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 THE END OF DELILLO'S PLOT:
 DEATH, FEAR, AND RELIGION IN WHITE NOISE

In his 1966 book, Les Mots et les choses (The Order of Things), Michel Foucault used the word “epistemes” to refer to deep-rooted paradigms or structures used by humans to systematize our knowledge (and potential knowledge) about reality. As a complex technique of organizing information, an episteme functions as both a supportive platform and a closed perimeter—it undergirds existing knowledge from beneath and admits new information with stringent selectivity. Foucault identifies and characterizes the epistemes of the Middle Ages, the “classical period,” and modernity. However, as modernity has given way to its successor, a new episteme is being forged; concomitantly, inhabitants of the postmodern world, especially the postmodern capitalist one, find their world full of disconcerting background noise, more so than for their ancestors. The support systems of the postmodern episteme prove shaky under the barrage of information. (This is “The Information Age,” after all.) The platform wobbles; the perimeter’s gate waves in the wind. Postmodernity offers far more questions than it does answers; and it has the habit of obscuring or problematizing any answers that it does offer.

Central to the postmodern experience, and making certainty vis-à-vis information and knowledge nearly impossible for so many people in it, is Baudrillard’s idea of simulacrum. His basic thesis is that imitation, if left to continue unabated and if infused with a sense of nostalgia, will lead to supplantation of the original. Even God knew this, some might argue. Indeed, Baudrillard cites the Judeo-Christian God’s Old Testament commandment against iconography in Exodus 20: 4-5. Paraphrasing God, Baudrillard writes: “I forbade any simulacrum in the temples because the divinity that breathes life into nature cannot be represented.” Not only do many Old Testament tales bear out the truth of God’s words, the battle rages even today both among and between religious sectors who have tried to immortalize God in a mortal form.

But simulacrum is not merely imitation and/or representation; its end result is often substitution for, even at the cost of abandonment of, the original—if such an original ever existed. In other words, that which follows somehow becomes more “real” than that which inspired the successor. Baudrillard further explains that the phenomenon of simulacrum can also mean that “simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without a reality: a hyperreal.” (Baudrillard mentions Disneyland, a fantasy land representative of a world which never truly existed, and in the midst of a place—Southern California—which already drips with simulation and misappropriated nostalgia.) The map precedes the territory; the abstract, the representative of the real, is endowed with more significance and is regarded with more austerity than the real itself.

For Baudrillard, there are four orders of simulacrum:

1. The image reflects a basic reality.
2. The image masks and perverts a basic reality.
3. The image masks the absence of a basic reality.
4. The image bears no relation to reality whatever.

Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise is representative of the third order of simulacrum, a novel in which the line between the simulated and the real has been blurred to the extent that the “real” is not merely masked—it never really existed to begin with, or if it did/does, its importance is secondary to the representation’s.

When Jack Gladney and his friend and colleague, Murray Siskind, drive to see “The Most Photographed Barn in America,” five road signs herald the approach of the barn, and busloads of picture-taking tourists confirm its label. Jack wonders why it is so popular, and Murray explains that no one is there to see the barn itself; rather, they are there to perpetuate and reinforce the aura of the barn. Murray, in his theory of the barn’s popularity (and reminiscent of Baudrillard), describes the flock to the barn as an odd kind of religious experience. Ironically, of course, the experience is far from religiously inspiring: people are only flocking there, to put it simply, because everyone else is flocking there.
Murray Siskind, in his worship of television as a wonderful yet eerily disturbing symbol of Americana, is once again the voice of Jean Baudrillard. Indeed, the theme of the first section of the novel seems to be that despite its reduction to mere “waves and radiation,” television nonetheless possesses some strange, mystical power which cannot be easily identified. “Waves and radiation,” Murray says grandly. “I’ve come to understand that the medium is a primal force in the American home. Sealed-off, timeless, self-contained, self-referring. It’s like a myth being born right there in our own living room, like something we know in a dream-like and preconscious way.” The mantras that not just television but radio also (which operates on the same reductive scientific principles) provide us with what Murray calls “sacred formulas,” catchphrases like “Coke is it” and “Toyota Celica,” the latter of which Jack hears Denise repeat from the recesses of her subconscious mind in a dream after hoping for some kind of ontological revelation. Just as the awesome “barn experience” obscures the barn itself, the second-hand information and jingles that television instills in us result in misplaced, confused reverence. According to John Frow in “The Last Things before the Last,” the effect of simulacrum is to create a world in which “the type ceaselessly imitates itself,” making it impossible “to distinguish meaningfully between a generality embedded in life and a generality embedded in representations of life.” This is exactly the effect of simulacrum in White Noise; the Gladneys et al. live in a world, notes Frow, “covered by a fine grid of typifications.”

