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White Noise

The White Noise is a captivating book written by Don DeLillo, an American contemporary author, published in 1985. White Noise – DeLillo’s eighth novel – is a first narrator, highly lyrical and ironical; discussing the electronic media, especially television, popular culture from different perspectives; the power consume culture to seduce and revolt, futuristic drugs; the overly precocious modern child; hidden networks of control and power; the rather poetic appeals of modern jargons from sports, science, and Madison Avenue. All these elements are developed in White Noise to artistically describe the overly insidious environment of Don DeLillo’s traditional family, Jack and Babette Gladney along with their children from their earlier several marriages. “Babette and I and our children by previous marriages live at the end of a quiet street in what was once a wooded area with deep ravines” (DeLillo 2).

To a larger extent, White Noise was DeLillo’s most stand-out novel because it broke from the author’s novelistic tradition as the book is less complexly structured, more convectional and highly realistic in is painting of the American life as compared to his previous works. The structure of White Noise is relatively simple: the maiden section, “Waves and Radiation”, depicts using excellent mimicry, the interactions of family members, the funny on-campus activities of Jack Gladney (the sole student pursuing Hitler Studies), and vivid portrayal of the American Environment faculty. The middle section of the book has a euphemistic title, “The Airborne Toxic Event”, which explores Jack’s exposure to the potentially lethal plume. The novel’s third section, “Dylarama,” a title that integrates the high-tech, yet-to-be approved drug said to counter the phobia for death with a huckster’s or marketer’s suffix (Coontz 24).

The book deals with a range of topical issues ranging from technology to modish university to ecological disaster, to contemporary family. White Noise is ultimately a family novel regardless of the fact the family is dispersed and a product of multiple marriages, divorces, where ex-spouses and their children are to be found in different places around the world, together with step-parents and step-children and half-siblings in the household.

DeLillo configures the family trees of the children in the Gladney’s house to reflect the contemporary usual American family. Heinrich is Jack’s fourteen-year-old son from his earlier marriage to Savory (who now runs a successful ashram in Tubb, Montana, as Mother Devi). Denise is Babette’s eleven-year-old daughter from the previous marriage to Bob Pardee (who presently raises money for the city’s legal defence fund for the nuclear industry). Steffie, who is about two years younger than Denise, is Jack’s child from his marriage to Dana Breedlove (currently a CIA courier far away in the third world). Finally, Wilder, a two-year old boy, is Babette’s child from her marriage to an unidentified researcher in the Australian outback. In addition, Heinrich has a sister under the care of their mother; Wilder has a brother in their father’s care. Jack has also at least one other daughter (Bee) from Tweedy Browner, his middle wife (DeLillo 15).

Generally, each adult is living with either a third of fourth spouse, a daughter from an earlier marriage, a son from a different earlier marriage, a stepson belonging to one of his/her current spouse’s earlier marriages, in addition to a stepdaughter from a different previous marriage of the current spouse. Further, each child is living with one progenitor, this parent’s latest mate, one step-sibling of opposite gender whose other parents is elsewhere, and a mix of half-brother and half-sister who are just step-siblings to each other. In this regard, each adult is currently living with five other people whose average relation to her or him is just 20 percent; every child is living with five other individuals whose average relation to here or him is just about 15 percent; and everyone in this household is living with five other individuals, each of whom is related averagely by not more than 20 per cent to everyone else in the this house. None of the children fathered by Jack or given birth by Babette is presently living with his/her both parents or even a full sister or brother. In addition, the present assemblage has been together not more than two years. The reader is able to learn minute pieces of information related to the obviously far-flung relations when there is a phone call from far afield, where Jack imagines the voice of his wife that is converted into a digital signal and instantly sent from ground station to the satellite and then bounced back to earth. Jack’s summarizes his own marital adventures:

My first and fourth marriages were to Diana Breedlove, who is Steffie’s mother. The first marriage worked well enough to encourage us to try again as soon as it became mutually convenient. When we did, after the melancholy epochs of Janet Savory and Tweedy Browner, things proceeded to fall apart. But not before Stephanie Rose was conceived, a star-hung in Barbados. Dana was there to bribe the official (DeLillo 213).

