Literary period: post modern
White Noise is the thirtieth book on The Well-Educated Mind novel list.
Part of the TWEM reading challenge involves answering questions. I have chosen one question from each stage of reading to answer.
Grammar Stage: What is the most important event in which the main character changes?
Jack, a middle-aged man afraid of dying, thinks he can eliminate his fear by controlling and overpowering death – that is, by killing someone. (It sounds heavy, but the novel is a humorous satire). Leading up to the plan to kill, the most important event happens: his plot backfires, literally.
Logic Stage: What does the main character want, and what does he do to get it?
Jack wants to eliminate his fear of death because it is stifling his desire to live. He learns that Babette, his wife, also has a fear of death and is secretly taking a tablet (medicine) – not on the market - to remove the fear from her mind, as it claims to do.
Jack wants to see if the tablet will work for him, but Babette refuses to tell him how to get it. He plots to seek out the distributor and kill him (for a personal reason), but only after obtaining the tablets; this is where it backfires. Instead of carrying out his plan on a higher conscious level, he succumbs to reality. Because of this complication, Jack hypothetically accepts that at some point he is going to die; he just does not want to know when (or how).
Instead, Jack finds ways to cope: he avoids his doctor whose only purpose is to probe and inform him on "how his death is progressing."
Another comfort is his youngest son, Wilder, who gives him joy because he is completely ignorant of danger. Wilder can truly live because he has no concept of death, and Jack can experience peace through him.
Rhetoric Stage: What is the author trying to tell us? Do you agree?
DeLillo is telling us we are losing our humanness because we are inundated with intrusive product advertisement, obsessive consumerism, useless technology, unnecessary health and environmental practices, false predictions, even man-made religions that purport to change us, save us, protect us, make us better, healthier, and definitely happier.
Instead, we feel, think, and behave like robots, emotionless, disconnected, unenlightened, and unable to communicate within the natural human systems of family and community. I like what Jack’s son, Heinrich, says to him:
We think we’re so great and modern…Here it is practically the twenty-first century and you’ve read hundreds of books and magazines and seen a hundred TV shows about science and medicine. Could you tell [a Stone Ager] one little crucial thing that might save a million and a half lives?...But nobody actually knows anything.
Throughout the novel, DeLillo slips words inside of dialogue or moments of contemplation that appear out of place, almost like a humming background noise, in order to simulate what the characters feel like: distracted and over stimulated.
What does that have to do with a fear of death? Well, there is this part when Jack reveals his fear to a colleague. She says,
I think it’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need? Doesn’t it give a precious texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry of a final line, a border or limit.
Jack reluctantly understands.
But people cannot know their sense of death or fear of it if they have a distorted view of life, which is because they are constantly bombarded with distractions, fear, insecurity, confusion, and lies about life, preventing a healthy connection to reality and truth.
In the story, everyone has his own way of dealing with death. Some face it head on, taunt it, or try to beat it; others embrace it. Jack is in the process of determining how to deal with his: coping, for now.
Forget the medicine in that tablet. There is no medicine, obviously.
...says his wise colleague.
I will deal with the question: Do you agree? later. To be continued...