“I want to immerse myself,” says one character in Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, White Noise, “in American magic and dread.” Plenty of novels capture American dread, but few understand its relationship to American magic as well as White Noise. Ahead of Netflix’s adaptation of the novel, it’s worth revisiting DeLillo’s masterpiece, which remains one of our most perceptive visions of contemporary America and the desperate illusions of consumer society.
White Noise centers on Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill (a name that recalls the description of America, often used by Ronald Reagan, as “the city on the hill”). Jack and his family live a normal middle-class life — supermarket, mall, television — but in DeLillo’s hands, it is an uncanny normality. White Noise confronts the problem faced by every novelist who tries to depict the United States: the strangeness of our society defies the conventions of literary realism.
Novelists, as Philip Roth put it, have their “hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality.” DeLillo solves this problem with a kind of heightened realism: the department heads at the College-on-the-Hill wear short-sleeved academic gowns; the skies fill with unusually brilliant sunsets that, it is rumored, are the product of industrial waste in the air; all the characters speak with the fluency and timing of a sitcom. These distortions magnify real features of our world: fussy professional hierarchies, alienation from the natural world, media overconsumption.
The America of White Noise is exaggerated but still recognizably our own; the novel never retreats to the comfortable distance of a dystopia, which allows the reader to draw a neat line between her world and the speculative, debased one. DeLillo’s approach resembles that of pop art or David Byrne’s True Stories — a hypernormality that is both familiar and grotesque. The novel’s picture of the United States is compelling because it understands how unreal our reality feels.
The first section of White Noise is deliberately unfocused; the incidents never quite cohere into a plot — a word that has an ominous significance for Jack. Plot suggests movement toward something, and Jack doesn’t want to think about what that something is: “May the days be aimless. Let the season drift.” Jack’s fear is central to White Noise’s understanding of consumer society — the source of “American magic and dread.”
From the novel’s opening pages, the United States is depicted as a society of consumers. The first chapter describes the arrival of the new students to the College-on-the-Hill, but instead of people, we see only a parade of vehicles and the objects inside them — appliances, sporting goods, processed foods. “This assembly of station wagons,” DeLillo writes, “as much as anything they might do in the course of the year, more than the formal liturgies or laws, tells the parents that they are a collection of the like-minded and the spiritually akin, a people, a nation.”
This kind of market-oriented society requires a high degree of what Max Weber called “rationalization:” the process of mastering the world by technology and routine. “We are not ruled,” Weber writes, “by mysterious, unpredictable forces. . . . On the contrary, we can in principle control everything by means of calculation. That in turn means the disenchantment of the world.” This is the promise of consumer society: the mysterious enchantment of the world is replaced by an almost-magical control over it.
Jack desires this kind of mastery; it is at the root, for example, of his interest in Hitler. “Some people always wear a favorite color,” he says. “Some people carry a gun. Some people put on a uniform and feel bigger, stronger, safer. It’s in this area that my obsessions lie.” But rather than becoming a fascist himself, Jack has an easier way to exert control: shopping. After a colleague points out that he looks “harmless” without his academic gown, Jack soothes himself with a trip to the mall:
We moved from store to store, rejecting not only items in certain departments, not only entire departments but whole stores, mammoth corporations that did not strike our fancy for one reason or another. . . . I began to grow in value and self-regard.
Consumption allows Jack to retreat into a world in which he is the master: “The more money I spent, the less important it seemed. I was bigger than these sums.”
Yet, as White Noise insists, this fantasy has limits. There are things that escape our power, things that consumer society must repress in order to retain its sense of control, but which, inevitably, return.
To consume is ultimately a passive experience: receiving something from outside the self. And our consumption is not limited to the products we decide to purchase. Without our choosing, we absorb what Jack calls “waves and radiation” — the chatter of television, the messages of advertising, the chemicals in the air and water. The control that we feel at the mall and the supermarket conceals our greater powerlessness against the white noise of consumer society. “The flow is constant,” says one of Jack’s colleagues. “Words, pictures, numbers, graphics, statistics, specks, particles, motes.”