It is apparent that the parents and children in these families form a complex fearful symmetry that is highly challenging and demanding of each individual involved. According to Emily B. Visher and John S. Visher,

“Being a remarried parent or a stepparent is being a parent in a first-marriage family and growing up in step family can be more complicated than growing up in a biological family. Successful stepfamilies accept and understand these differences and allow themselves the necessary time to accomplish the tasks that lead to successful integration. . . . They also understand that the task they have set for themselves is challenging, but not impossible and that “second chances” may ultimately work for everyone” (Visher 251).

The inevitability of death is generally believed to be a principal drive underlying human thinking, speech, and behavior. In White Noise, Don DeLillo makes the fear of death faced by two adult protagonists a major theme, developping it against the backdrop of such common phenomena of the modern age as the reliance on and addiction to the media, information overload, unbounded consumerism, and human powerlessness in the face of an ecological disaster. Another aspect of the novel is the functioning of a blended family, one of the ever-increasing numbers of such in present-day America, with all the complexities, tensions and support arising among the diverse offspring living under the same roof. DeLillo’s family represents a 1980’s American family with characteristic Victorian tradition or the television sitcom family associated with the 1960s and 70s.

The novel is set in a Midwestern town called Blacksmith housing a college where the character Jack Gladney heads a self-invented and extremely popular department on Hitler Studies. Jack is married to Babette who is involved in local community work, but spends most of her time looking after a household complete with four children – Heinrich and Steffie from Jack’s previous marriages, and Wilder and Denise, coming from Babette’s former matrimonies. Jack’s two other children, Bee and Mary Alice, live separately from their father. Babette also has a son, Eugene, who does not live with her.  Jack is deeply attached to his wife:

Babette, whatever she is doing, makes me feel sweetly rewarded, bound up with a full-souled woman a lover of daylight and dense life, the miscellaneous swarming air of families. I watch her all the tinme doing things in measured sequence, skillfully, with seeming ease, unlike my former wives, who had a tendency to feel estranged from the objective world – a self-absorbed and highstrung-bunch, with ties to the intelligence community. (DeLillo 5-6).

Gladney’s only friend is a colleague from the Popular Culture Department, Murray Jay Siskind, who takes an abstract view of the life in Blacksmith and uses the protagonist’s attention to theoretize about everyday realia. For Jack and Babette life is relatively undisturbed until some unexpected events and discoveries show the psychological insecurities behind the facade of a successful college professor. One day a dark cloud originating from a toxic spill from a derailed tank is announced to be approaching Blacksmith. The whole town is evacuated in time, but Jack’s subsequent medical tests suggest that he has been exposed to a dose of toxin. Although Jack is physically fine and the doctors are vague about the implications, they seem to agree that the exposure was extraordinary. This sets the professor’s mind on mortality more forcefully than anything else.

In the meantime, his wife confesses that at some point she signed up to take part in an experiment involving Dylar, an unregistered drug relieving the fear of dying. When the venture fell through, Babette agreed to sleep with the drug’s inventor in exchange for the use of the substance. There is no out drama in this household where the partners are plagued by thoughts more significant than betrayal – those of imminent mortality – but coaxed by his friend Murray’s reasoning that one has to kill to feel alive and feeling an urge to procure Dylar for himself – Gladney finds Babette’s lover, Willie Mink, shoots him with a gun, and places it in his hand. Mink then shoots Gladney back and wounds him. They end up with Jack transporting his rival to a hospital operated by nuns from the German-speaking community, who, when asked by Jack about their belief, are blatantly atheistic. The novel concludes with Gladney’s youngest, Wilder, recklessly riding his tricycle across a heavy-traffic motorway under the shocked gaze of helpless spectators and miraculously coming out of the squeeze wailing but unhurt.

DeLillo touches on a number of issues confronting a modern American blended family, which has become a widespead reality since the 1960s. According to Paul R. Amato, the increase in the number of divorces in the USA since the 1960s can be perceived as a manifestation of individualism helped by liberalizing the laws concerning divorce and weakening of social disapproval of divorces. Another reason for the increased divorce rate is technological advances achieved in the the post-Industrial epoch. According to Stephanie Coontz, who quotes Barbara Erenreich, “before the advent of washing machines, frozen foods, wrinkle-resistant fabrics, and 24-hour one-stop shopping . . . «the single life was far more strenuous for the average male»”. (Coontz 1997) Here is how Gladney describes his feelings about the technological benefits of the modern time:

“I went to the automated teller machine to check my balance...The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval. The system hardware, the mainframe sitting in a locked room in some distant city. What a pleasing interaction. I sensed that something of deep personal value, but not money, not that at all, had been authenticated and confirmed.” (DeLillo 46).      

