Fear of death is one of the base instincts that consumerism exploits. But consumerism itself is a deathly menace, flooding our bodies and our environment with toxic particles and waves, a continuous process of production and dispersal. White Noise is a philosophical story about fear of death and also a domestic story about maintaining individuality living in the ‘white noise’ of a consumerist society where our vocabulary of objects is built haphazardly around corporate fictions and our inner thoughts are steeped in advertising jingles. The narrator is Jack Gladney, a lecturer specialising in the novelty academic field of ‘Hitler studies’ who interrogates the world through a non-stop stream of wry questions and observations as he grapples with his own mortality. DeLillo originally wanted it to be titled Panasonic but-unsurprisingly—the corporation refused to let him use the name.
The novel captures a very particular moment in American cultural history, where a public consciousness of harmful ‘side effects’ of exposure to industrial chemicals emerged. At a certain level of complexity, humans cannot understand—let alone control—the systems they construct. Cascading, runaway feedback loops in failed technological systems lead to unknown and unpredictable emergent behaviour. All this contributes to a lack of clear cut and definable diagnosis when things go wrong. Traditional notions of cause and effect are mixed up. Causes are numinous, invisible and indistinct. This may seem obvious to us now, but we have all the benefits of hindsight, as well as things like Wikipedia which make all this information instantly accessible. At the time White Noise was written, this insight was much more raw. Events like the Three Mile Island meltdown and the long-overdue acknowledgement of the cleanup costs of industrial negligence (resulting in the Superfund legislation in 1980) loomed large in the popular consciousness. And the Bhopal disaster—which occurred not long after the novel was published—seems eerily like the Airbone Toxic Event which forms the book’s middle section.
The Airborne Toxic Event involves a railway tanker accident which is visible from the roof of Jack’s house, where a cloud of industrial waste called Nyodene Derivative has been released. The toxic cloud drifts over the landscape following the prevailing wind. People are evacuated from their homes as a precaution. As wind directions and weather conditions change, the cloud’s movement appears increasingly malevolent and the evacuation takes on a more desperate urgency. The cloud ends up bearing directly down on the evacuation center itself.
Before the evacuation center is evacuated, there’s a great image of Jack, caught off-guard by a Christian evangelist who twists everything towards death, god and doom. They end up squatting with their knees drawn towards their chins, which Jack soon realises is unconsciously primitive body language, a pointless posturing. His reaction is a complex mix of white entitlement, basic fear, and self-effacing intellectualism, communicated elegantly in just a few sparse sentences. The only escape from such bleakness is to laugh at it.