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Literature / White Noise

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The emptiness, the sense of cosmic darkness.
Mastercard, Visa, American Express.

White Noise is a 1985 novel, a postmodern novel by Don DeLillo, dealing with themes of media overload, consumerism, and paranoia. The novel tells the story of Jack Gladney, Professor of Hitler Studies, and his blended family, which is made up of his latest wife, Babette, and their children from various other marriages. The first third of the book is an extended slice of life/character study, documenting the Gladneys simultaneously banal and eccentric existence in a small college town. The second part of the book details the town's evacuation due to an "Airborne Toxic Event," during which Jack is briefly exposed to toxic chemicals while helping his family. After being told he may only have twenty-five years left to life, the fifty-something Jack suffers an existential crisis. Afterward, both he and Babette seek out a drug called "Dylar" which is meant to relieve the fear of death. Along the way, Gladney, his friends, and family spend much time contemplating their navels and having Seinfeldian conversations.

As you might expect, this book comes up often in college literature classes.

In 2022, Netflix released a film adaptation of the movie, directed by Noah Baumbach and starring Adam Driver as Jack and Greta Gerwig as Babette. It was the opening film of both the Venice and New York film festivals before a limited release in theaters on November 25 and to the streaming service on December 30. Tropes for the film go on White Noise (2022).

This novel contains examples of:

  • Arc Words: "Who will die first?"
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Babette is a bit overweight but regarded as beautiful by both Jack and Murray.
  • Almost Dead Guy: Willie, though he is (likely) saved in the end. He lives enough to shoot back at Jack with his own weapon.
  • Broken Pedestal: Heinrich seems to be genuinely upset when his friend Orest fails spectacularly to achieve his goal of staying in a snake pit for 67 days.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Quite literally, the Zumwalt. Jack uses it to shoot Willie.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Jack knows that one of the side effects of Dylar is the inability to discern between words and reality, so he convinces Willie, which is high on the substance, that he is in a plane crash and then that somebody is shooting at him, before really shooting him.
  • Contemplate Our Navels: About half the dialogue.
  • Crapsaccharine World: The city where the Gladneys live is a quasi-idyllic college town out of time, with such whimsical oddities as the Most Photographed Barn in America and a psychic who always fails to find missing people but whose investigations always help the cops solve smaller crimes. Meanwhile, toxic gasses in the air are slowly changing the color of the sunset, making it more vibrant and beautiful the more deadly it becomes for human exposure, with the implication it will eventually either kill everyone in town or force another mass-evacuation.
  • Doorstopper
  • Fantastic Drug: Dylar, which is an important element of the third act ("Dylarama").
  • Going to See the Elephant: The "Most Photographed Barn in America" early in the book, a Deconstructive Parody of roadside tourist attractions whose fame is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.
  • Insufferable Genius: Both invoked and deconstructed with Heinrich. He seems extremely well spoken and precociously intelligent, but much of his knowledge is either incorrect or a mix of useless pedantry and contrarianism (such as spending the better part of 2 pages arguing that he can't actually know whether it's raining outside.)
  • Lemony Narrator: Gladney, who frequently indulges in philosophical asides, quotes random things "the TV said", and sometimes drops brand names into his narration as if they rise up from his subconscious.
  • Mind Screw: For most of the novel we just get the playfully enigmatic postmodern style one would expect, but near the end, as Jack begins to unravel and fray and the plot builds to the climax, it gradually gets more and more bewildered, only to resolve in what appears to be clarity in the last chapter.
  • Non Sequitur: As mentioned above, Jack Gladney narration is full of those, as names of products or things he heard on the radio or the TV pop out of nowhere. Willie Mink has also full lines of this, probably as a result of his Dylar addiction.
  • Satire: Of academia. Most of Jack's colleagues are pretty weird folks (although that can be said of almost any character in the novel), offer hyperspecialistic courses like "car crashes in American movies" and somehow fail to inspire respect most of the time.
    • Also of 1980s consumer culture. Jack's world is so oversaturated with commercials that he and other characters begin compulsively reciting the brand names of various electronics and appliances. Trips to the grocery store are also described in mystical terms, and in the end Jack finally finds inner peace and experiences a moment of clarity by likening the generic products at the supermarket to the inevitability of death.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Murray, Jack's friend and colleague at the college, often make long and elaborated speeches on rather banal topics, such as car crashes.
  • Sexual Extortion: Willie Mink offers Babette some Dylar in exchange for sexual favors.
  • Side Effects Include...: The side effects of Dylar include losing one's ability to tell words from real things and reciting utterances heard on TV. And it doesn't actually eliminate the fear of death, but makes people more fearful.
  • There Are No Therapists: Both Jack and Babette are preoccupied to the point of near-constant terror with their own mortality, and are driven to try and obtain a rare, illegal drug to try and alleviate it; Babette even goes so far as to cheat on Jack to obtain it. And yet neither of them think to consult a psychologist about what would no doubt be classified today as an anxiety disorder. Especially surprising oversight from an academic like Jack.
    • Could be considered a case of Justified Trope, Truth in Television, and/or Fridge Brilliance, at least in Jack's case, as American academia has been criticised heavily for its extreme marginalisation of people with mental disorders, to the point where many people involved in it refuse to seek treatment for mental conditions they suffer because they are afraid of professional repercussions. There have been several studies documenting the stigmas within academia, and they have even been blamed for several suicides (for instance, political scientist Will Moore's). For this reason it is perhaps understandable that an American university professor would be disinclined to consider therapy.
  • The Tetris Effect: Gladney notices one of his children reciting brand names in her sleep, apparently as a result of seeing too many commercials, and he does so himself in his narration.
  • The Treachery of Images: A major theme of the novel is the blurring of simulacra and reality.
  • Tranquil Fury: Jack comes off as quite calm and methodical as he psychologically tortures and then shoots Willie Mink.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Nobody seems to suffer any physical symptoms from the toxic cloud until they hear about the symptoms it supposedly causes on the radio.