Although, as Coontz concludes, “neither men nor women need marriage as much as they used to” (1997) these days, Paul R. Amato points out that the trend toward divorce does not signify that people reject marriage per se (Amato et al 2007). Instead, this trend reflects a tendency for people to leave unsatisfactory relationships and seek out greater happiness with new partners. As a result, the proportion of second and higher-order marriages in the population has increased... Overall, the percentage of marriages that involved second or higher-order unions for one or both spouses increased from 20% in 1980 to 29% in 2000. (Amato et al 80).

A concomitant cause to this rate of remarriage is the growing number of families with resident stepchildren. According to the same research, as many as 11% of married couples had a stepchild in 2000 in comparison to only 6% in 1980 (Amato et al 2007). Moreover, in both periods women in a new family were more likely than their husbands to have children from a previous marriage living with them. This situation is accurately reflected in White Noise, where Babette is as devoted a mother as she is a stepmother. At some point Gladney discusses his wife with Murray:

“She fell apart when Steffie called from camp with a broken bone in her hand. We had to drive all night. I found myself on a lumber company road. Babette weeping.”

“Her daughter, far away, among strangers, in pain, who wouldn’t?”    

“Not her daughter. My daughter.”

“Not even her own daughter.” (DeLillo 20).

However, no matter how caring a child’s parents or stepparents may be, social changes have seriously impacted American youth. In the late 1980s Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg pointed out that over the preceding quarter century, American parents had become increasingly concerned about the staggering crime rate, substance abuse, pregnacy and suicides among the underaged (1988).

According to many Americans, children have paid a high price for the social transformations of the 1960s and the 1970s – spiralling divorce rates, the rapid influx of mothers into the work force, a more relaxed attitude toward sex, and the widespread use of television as a form of child care (Mintz and Kellog 219).

Television is a constant presence at the Gladneys’, although the parents are doing their best to minimize this influence. For instance, here is how Jack describes Babette’s rule of the whole family watching TV once a week:

 “She seemed to think that if kids watched televison one night a week with parents or stepparents, the effect would be to de-glamorize the medium in their eyes, make it wholesome domestic sport, its narcotic undertow and eerie diseased brain-sucking power would be gradually reduced. I felt vaguely slighted by this reasoning.”(DeLillo 16). 

The decentring of parents makes Jack and Babette to offer rather little direction for their family. The parent figures in the novel do little to pass on wisdom perceived to the older generation’s attribute. In its place, the television becomes the major source of not only information, but also guidance to the family’s young generation. The family is characterized by misinformation, uncertainty, confusion, and irony. The first family gathering that the reader is introduced to attests to this sorry state of affairs. Every one is individually ransacking the kitchen in search of something to feed on, reaching for all kinds of foods while leaving the counters and tables tattered with shredded packaging as well as inedible remains of the foods. The children confidently make fun of their mother’s habit of purchasing “healthier foods” such as yoghurt, but never trying them herself because she is more satisfied throwing them in the cart. Jack is seen wandering the house admiring his sleeping children, but confused about what exactly they do and say when they are not sleeping (DeLillo 63). He occasionally wonders if he has the right to say anything to the effect of influencing a decision when, in fact, the children are not biologically his. In the same light, the mother of the house – Babette – is also confused in conversation with her children.  Ironically, she passes her spare time in teaching community courses in such topics as eating, standing, walking, or otherwise reading the newspapers to Mr. Treadwell, a blind man.

However, Babette is not able to keep her children from watching inappropriate content such as the rare “wholesome” shows, which sends everyone rushing out to watch “disaster footage” on another television. The effect of this exposure to television is that children seem to grow up omniscient, often snapping out bits of recondite knowledge on each other and their parents in what Mintz and Kellogg call «“new precocity” that thrusts children into the adult world before they are mature enough to deal with it» (219). In this situation adults end up adopting an egalitarian strategy with their children, thus relinquising authority and discipline: “Babette said to the girls: «Look, either I chew gum or I smoke. If you want me to start smoking again, take away my chewing gum and my Mantho-Lyptus»” (DeLillo 42).

The manner in which the Gladneys’ trade guesses about the true meaning of Dylar – the experimental drug to fight the fear of death – emblematically depicts the way the Gladneys’ discuss all matters. Jack is of the belief that, “The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error”:

“What do you know about Dylar?”