Perhaps the most obvious, and most important, of all simulations in White Noise involves SIMUVAC and the “airborne toxic event.” The town of Blacksmith is evacuated, despite Jack’s repeated assertions that everything will be all right, and his protests that disasters of this caliber only befall the lower classes in remote places. (“I’m not just a college professor. I’m the head of a department. I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event.”) As the evacuation proceeds, the Gladneys hear the warnings on the radio about what symptoms those exposed to the deadly Nyodene D gas should expect. The list changes with each report, at one time humorously including déjà vu. Jack begins to wonder how much power déjà vu and the other symptoms could have over him: “Which was worse, the real condition or the self-created one, and did it matter?” Jack’s conversation with one of the people responsible for orchestrating the evacuation raises this very question:

“What does SIMUVAC mean? Sounds important.”
“Short for simulated evacuation. A new state program they’re
still battling over funds for.”
“But this evacuation isn’t simulated. It’s real.”
“We know that. But we thought we could use it as a model.”
“A form of practice? Are you saying you saw a chance to use
the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?”
“We took it right into the streets.”
“How is it going?” I said.

The men in the yellow radiation suits are using a real, frightening, life-threatening event as a substitute for a simulation, a model. Jack is momentarily confused—but only momentarily. His logical protests quickly squelched, he accepts this bizarre explanation nearly at face value and then asks the man for a status report. Yet again, DeLillo shows us how quick and willing we are to acquiesce.

The characters in White Noise, then, inhabit a world in which the barrage of information obscures any truth that may have once existed and, worse, makes the search for truth so difficult that it hardly seems either worth the effort or even possible to achieve. Any once-fixed ideas about God, Truth, Right, and Wrong, or any other form of Platonic Ideal, prove unfeasible in a world of mass production and unquenchable consumerism—there is simply too much else to occupy one’s mind. And the distinction between what is real and what is not real is no longer an obvious—or even pertinent—one.

With God and truth either irrelevant or unattainable (or both), what emerges in White Noise out of the sea of endless advertisement, diversion of attention, imitation, and simulation as the thing which preoccupies the thoughts of the major characters—Jack, Babette, and even Wilder—is death. Death is the one thing for which there is no simulation. No team of yellow-uniformed hazmat men can sweep it from the streets and make sure the population is uninfected; there is no SIMUVAC-type organization that can study it and substitute a reproduction for it; there is no equivalent of the question, “Where were you when you died?” that the minutiae-engrossed Americana teachers at the College-on-the-Hill can ask one another. Jack and Babette, among others, fear it primarily because they cannot experience it vicariously. Like the sword of Damocles, it hangs over their lives, threatening to befall them at any time. Wilder, while he may not be conscious of such a thing as “death,” seems to be afraid of something, at least, at the metaphysical level. Death (quite literally during part of the novel) is in the air.