We hardly notice these waves and radiation — until we have to. “Only a catastrophe gets our attention,” says Jack’s colleague. The catastrophe comes for Jack in the second section of the novel, when the plot really begins. One snowy winter day, a train accident releases a cloud of poisonous gas — the “airborne toxic event.” As the Gladneys and their neighbors evacuate their homes, Jack sees the situation as a fundamental violation: “I’m not just a college professor. I’m the head of a department. I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event.” The family debates whether the gas forms a “billowing cloud” or only a “feathery plume,” as if the right word will give them control over it. But these neurotic efforts can’t stave off the catastrophe.
Stopping for gas during the evacuation, Jack is exposed to the airborne toxic event, forcing him to face the ultimate uncontrollable: death. Doctors can’t tell Jack when or if the chemical will kill him; they only know that it stays in the body for thirty years. “So, to outlive this substance, I will have to make it into my eighties,” Jack concludes. “Then I can begin to relax.” After a hundred pages of aimlessness, he now has a destination: “All plots tend to move deathward.”
Consumer societies are unequipped to make sense of death. As Weber pointed out, premodern humans could imagine themselves as part of an “organic life cycle” of which death was the natural end; this belief was sanctified by religion and ritual. Modern life, on the other hand, unfolds as a “never-ending process,” and the disenchantment of the world has eliminated the forms of religion that used to give us solace; we can only see death as a “meaningless event.” Thus, we try to deny it — see, for instance, Silicon Valley’s obsession with life extension — or at least push it from our minds, but this is a need that consumer society can’t satisfy.
Not that Jack doesn’t try. The final section of White Noise involves him in a noirish plot to find Dylar, an experimental drug that suppresses the fear of death. Dylar represents the only way that consumer society can respond to death: technological control. (Technology, a character notes, is “what we invented to conceal the terrible secret of our decaying bodies.”) But as Jack discovers, the drug has a serious side effect, leaving its user unable to “distinguish words from things.” “If someone said ‘speeding bullet,’” says one Dylar user, “I would fall to the floor and take cover.” When we deny death, we cut ourselves off from reality; the fantasy of control leads straight to psychosis.
As Jack encounters the airborne toxic event, he experiences something “that bordered on the religious:” “This was death made in the laboratory, defined and measurable, but we thought of it at the time in a simple and primitive way, as some seasonal perversity of the earth like a flood or tornado, something not subject to control.” This return of the religious in the face of death is White Noise’s great insight into American culture. Formal religion is mostly absent from the novel; the only church in town seems to be a disused Congregational one in whose basement Jack’s wife, Babette, teaches classes on posture for the elderly. Yet rites and rituals abound.
At the exact midpoint of the novel, just after learning of his exposure to the airborne toxic event, Jack experiences a “desperate piety . . . full of yearnings and reachings.” He wants to make sense of his impending death but doesn’t know how. Seeking some clue, he is drawn to his sleeping children; bending over them, trying to discover the secret of their peaceful rest, he hears his daughter Steffie murmur in her sleep: “Two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant. Toyota Celica.”
That the words refer to a brand doesn’t diminish their force. “The utterance was beautiful and mysterious,” Jack says, “gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in the cuneiform. It made me feel that something hovered.” The same religious sentiment attaches itself to other parts of popular culture in White Noise: television, celebrities, UFO sightings, conspiracy theories. “The tabloid future, with its mechanism of a hopeful twist to apocalyptic events, was perhaps not so very remote from our own immediate experience,” Jack says. “Out of some persistent sense of large-scale ruin, we kept inventing hope.” Modernity may have disenchanted the world, but no society stays disenchanted for long. Dreading death, we reenchant the world, investing the junk of consumer culture — toxic gas, brand names, celebrities — with spurious magic.
We still live in White Noise’s America: the mostly ignored catastrophes (COVID, climate change, actual toxic events), the desperate veneration of pop culture (QAnon’s bizarre mélange of conspiracy, celebrity, and apocalypse) seem to have emerged from the pages of a mid-career DeLillo novel. The internet, which was in its infancy when White Noise was published, has only intensified these features of American life, offering us more opportunities to consume and worship, along with new forms of “waves and radiation;” from the endless scroll of social media to the toxic by-products of data storage, there is more white noise than ever. We remain, like Jack at the end of the novel, lost in the supermarket, with no solace but the cheap enchantments of checkout-line tabloids: “The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.”