“Is that the black girl who’s staying with the Stovers?”

“That’s Dakar,” Steffie said.

“Dakar isn’t her name, it’s where she’s from,” Denise said. It’s a country on the ivory coast of Africa.”

“The capital is Lagos,” Babette said. “I know that because of a surfer movie I saw once where they travel all over the world.” [....]

“They go to Hawaii,” Denise told Steffie, “and wait for these tidal waves to come from Japan. They’re called origamis.”

“And the movie was called The Long Hot Summer,” her mother said.

“The Long Hot Summer,” Henrich said, “happens to be a play by Tennessee Ernie Willliams.” (DeLillo 80-81).

Similar conversations are abound ranging from whether a rat is a rodent, vermin, or a mammal; whether astronauts float because the lighter than air; why mountains are always upstanding; as well as the argument in skin damage as a result of sun rays and whether runners are less vulnerable to the sun rays compared to people walking or standing still (DeLillo 121, 220 -225, 252). Jack and Babette, however, engage in such conversations more of equals or even backward learners relative to their children. In fact, Jack, the professor, is usually appealed by the argument, of just too confused to contribute authoritatively on any topic under discussion. By Coontz, permissive parents are “responsive but undemanding, indulgent of their children’s impulsive behaviors and almost always willing to negotiate or renegotiate a decision. They are often highly affectionate, but such parents are sometimes hard for a child to read because it’s never clear when «no» really means no – or when a «yes» will be regretted” (Coontz 96). What this leads to is children left to their own devices. For example, Heinrich, the fourteen-year-old boy, is effectively the family scientific geek, with immense knowledge on a range of matters from animal sexual behaviour to specific qualities of gas forming the toxic cloud Nyodene Derivative to the risks of electromagnetic transmissions. He is usually withdrawn from normal family conversations, except in instances where he is providing alternative misinformation that the family finds persuasive. He is the one constantly glued to the television, attentive to disaster footage, listening to radio, and playing chess through mail with the jailed mass murderer and craves to photograph the dead bodies of a lost elderly couple.  

From reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise, the reader gets a clear understanding of the evolution of the family institution as a result of a number of factors, including rapidly changing technology, advanced industrial systems and changing economic factors together with the far reaching effects of the media, ubiquitous information and consumerism. As evidenced by the suppressed role of the main parents in the novel – Jack and Babett – the authority of the modern family has changed in significant ways because of children who are technologically savvy and relatively more informed. The experience of the Gladneys’ with technological devices also serve to demonstrate that modern human societies are increasingly experiencing the feeling of utter displacement as a result of accumulation of technological devices and waste. The traditional male breadwinner role has also been remarkably challenged in modern society where women are increasingly getting the economic power and contributing to family’s needs. According to Stephanie Coontz, “Today we are experiencing a socioeconomic transformation every bit as wrenching and far reaching as that of the early nineteenth century – a total re-arrangement of the links between families and the wider economy, along with a reorganization of work, gender roles, race relations, family structures, intergenerational expectations, personal rights, even our experience of time and space. The male breadwinner nuclear family system that was put together in the mid-nineteenth century to resolve that particular crisis of transition no longer meets the needs of today’s families” (Coontz 114-115).   Finally, as shown by the final chapter of the White Noise, modern families have consumed by the consumer culture, in which the supermarket shelves have been rearranged and products displaced to correlate that of consumers (Amato et al 214). The rearrangement both symbolizes a new order of chaos or new dysfunction and serves the objective of providing modern society with a spiritual lesson that things are not always within their reach and that one needs to contemplate life much longer as there is more to believe in than media technological devices such as radio, television and tabloids. As Satenig St. Marie stresses,

“The post-industrial era need not place that kind of burden on families if we encourage them to recognize that they can make a difference. The turmoil of change and stress that we are all experiencing now is basically a conflict between the "me" focus and the painful choices that the "we" environment of the future calls for. The family, the institution in our society that focuses on people, needs to get involved in the process of change if the interests of people are going to be represented. This is where the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity lie. We need to begin to see the relationship between the decisions we make as individuals and as families, and the impact of these decisions on the society in which we function as individuals, as families, as people... We need to work toward a society with a balance between people and other social institutions, which means that we have to build a bridge from what's good for me to what's best for us – all of us. We have to begin to be sensitive to the public impact of private decisions.” (453).

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