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At the supermarket, Jack pushes Wilder in a shopping cart.
A storm is on its way, and the threat and excitement seem to permeate
the store. Jack notes that the elderly shoppers seem particularly
anxious and confused.
In the generic-food aisle, Jack runs into Murray, who
tells Jack that Dimitros Costakis, Murray’s Elvis rival from the
American environments department, has drowned in the ocean off Malibu. Jack
suddenly becomes aware of the “dense environmental texture” that
surrounds him: the sounds of cars, the noise of maintenance systems,
and the shuffling shoppers’ feet. As Jack pushes Wilder around in
the cart, he thinks about how many of the houses, parks, and roads
in Blacksmith need maintenance and repair. As long as the supermarket
remains clean, bright, and well stocked, however, Jack believes
there is reason for optimism.
That evening, Jack drives Babette to her posture class.
On the way, they stop to watch the sunset. Sunsets have become much
more beautiful and brilliant since the toxic event, possibly as
a result of all the Nyodene D. having been released into the air.
On the way back home, Babette says she’s going to start teaching
a nutrition class called Eating and Drinking. The world has gotten
complicated for adults, Babette says, and a class like this will
prove soothing to students, assuring them that an authoritative
figure—who can instruct them on the right and wrong ways to be doing
things—still exists in the world.
Lying in bed, Jack takes great comfort in being physically
intimate with Babette and resolves never to tell her about the SIMUVAC
Jack increases the length and frequency of his German
classes as the conference approaches. His pronunciation is still
problematic, despite his skill with vocabulary and grammar. At one
point, Dunlop reaches into Jack’s mouth and adjusts his tongue,
which Jack calls a “strange and terrible moment, an act of haunting
Dogs and men in Mylex are still patrolling the town. Over
dinner, the family discusses the toxic event. Heinrich claims that
the authorities aren’t reporting everything they know to the public,
then goes on to declare that toxic spills don’t represent the biggest
threat to human beings. The world is full of dangerous domestic
radiation, coming from power lines, televisions, and microwaves.
The girls look at Heinrich admiringly, but Jack wants to argue with
his son. He wants Heinrich to understand that as he matures, he
will develop a more balanced, restrained perspective on the world.
Babette wonders aloud if Heinrich is being taught these morbid scientific
facts in school, and then the entire family tries to remember random
facts they once learned in classes.
With the residents of Blacksmith continuing to suffer
from spells of déjà vu, various counseling hotlines have been set
up. Jack notes that without a greater metropolis nearby, people
in the suburbs are left feeling lonelier, without a context or focal
point at which to direct their fears, dread, and hate.
Jack discovers a plastic bottle of pills labeled Dylar
taped to the bottom of the bathroom radiator. He takes the container
to Denise, who tells him she had discovered Babette’s secret medication
in December and that no pharmacist has ever heard of it. Jack calls Babette’s
doctor, Hookstratten, only to learn that he didn’t prescribe it
for Babette. He then calls his own doctor, who hasn’t heard of the drug
either but thinks that the name sounds like an island in the Persian
Gulf. Jack decides to take the drug to a colleague at the college to
have it analyzed.
Later that night, Jack goes to say goodnight to Heinrich.
Heinrich tells him about his new friend, Orest Mercator, who is
training to break the Guinness record for sitting in a cage full
of poisonous snakes. Heinrich also expresses his concern that he’s
balding prematurely. When he returns to bed, Babette is standing
at the window and staring out, not seeming to notice him at all.
Jack takes the Dylar pill to Winnie Richards, a brilliant
young neurochemist at the College-on-the-Hill. Jack notes that she’s
elusive and seems quite shy. Winnie agrees to analyze the contents
of the bottle over the next forty-eight hours.
Later, Jack confronts Babette about how she is growing
increasingly distant and introverted, an accusation that Babette
evades. He also brings up the Dylar, which Babette denies knowing
That afternoon, Jack goes to find Winnie Richards. He’s
been having a hard time finding her; when he finally catches a glimpse
of her, he has to run to catch her. When he does, he asks her if
she’s been hiding from him. She says she has not been hiding from
him in particular, then says, “Isn’t this what the twentieth century
is all about? . . . People [hiding] even when no one is looking
for them?” Winnie then tells Jack about Dylar. She describes how
efficiently the tablet operates, disseminating the medicine in a
careful and controlled manner, then self-destructing when it has
depleted itself. Winnie tells Jack the drug is a type of psychopharmaceutical
that she has never encountered before.
Throughout White Noise, the elderly citizens
of Blacksmith hover at the edge of the novel’s action, an unnumbered,
largely mute, anonymous entity. Babette teaches and reads to some
of them, but we never actually meet any of the senior citizens Babette
works with. Even the Treadwells, who were at the center of a highly
dramatic event in the first section of the novel, never appear in
the direct action of the story; we only hear about them through
Jack, Babette, or the newspapers. Whenever Jack goes to the supermarket,
it seems to be full of old people, muttering and shuffling and looking
increasingly disoriented. Since none of these elderly people are
differentiated or given an individual voice, their sounds blend
together, joining the blur of white noise that surrounds Jack.
If children are particularly open and receptive to the
codes and mysteries buried in the white noise, then the elderly
seem to represent the opposite condition. The elderly are also highly
sensitive to the forces that lurk within modern life, but they are
threatened and terrorized by those energies. The pitiful Treadwells
are the extreme example of this predicament, as they are unable
to process the seemingly mundane experience of navigating a shopping
mall. To the Treadwells, the mall becomes an alien landscape, full
of danger and peril. In another novel, this scenario could represent
an amusing, somewhat absurd anecdote. In White Noise,
however, Gladys Treadwell actually dies from the experience, suggesting
that the “lingering dread” that afflicts her wields some true power.
The elderly characters of White Noise are undone
and traumatized by change, even a change as small as the reorganization
of supermarket shelves. Babette’s posture class and her new class
on eating and drinking attempt to stabilize reality and make it
understandable for the old. The classes are a return to the seemingly
essential, bodily facts of life that, unlike the brightly lit aisles
of the supermarkets, are never in danger of changing.
The SIMUVAC man’s prognosis has increased Jack’s vulnerability
and sensitivity. Jack now sees himself as a man destined to die, and
that knowledge is reflected in his passing thoughts and actions. This
is true even though Jack, as a mortal human being, has always been
destined to die, and the SIMUVAC diagnosis hasn’t appreciably affected
his life expectancy. He looks at his son and wistfully wishes for
Heinrich a life much like his own. He retreats into his wife’s body
and stays awake late into the night, watching the children sleep.
His search for comfort seems desperate, touching, and infantile.
His comments about the absence of a large metropolis also reflect
his increasing sense of isolation. We all must die alone, and Jack
is beginning to accept that knowledge.
The mystery around Dylar continues to grow, and, for the
first time, Jack begins to actively search for the drug’s origin.
He asks Denise not to say anything to Babette about his discovery
of the Dylar, which means he has begun to keep secrets from his
wife. This secrecy marks the beginning of a plot, which, once started,
will be beyond Jack’s ability to control. Winnie Richards, known
for her stealthy maneuvers, also signifies that the narrative is
beginning to move toward a plot marked by secrecy and covert actions.
Even Babette, who has been known thus far for her open, loving manner, has
changed into a quiet, somber, cryptic figure.