Listen up, pal; the theme of this novel is fear. Not fear of serial killers or tentacle monsters or lab experiments, but the granddaddy of them all: Fear of death. Specifically, fear of death in the technology and marketing focused final quarter of the 20th century, where you can’t even entertain the fantasy that death is noble or holy anymore.
I only know I’m just going through the motions of living. I’m technically dead. My body is a growing nebulous mass. They track these things like satellites. All this is a result of a byproduct of insecticide. There’s something artificial about my death. It’s shallow, unfulfilling. I don’t belong to the earth or sky. They ought to carve an aerosol can on my tombstone.
These are the thoughts of Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler studies at a quaint midwestern university and our first-person protagonist. The novel follows Jack and his family: his fifth wife and their assorted children from various marriages. Much of the book is simply Jack’s musings and his back-and-forth chats with his family and friends. It’s the type of book, like A Naked Singularity (a book that draws much influence from White Noise), where people have these long philosophical conversations about life, death, media, family that rarely ever happen in the real world. It’s a warm take on family, though. I grew very fond of this clan of fatalists.
While the novel is mostly dialogue, both external and internal, the major plot happening is a catastrophic gas leak that shuts down Jack’s town and forces everyone to spend a night huddled on cots in a communal warehouse. The Airborne Toxic Event. The family car runs out of gas while stuck in traffic en route to the sanctuary and Jack gets out for a few minutes to fill it up. The two minutes he spends outside brings him into contact with ‘Nyodene D’, the toxic contaminant that kicked off the leak, with its potentially harmful side effects. Including vomiting, nausea, deja vu, and death. Potentially.
This launches an obsession for Jack. Death. Even though the effects of Nyodene D are mostly unknown and probably won’t affect him for 30+ years (he’s in his 50s), it’s all he can think about. He repeatedly visits doctors. Then stops altogether. He discovers that he’s always been terrified of death — it’s why he created the field of Hitler studies, so he could siphon some of Hitler’s aura/endurability and stave off death. Jack steals his wife’s experimental medication. He digs through trash, chases down neurochemists. Stalks people with guns. Considers killing to increase his own longevity.
This book feels old. It was written in 1985, the year I was born. Does that mean I’m old? It’s not like the text is dated. It’s more like Don DeLillo influenced writers two generations over. Bands named themselves after his chapter headings. I’ve seen these themes rehashed so many times, seen writers attempt to mimic his wit and reflection, I felt a (topical) sense of deja vu* while reading White Noise. Even though I’ve never read it before. Not only that, but DeLillo’s influence lies heavily in Kafka, and he was writing in a time much closer to him than we are now. Take this passage for instance, which could almost be ripped right out of The Trial, if it were about medicine instead of law.
I didn’t say it. The computer did. The whole system says it. It’s what we call a massive data-base tally. Gladney, J. A. K. I punch in the name, the substance, the exposure time and then I tape your computer history. Your genetics, your personals, your medicals, your psychologicals, your police-and-hospitals. It comes back pulsing stars. This doesn’t mean anything is going to happen to you as such, at least not today or tomorrow. It just means you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that.
Maddening bureaucracy. Death became banal and ignoble and worst of all, unfulfilling, as digital technology arose.
*A potential side effect of The Airborne Toxic Event!