What is more, in White Noise, society has failed to devise a way to make death palatable. No advertising slogan has been created which can make death any less of a finality. None of the quick blurbs the characters (and we) overhear from the television in the other room or from the car radio are able to offer any kind of relief from death. Indeed, as members of that society, the characters—as we—have been trained to be suspicious of anything that could lessen their anxiety. Religion, which once offered the ultimate peace with regard to human mortality, is now a paradox: on the one hand, inhabitants of the postmodern world have been taught to respect and validate religion, whatever its form and however eccentric or different from preconceptions; on the other hand, however, society (in particular the society in White Noise) is also quick to dismiss, even mock, people who practice and gain peace from their religions. Thus Jack, Babette, and others have a difficult time reconciling their fear of the unknowable, death, with their inability to accept any information about it, an inability which exists because the postmodern episteme which governs their minds and lives forbids acceptance of anything that could be construed as an “answer”; furthermore, that postmodern episteme is constantly being barraged by excess information, white noise.

The barrage of information is unrelenting, but it is not constructive information. The Gladney family turns the information assault into a habit of their own, and, as Bryant writes, “feeds on its exchanges of misinformation—rehashed from the continuous chatter of radio and television—but is not necessarily nourished.” This is demonstrated early on in the novel in an exchange between Steffie and Babette. “We have to boil our water,” Steffie says, citing the explanation as, “it said on the radio,” the syntactical shorthand proving sufficient in lieu of an actual reason. “They’re always saying boil your water,” Babette replies. “It’s the new thing, like turn your wheel in the direction of the skid.” It is difficult to discriminate between important and irrelevant information; what is more, this scene (and the many others like it) show that information in the postmodern world is plentiful, but not fixed. Like so much else, it is trendy. But even the truth of information which seems concretely, unquestionably true is up for grabs. Just prior to this episode, Jack and Heinrich argue about whether it is raining. Jack, claiming that it is empirically obvious that it is in fact raining, is met with opposition from Heinrich, who employs Einsteinian physics and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to prove that it may not be raining, despite the fact that raindrops are pelting the car’s windshield and being swept away by the wipers. When Jack asks him for his version of the truth as to the presence or absence of rain, his son concludes, “What good is my truth? My truth means nothing.” Everything is subjective, even the so-called “facts.”

Unfortunately, as Ed Shane has argued in Disconnected America, “More data does not equal more information.” He cites Richard Saul Wurman who identifies the following five telltale signs of “information anxiety”:

1. Chronically talking about not keeping up with what’s going on around you.
2. Feeling guilty about that ever higher stack of periodicals waiting to be read.
3. Nodding your head knowingly when someone mentions a book, an artist, or a news story that you have actually never heard of before.
4. Refusing to buy a new appliance or piece of equipment just because you are afraid you won’t be able to operate it.
5. Giving time and attention to news that has no cultural, economic, or scientific impact on your life.

The last attribute on Wurman’s list is very much characteristic of the Gladneys and their cohorts. They are besieged at all times and from all sides by information, the overwhelming majority of which is of no tangible consequence to their lives, and their inability to properly sift through that information to find something of import results in the inability to discriminate trivia from truth. Wurman states, “Information anxiety is produced by the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand . . . the black hole between data and knowledge.”

In the face of this anxiety, Jack constructs what he believes to be a comfortable, secure identity. He invents a persona—J.A.K. Gladney—and struts around not only the campus but also the supermarket in his peculiar academic apparel. He hides night and day behind dark sunglasses. He pretends to know German while studying, teaching, and chairing a department in Hitler Studies. But underneath the façade he has created for himself, he is more than a little apprehensive. Jack’s insecurity is revealed to us, as well as to himself, very early in the book when he admits, while describing J.A.K. Gladney, “I am the false character that follows the name around.”

In chapter eight, Jack makes it a point to learn German, citing the reason as “shame” at being a Hitler scholar and not being able to speak in the dictator’s own tongue. Jack is engrossed in Hitler throughout the novel. Hitler may have been the most rampant murderer of the century, but he also symbolizes a unique power: more so than any other person in recent memory or history, Hitler had the greatest control over life and death. Millions died under his watch while chosen others lived. Both of these foci of study serve as symbolic hiding places for Jack’s existential apprehensiveness. He attempts to use these shelters, representative of power, control, and order, as havens from his nagging fear of inadequacy. (“How is Hitler?” a fellow professor asks. Jack’s response: “Fine, solid, dependable.”) And, to borrow another idea from Foucault, Jack tries to translate this knowledge into power—power over that fear. His security is seriously threatened in the second part of the novel when the airborne toxic event escalates in seriousness and eventually uproots his family and evacuates them to another town. His initial reaction is, predictably, denial—he asserts no fewer than five times that nothing bad is going to happen and that the cloud of toxic fumes will not reach the Gladney house.

