a local cable-access channel to Jack’s
own vision of Hitler—there has been a tension between the real and
the representation, between the authentic object and the replica.
The name of the chemical substance released by the toxic cloud,
Nyodene Derivative, emphasizes this notion yet again. The substance
burning in the air is not Nyodene but a derivation of Nyodene, a
replica of an original substance. Nyodene D., the potentially lethal
synthetic creation, encapsulates the fear many people feel toward
modern technology, which grants us awesome powers while simultaneously
seeming to take us further away from what is real, genuine, organic,
and authentic. This situation finds pointed and comic expression
in the SIMUVAC technicians, who tell Jack that the real airborne
toxic event will eventually be used to plan and prepare for disaster
simulations. In the case of SIMUVAC, reality ultimately ends up
serving the artificial.
The symptoms the children experience further blur the
lines between what is genuine and what is fabricated. Denise and
Steffie both suffer from sweaty palms, but it remains unclear whether
the girls are suffering as a result of Nyodene D. exposure or whether their
bodies are unconsciously reacting to the radio reports that detail
potential symptoms. Whichever ends up being the case—whether the
girls have been affected by the real thing or the report of the
real thing—the fact remains that their palms are actually sweating.
The episode seems to suggest that the difference between the reality
and the facsimile might not be so distinct, after all. Murray Jay
Siskind would certainly agree with this perspective. In the midst of
a genuinely disastrous event, Murray tries pay someone to simulate
choking, so that he may experience the feeling of saving someone’s
life. For Murray, it doesn’t matter that the event is staged, as long
as the experience seems real. In Murray’s eyes, the feeling of reality
and the sense of importance are just as significant and powerful
as anything else.
Déjà vu may seem like an absurd symptom of exposure to
a toxic chemical, but, symbolically, the phenomenon of déjà vu speaks
to the essential anxieties expressed in White Noise.
In psychological terms, déjà vu is the impression that a new never-before
experienced situation has actually occurred previously. Memory is
a kind of replicating force that copies events and objects and reproduces
them as images in our minds. However, déjà vu creates false memories,
or replicas that, impossibly, have no origin. Déjà vu fools us into
mistaking illusions for reality. In a world where things can be
endlessly copied, distinguishing what is authentic, genuine, and
original seems impossible and potentially pointless.
As Jack describes it, the airborne toxic event is simultaneously both
lurid and sublime. As absurd as much of the situation seems, Jack
remains intent on describing the event in epic, mythological terms.
To some degree, this event has happened before, albeit in different
times and circumstances, throughout the course of history. Mass
evacuations, pandemonium, the fear of dying, and the specter of
death were as much a part of the ancient world as they are of the modern
world. The Army helicopters remind Jack of figures from Norse mythology,
and the black cloud itself suggests a “death ship.” The shape of
the fear may have changed, but the substance of that fear remains
the same. The airborne toxic event, artificial and chemically noxious,
is simply the modern shape death has taken. Throughout the novel,
the most extremely advanced, modern elements of our lives are shown
to have primal, ancient resonances, and the airborne toxic event
proves no different.