WHITE NOISE (Don DeLillo, 1985)

Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, White Noise was one of the sensations of American literature in the 1980s, establishing DeLillo as one of the leading figures in American postmodernism. For one thing, the book deals in various ways with many of the central concerns of the 1980s, providing a striking picture of American life in that decade. Magali Michael summarizes the concerns of the novel as follows: “The novel focuses its examination of the uncertainty that suffuses contemporary culture on the influence of consumerism, the prevalence and power of television, the fear of environmental disasters and contamination, the suspicion of conspiracies, and the growing belief in and dependence on medication to cure all life’s ailments. In addition, DeLillo’s text explores the workings of new family structures, masculinity, the fetishization of famous figures, and contemporary forms of spirituality” (362). However, these concerns are explored in a highly literary mode of postmodern satire that makes White Noise one of the most representative examples of American postmodern literature.

One of my areas of focus here will be on the ways White Noise illustrates many of the key characteristics of postmodern literature. At the same time, it is also an effective satirical look at American life in the 1980s, dramatizing many of the typical problems that faced Americans in that decade—problems so numerous that the novel seriously calls into question the recent tendency toward nostalgic representations of that decade as a time that was simpler and less troubled than the 2010s and 2020s. In addition, the central character (and narrator) is Jack Gladney, a middle-aged professor at a small liberal arts college (the “College-on-the-Hill,” in the town of “Blacksmith”), so that White Noise also contributes to the tradition of the “campus” novel, extending its satire to include academia, as well as general suburban life. Finally, White Noise centrally deals with a toxic environmental event, thus addressing growing concerns about the deteriorating quality of the natural environment.

White Noise as Postmodern Novel

Many characteristics of White Noise identify it as a postmodern novel. One of these is its basic tone, which remains playfully ironic, even when describing the most serious of actions, as if there is no belief system underlying the narrative that would allow it to take anything seriously. Thus, one might argue that the main topic of the novel is death, and both Gladney and his wife seem obsessed with death. However, neither one of them dies in the novel (almost no one does), and their mutual fear of death ultimately leads to a slapstick murder scene that is somewhat reminiscent of Humbert Humbert’s murder of Clare Quilty in Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), except that now the murder isn’t even completed successfully.

The most important among the markers of the postmodern nature of White Noise is its recognition that American society in the 1980s as so saturated with media and representations that it becomes impossible to distinguish between original and representation, between fiction and reality. The characters in this novel live in an America that is absolutely saturated with signals and signs of various kinds, which cumulatively combine to produce the “white noise” of the title, signifying a blank signal free of any real content. At one point in the novel, the smoke alarm sounds in the Gladney home, but the family, so accustomed to receiving nonstop signals that they tend no longer to process them, just ignores the alarm (8). This nonstop flow of signals then becomes a key element of the novel’s depiction of American life in the 1980s as so thoroughly routinized that catastrophes are almost welcome. As Alfonse (Fast Food) Stompanato, chair of the department of popular culture at the College-on-the-Hill, notes, Americans love watching catastrophes on television, “because we’re suffering from brain fade. We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information. … “The flow is constant. … Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else” (65–66).

Then, when a real-life catastrophe finally strikes near Blacksmith (in the form of an “airborne toxic event”), the whole event seems disappointingly unspectacular, partly because the effects of the poisonous cloud that moves across the town are not immediately obvious, but mostly because the event does not even draw the attention of network television news. In response, a local man wonders, “Does this kind of thing happen so often that nobody cares anymore? Don’t those people know what we’ve been through?” (155). In short, even catastrophes themselves have, at this point, become routine, so they can no longer be effective as a break from routine.

In telling his story, Gladney takes much of his imagery from television, presumably because that is what he assumes his audience will be able to understand. For example, when he and research neurochemist Winnie Richards view one of the spectacular sunsets that are apparently part of the aftermath of the “airborne toxic event” that lies at the center of White Noise, he describes it as follows: “We stood there watching a surge of florid light, like a heart pumping in a documentary on color TV” (216). Literal voices from television (or radio) frequently interrupt Gladney’s narrative, as if they exist on the same ontological level as the main action. Indeed, “reality” and “representation” are inextricably entangled in this novel. As John Frow, discussing White Noise as a work of postmodernism, notes, “The world of White Noise is a world of primary representations which neither precede nor follow the real but are themselves real—although it is true that they always have the appearance both of preceding another reality (as a model to be followed) and of following it (as a copy). But this appearance must itself be taken seriously” (421).

The postmodern inability to distinguish between reality and representation is literalized late in the novel when Willie Mink, apparently due to the influence of the experimental drug Dylar, has started to “confuse words with the things they referred to” (295). In addition, the drug seems to have caused Mink to begin to “act in a somewhat stylized way,” suggesting that his behavior is all a mere performance, lacking in authenticity. Moreover, his speech is punctuated by frequent quotations from television, taken completely at random from sources such as the broadcasts of sporting events or televised weather forecasts, as if he makes no distinction between lines heard on television and speech emanating from his own thoughts. Dylar, then, serves not merely as a comment on our therapeutic society and our desire to find medications to shield us from the effects of reality but also as a comment on the texture of postmodern life.

One of the most quintessentially postmodern episodes in White Noise is the one in which Gladney and Murray visit a tourist attraction known as “the most photographed barn in America,” advertised widely in the area via roadside signs. Barns themselves were once a symbol of an urban American culture that predates the consumer capitalism that began at the start of the twentieth century, an image of rural solidity and authenticity. This barn, though, is interesting simply as an object of representation, becoming a sort of postmodern simulacrum of a barn. As Murray puts it, “No one sees the barn. … Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn” (12).