Interviewed by Anthony DeCurtis and asked to describe his reaction and feelings when John F. Kennedy was shot and killed—a defining moment in American history—DeLillo responded that he did not learn of the assassination until hours later, having overheard a conversation in a bank between a teller and a customer. Like every other American, he struggled to overcome initial shock and lasting grief. He also said that “certainly a sense of death seemed to permeate everything for the next four or five days.” A similar kind of “permeation” dwells inside and hovers over everything in White Noise. The only certainty in the novel is death. Jack’s mantra is “all plots end in death.” Paula Bryant, in “Extending the Fabulative Continuum,” describes everyone in the novel as under an “ambiguous death sentence.” They may not say so in as many words, but the Gladneys, especially Jack, are very aware of that death sentence as the exodus from Blacksmith commences.

Jack’s having been exposed to Nyodene D and having received a medical appraisal (even if it is somewhat less than perfectly professional) results in his personal death sentence becoming, strangely, both more and less ambiguous. He is told that his exposure to the deadly gas may or may not cause him to die sooner; the irony being that there will be no way to know whether Nyodene D will have any effect on his health until such time that the effects should exhibit themselves. Therefore, worrying is pointless. Unfortunately, the exposure has a more definite effect: it terrifies Jack, concretizing his fear of the most unknowable of unknown things, death. As Murray, Vladimir to Jack’s Estragon, later tells him, “Once your death is established, it becomes impossible to live a satisfying life.” Suddenly painfully aware of his mortality, Jack is even more unprepared when he discovers the truth about Babette and her memory problems.

Like the German language and Adolf Hitler, Babette is another source of identity construction for Jack. He is constantly defining her, speaking to her in the third person and telling her what she should be because that type of personality is precisely what he wishes for himself and precisely what he wishes to have in a wife. “Babette is not a neurotic person,” he tells her. “She is strong, healthy, outgoing, affirmative . . . That is the point of Babette.” But she has her own set of mortality-related issues, which result in her exchange of fidelity to her husband for an experimental drug. For her, the fear of death outweighs her concern and guilt for being sexually disloyal. She has become addicted to Dylar, a pill still in the experimental stages. Possible risks or side effects of the test-drug notwithstanding, her fear of death is so great that she is willing not only to take Dylar, but to sleep with its distributor, Willie Mink, and repeatedly lie to her family. Like any drug habit, her addiction to Dylar dictates Babette’s life, but she continues taking it because her fear is too much to live with.

Dylar, as a solution to Babette’s problem, is shrouded in mystery. Babette first found out about it, she tells Jack, while reading tabloid magazines to the elderly. Amidst reports of Bigfoot, revelations about Howard Hughes and Charles Manson, and announcements for miracle cures, she came across an advertisement for an experimental drug. Despite its dubious origins, she was willing to give Dylar a try because what it promised, however preposterous, was so appealing. If anyone should know better, it is Babette; but fear is a powerful motivator. Further, as Bryant mentions, DeLillo designs the Dylar pill like a flying saucer, “its form drawing attention to its function as the science fictional pivot of the narrative.” However, it is more than science fiction: Babette, like Jack, is searching for a way out of insecurity, no matter how outlandish that way may be.

The Gladney couple’s searches are ultimately unfruitful. Babette knows that Dylar is only a placebo but is willing to press on with that knowledge, and Jack’s need for security, security which is threatened by the toxic event and increased exponentially when he learns of his stable wife’s covert instability, drives him to the brink of insanity. Death is the driving force behind these actions, constantly nagging them, impelling them to drastic measures in an attempt to ward it off. Why does DeLillo give them no real alternative to these drastic measures? Because the postmodern episteme forbids acceptance of such an alternative.

