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White Noise describes an academic year
in the life of its narrator, Jack Gladney, a college professor in
a small American town. The novel itself can be hard to follow, since
Jack spends much of his time detailing seemingly inconsequential
conversations, and several events in the novel have no direct impact
on the action of the story. Despite these tangents, a general plotline
emerges from the narrative.
Jack teaches at a school called the College-on-the-Hill,
where he serves as the department chair of Hitler studies. He lives
in Blacksmith, a quiet college town, with his wife, Babette, and
four of their children from earlier marriages: Heinrich, Steffie,
Denise, and Wilder. Throughout the novel, various half-siblings
and ex-spouses drift in and out of the family’s home. Jack loves
Babette very much, taking great comfort in her honesty and openness
and what he sees as her reassuring solidness and domesticity.
Jack invented the discipline of Hitler studies in 1968,
and he acknowledges that he capitalizes on Hitler’s importance as
a historical figure, which lends Jack an air of dignity and significance
by association. Over the course of his career, Jack has consciously made
many decisions in order to strengthen his own reputation and add
a certain heft to his personal identity: when he began the department,
for example, he added an initial to his name to make it sound more
prestigious. Yet he is continually aware of the fact that his aura and
persona were deliberately crafted, and he worries about being exposed
as a fraud. To his great shame, Jack can’t speak German, so when
a Hitler conference gets scheduled at the College-on-the-Hill, Jack
secretly begins taking German lessons.
Hitler studies shares a building with the American environments department,
which is mainly staffed by what Jack refers to as the “New York
émigrés,” a tough, sarcastic group of men obsessed with American
popular culture. Jack befriends one of these professors, a former
sportswriter named Murray Jay Siskind. Murray has come to Blacksmith
to immerse himself in what he calls “American magic and dread.”
Murray finds deep significance in ordinary, everyday events and
locations—particularly the supermarket, which he claims contains
massive amounts of psychic data.
The majority of the novel is structured around two major
plot points: the airborne toxic event, and Jack’s discovery of his
wife’s participation in an experimental study of a new psychopharmaceutical
One day, Jack finds his son Heinrich on the roof of the
house, watching a billowing cloud of smoke rise into the sky. Heinrich
tells him that a train car has derailed and caught on fire, releasing
a poisonous toxic substance into the air. The entire town of Blacksmith
is ordered to evacuate to an abandoned Boy Scout camp. While at
the evacuation camp, Jack learns that he’s been exposed to Nyodene
D., a lethal chemical. The technician tells Jack that the chemical
lasts thirty years in the human body and that in fifteen years they’ll
be able to give him a more definitive answer about his chances for
survival. Perhaps due to the vagueness of this explanation, Jack becomes
preoccupied with the idea that he has now been marked for death.
The townspeople remain evacuated from their homes for nine more
days. After the toxic cloud disappears, the sunsets in Blacksmith
become shockingly beautiful.
Meanwhile, Babette’s daughter Denise discovers a vial
of pills, labeled Dylar, which her mother has been taking in secret.
Babette evades both Denise’s and Jack’s inquiries, so Jack takes
a pill to Winnie Richards, a scientist at College-on-the-Hill. After
analyzing the pill, Winnie tells Jack that the drug is an incredibly
advanced kind of psychopharmaceutical. Jack finally confronts Babette
about the pills. In tears, she tells him that Dylar is an experimental,
unlicensed drug, which she believes can cure her of her obsessive
fear of dying. In order to get samples of the drug, Babette admits
to having had an affair with the Dylar project manager, a man she
refers to only as Mr. Gray. In return, Jack confesses to Babette
about his fatal Nyodene D. exposure. His fear of death now greater
than ever, Jack goes in search of Babette’s remaining Dylar pills,
only to find that Denise has thrown them all away.
Jack begins to have problems sleeping. He goes in for
frequent medical checkups and becomes preoccupied with clearing
all the unused clutter out of his home. He stays awake late into
the night to watch the children sleep. One evening, Wilder wakes
him up, and Jack finds his father-in-law, Vernon Hickey, asleep
in the backyard. Vernon, a tough, aging handyman, has come by for
a surprise visit. Before he leaves, Vernon secretly gives Jack a
handgun. Shortly afterward, Jack confides in Murray about his acute
death fixation. Murray proposes the theory that killing someone
else can alleviate the fear of death. Jack begins to think of the
gun at odd moments, eventually bringing it to class with him one
On his way home from campus, Jack runs into Winnie Richards, who
tells him that she read an article on the project manager responsible
for Dylar. She tells Jack the man’s name, Willie Mink, and the approximate
location of the motel he’s now living in. Armed with his gun, Jack
finds Willie Mink, disheveled and half-crazy, in the same motel
room where Mink conducted his affair with Babette. Jack plans to
kill him, and, after a brief conversation, he pulls out his gun
and shoots Mink twice. In an attempt to make it look like a suicide,
Jack places the gun in Mink’s hand, only to be shot in the wrist by
Mink a moment later. Overcome by a sense of humanity, Jack drives
Mink to the nearest hospital—which is run by atheist German nuns—and
saves his life.
Jack returns home and watches the children sleep. Later
that day, Wilder rides his tricycle across the highway and miraculously
survives, an event that finally allows Jack to let go of his fear
of death and obsession with health and safety hazards. Jack, Babette,
and Wilder take in the spectacular sunsets from the overpass. Jack
closes the novel with a description of the supermarket, which has
rearranged its aisles, throwing everyone into a state of confusion.