The horrors of 1984 did not emerge quite in the form that Orwell imagined, reminding us that novelists are usually more gifted with hindsight than with prescience. Many novelists confess to feeling that there are certain things they dare not write, for fear they will come true, and can tell you of things they have written which have afterward happened, proving, if not prescience, the power of wishes. Novelists stay away from prediction. Not to make too much of the “airborne toxic event” in Don DeLillo’s new novel, White Noise, and the Bhopal tragedy it anticipates, but it is the index of DeLillo’s sensibility, so alert is he to the content, not to mention the speech rhythms, dangers, dreams, fears, etc., of modern life that you imagine him having to spend a certain amount of time in a quiet, darkened room. He works with less lead time than other satirists, too—we should have teen-age suicide and the new patriotism very soon—and this must be demanding. But here, as in his other novels, his voice is authoritative, his tone characteristically light. In all his work he seems less angry or disappointed than some critics of society, as if he had expected less in the first place, or perhaps his marvelous power with words is compensation for him.
White Noise is a meditation on themes of whiteness—the pallor of death, and white noise, the sound, so emblematic of modern life, that is meant to soothe human beings by screening out the other, more irritating noises of their civilization. The hero and narrator is Jack Gladney, chairman of Hitler Studies at a small eastern university:
We are quartered in Centenary Hall, a dark brick structure we share with the popular culture department, known officially as American environments. A curious group. The teaching staff is composed almost solely of New York émigrés, smart, thuggish, movie-mad, trivia-crazed. They are here to decipher the natural language of the culture, to make a formal method of the shiny pleasures they’d known in their Europe-shadowed childhoods—an Aristotelianism of bubble gum wrappers and detergent jingles.
Jack is married to Babette, and they have a number of children from their former marriages. Babette, normally a wholesome, cheerful woman, has taken to sneaking a certain pill, and when challenged denies it. Next, a toxic leak obliges them to evacuate their house and exposes Jack to a chemical cloud which may or will kill him in an unknown length of time.
Now he is seized by the fear of death. He learns that mortality is Babette’s preoccupation too, and that she has volunteered as an experimental subject to take a pill being developed to relieve this fear. She has been giving herself to the drug company man, in a shabby motel, on a regular basis, to ensure her continuing supply.
Will Jack be able to discover what Babette’s taking? Will he be able to get a supply for himself? Is he really going to die of the whiff of…
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