Previous epistemes have made allowances in the case of the fantastic when the fantastic was presented in a religious framework. Religion was able to make the impossible—the miraculous—acceptable, but, according to DeLillo, religion no longer holds that power. It is ironic that a postmodern world which celebrates the numerous and variegated religions that can be found even in a small geographical space cannot provide its residents with any certainty about any of them. Religion’s power is canceled out by its proliferation.

The only thing that could abrogate Jack Gladney’s fear of death is a religion in which he could take comfort, gaining the knowledge that death is not the end of life. It worked for previous generations, but its effectiveness is lost on this one. DeLillo surrounds Jack with mysteriously religious characters, nearly all of which Jack (and some of which DeLillo himself, with something of a wink to the reader) is quick to dismiss. One of them, who also happens to be one of Jack’s ex-wives, has “been drawn to Montana, to an ashram.” He goes on to mock her: “Her name is Mother Devi now. She operates the ashram’s business activities. Investments, real estate, tax shelters. It’s what Janet has always wanted. Peace of mind in a profit-oriented context.” Also up for this treatment is Heinrich’s friend, Orest Mercator. Described as being of ambiguous ethnic background (which hints at an exotic, mysteriously spiritual quality), Orest hopes to break the world record for living in a cage with live snakes. Should he survive sixty-seven days, the record will be exclusively his. Jack dismisses Orest’s intended goal as asinine and is not afraid to tell him so, and DeLillo deals with him similarly: put to the litmus test, Orest lasts four minutes in the cage and, as Heinrich tells Jack, drops “out of sight,” presumably never to be heard from again.

But cult members and snake-handlers are not the only objects of Jack’s disdain. Judeo-Christianity is shunned as well, very important because Judeo-Christianity, be it in the form of one sect or another, has been the dominant religious paradigm of the Western world for centuries. Its various representative sects in White Noise, however, are portrayed either primarily (by DeLillo) or secondarily (by one of the characters) as quirkish, their cherished religious beliefs downplayed, even degraded. The family of Jehovah’s Witnesses uses the evacuation and temporary relocation in the barracks as an opportunity to convert, handing out tracts and speaking about the coming apocalypse. Instead of acting “normally” like everyone else—quietly panicked and not-so-quietly upset—they are calm, perhaps pleased. Jack has no explanation for them. Later, Babette’s father, Vernon, visits and in throwaway comments discounts both the Jewish people (“What is he, a Jew?” he asks Jack about Murray.) and the Latter-Day Saints (“Let the Mormons quit smoking. They’ll die of something just as bad.”). And of course, the nun in the hospital toward the end of the novel reveals to Jack that not only is the Catholic clergy’s dedication a pretense, their pretense is their dedication, as they have committed their lives to acting as if their beliefs were genuine because the masses need not necessarily to believe, but to believe, however vaguely, that belief is possible.

When all is said and done in White Noise, the question is this: does DeLillo ever give his audience something to believe in, a metaphysical life preserver to grab onto? On the heels of Jack’s conversation with the nun, we read the book’s final chapter. In it, young Wilder rides his plastic tricycle across several lanes of traffic on a busy highway while two horrified old ladies watch from their window. By way of a final, subtle hint at Americana, DeLillo suggests the popular arcade game “Frogger” (released in 1981, only four years before White Noise; the game’s user-controlled protagonist is a multilane traffic-dodging frog) and creates a metaphor for life and death. But while the video game inevitably ends, as all plots do, in death for the character on the run, Wilder defies the odds and makes it successfully across. What are we to make of this?

Just as Wilder’s cries earlier in the book were filled with an odd kind of existential bewilderment, perhaps even fear, as he cried “out, saying nameless things in a way that touched [Jack] with its depth and richness,” his escapade here at the novel’s end is also imbued with a tinge of something supernatural. DeLillo describes him as he “began to pedal across the highway, mystically charged,” and when he reaches the other side of the road he sits on the tricycle seat “profoundly howling” once again. However, while Wilder’s feat seems like a majestic, odds-defying accomplishment which causes us once again to wonder if DeLillo might be saying something about children’s closer proximity to the supernatural than adults’ and Wilder’s own indescribable knowledge of death, there are also words which do not allow us to reach this conclusion convincingly. DeLillo also describes Wilder as possessing a kind of “lame-brained determination” as he pedals frantically, and his howls are not howls of triumph but howls of fear.

Just after the nun tells Jack that there exists nothing worth believing in and that anyone who does believe in something is a fool (“There is no truth without fools. We are your fools.”), DeLillo dangles this event in front of us, daring us to believe in something—anything—by using religious buzzwords such as “mystical,” “exalted,” and “profound” but countering those words with others like “lame-brained.” By doing this, DeLillo challenges his audience directly by asking them what they will choose to believe. After all, the seemingly irrational, random events that have occurred in the novel to this point, after Jack slowly morphs from a quasi-normal family man into an insane would-be murderer, after an archetypal woman of God tells us herself that she and everyone like her is faking it, DeLillo dares us to believe in a miracle. Cars fly by, their horns blaring and brakes screeching, and a toddler on a tricycle survives where so many frogs have been squashed. Perhaps the previous events are to serve only as the moral wasteland of a backdrop against which the miracle occurs. Perhaps the book leads up to this miracle as a way of offering us just a bit of hope. As Jack, Babette, and Wilder watch the sun set and as the men in Mylex suits continue to roam the area, there is an odd sense of serenity in the pandemonium.

Then again, we are forced to consider Wilder’s terrible howling. If he howled before at the knowledge of certain death, his reaction less mature or complex but borne of the same gut-level emotions as Jack’s, is he howling here, as he sits on the ground on the opposite side of the street, for the same reason? Just as Jack’s death is indeterminately postponed (his exposure to Nyodene D may or may not hasten his demise, but in any case no one will know for sure until he is dead), his fear remains unalleviated, and Wilder’s death has been put off until an unknown date as well. It is possible that Wilder’s frustration —expressed as best a toddler knows how, in wails and cries—is a product of his knowledge that although his death has been postponed, it has not been canceled. Sooner or later, his life will end in death, too.

Postmodernity, both in reality and in literature, is nothing if not ambiguous. Despite not being a “postmodern” writer per se, DeLillo has written a postmodern novel: he has created events and characters that defy definite identification and categorization. Anything we apply to them, be it literary interpretation or moral judgment, fails to stick. This is true of the final major episode in White Noise just as it is true of everyone and everything else in it. DeLillo’s devilishly clever ending invites a plethora of conclusions which can be substantiated while at the same time he defies us to make any of them “stick.” But Wilder’s—and Jack’s and Babette’s—preoccupation with death permeates their lives. Miracle or not, the fact that Wilder narrowly avoids his own demise cannot be denied. If Wilder’s fear persists throughout his life, he may be as metaphysically and ontologically frustrated and anxious as his father. The cycle will continue—what alternative is there? As Jack himself admits, “What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation.”

Don DeLillo is not a postmodern writer in the manner of John Barth or Donald Barthelme. At the same time, his themes, particularly in White Noise, are distinctly postmodern, as he concerns himself deeply with the postmodern episteme by looking at twentieth (and twenty-first) century people’s ontological problems and situations. As Scott Rettberg writes in “American Simulacra,” “DeLillo's characters pathetically struggle in a world of indecipherable, de-centered systems. There is no one system that is universally accessible. In DeLillo's America, to paraphrase Yeats; things have fallen apart, the center could not hold, and mere anarchy has been loosed upon the world.” Thus the characters in White Noise fail in their attempts to redefine or recreate themselves in the face of the only thing they know about the future: their impending death. Jack Gladney is on a quest that could end with new knowledge that might abrogate his fear of mortality; the trouble is that the episteme which governs his mind (and the white noise which perpetually impedes his thinking) will not allow him to find it.

June 2004

From guest contributor Christopher S. Glover

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