Among other things, this episode evokes a bit of Americana in which barns, in the twentieth century, were often conscripted by the new consumerist discourse of advertising. Barns all over the American South, for example, were often painted with advertisements for a sort of primitive amusement park in Lookout Mountain, Georgia (near Chattanooga, Tennessee), known as “Rock City.” Clark Byers was hired to paint these barn advertisements in 1935 and he continued to do so until 1969, ultimately painting over 900 barn roofs and walls, in 19 states. Some of these Rock City barns can still be seen today.

The barns were probably effective as advertising, but they also became attractions in their own right, and the “most photographed” barn in White Noise can be seen as an heir to these barns. In both cases, the barns might be described as secondary attractions; in the first case, the barns are not particularly interesting in their own right but become so because of the ads they bear; in the second case, the barn is attractive to photographers not because of any special characteristics of its own but simply because it is billed as being attractive to photographers.

This barn, then, provides some important commentary on the nature of American society in the 1980s, though it is presented to us in a thoroughly comic mode. Indeed, one of the most postmodern characteristics of White Noise is its ability to convey dark, even tragic, material as comedy. Its characters, especially Gladney, undergo some extremely powerful emotional experiences, yet the presentation of these experiences in the narrative involves a flattening of affect that makes it possible to process these experiences as comedy. Joseph Dewey suggests that DeLillo is able to achieve this comedy because the book is not really about Gladney or the other characters but is instead about American society as a whole: “Like caustic cultural anatomists from Mark Twain to Kurt Vonnegut, from Herman Melville to Matt Groening, DeLillo uses character and situation to indict an era with evident glee and snarky wit. Here DeLillo lampoons, in turn, know-it-all scientists and doctors; pretentious academics; religious hypocrites enthralled by endtimes; fanatical consumers who dream in commercial jingles and murmur product names in their sleep; glassy-eyed television zombies terrorized by those moments when the screen darkens and they must face the banality of their lives; techno-addicts convinced that science can control nature itself; and supermarket drones who parse tabloids for evidence of the supernatural. DeLillo deploys the full range of satire’s most devastating effects: exaggeration, farce, understatement, juxtaposition, wit, parody, burlesque, irony, sarcasm. In this, White Noise is one of the most accomplished American satires since Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Saul Bellow’s Herzog a generation earlier” (231).

Academic Satire

Given that the narrator/protagonist of White Noise is a college professor, it is not surprising that much of the novel’s satire is aimed at academia and campus life. For example, the practice of having department chairs wear academic gowns when on campus suggests that the College-on-the-Hill might be more concerned with appearances than with intellectual substance, and the fact the gowns are not even authentic academic robes but merely simulated robes, consisting of short-sleeved tunics puckered at the shoulders, make them seem even more ridiculous and even less authentic as expressions of intellectual seriousness. Gladney is a successful academic per the traditional measures of performance, with well-attended lectures and publications in major journals. But “performance” here is the key word. Gladney’s faux-academic robe is a mere theatrical costume, embellished by the dark glasses he always wears when on campus and the considerable bulk he has added to his frame to make himself seem more imposing to his students and colleagues. All of these items, according to Gladney, are intended to add to his “aura” as an academic.

Of course, all of his colleagues are also concerned with their auras, making campus life a comic competition in which each one attempts to outdo the others. Meanwhile, much of the academic work that is done on the campus is presented as being of questionable seriousness. The group we actually see the most of is not, however, the faculty of Gladney’s department, but the faculty of the department with which they share a building, the “popular culture department, known officially as American environments. A curious group. The teaching staff is composed almost solely of New York emigres, 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” (9).

This department is headed by the “glowering” Stompanato, leader of a rather odd group of scholars: “All his teachers are male, wear rumpled clothes, need haircuts, cough into their armpits. Together they look like teamster officials assembled to identify the body of a mutilated colleague. The impression is one of pervasive bitterness, suspicion and intrigue” (9). The one exception to the homogeneity of the pop culture department is newcomer Murray Jay Siskind, a former sportswriter who has come to the College-on-the-Hill as a “visiting lecturer on living icons” (10). Murray is a bit taken aback by what he views as the surprising triviality of the topics being studied in his department. “I understand the music,” he tells Gladney, “I understand the movies, I even see how comic books can tell us things. But there are full professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes.” “It’s the only avant-garde we’ve got,” responds Gladney (10).

Oddly enough, Gladney makes an important point here. After all, more than one cultural historian has suggested that America’s most original contributions to world culture have possibly come from the discourse of advertising. Moreover, as I discuss further below, White Noise suggests that advertising is a dominant discourse in American society, so that studying materials such as those found on the back of cereal boxes or on other consumer packaging might very well be the most effective means for a scholar to develop a sophisticated understanding of American life[1]. In any case, Murray himself is not exactly a conventional, old-school scholar. He’s not sure exactly where he wants to focus his research and tries several different approaches, including hanging out with the Gladney children precisely because he feels that the marketing system of American consumerism is aimed primarily at children.

What Murray really wants is to find a successful gimmick that might catapult him to academic success. Indeed, he befriends Gladney largely because he feels Gladney’s work might provide a model for his own potential project of making the study of Elvis Presley into a respectable academic project. After all, Gladney has made a name for himself by establishing the entirely new field of “Hitler Studies,” which he has built so successfully that the College-on-the-Hill now has an entire department of Hitler Studies, of which Gladney is, of course, the chair. Again, there might be a certain logic to studying Hitler, on the basis of the old notion that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Indeed, the official catalog description of Gladney’s principal course, “Advanced Nazism,” sounds pretty legitimate (except for the rather comical course title). This course is, according to this description, “designed to cultivate historical perspective, theoretical rigor and mature insight into the continuing mass appeal of fascist tyranny, with special emphasis on parades, rallies and uniforms, three credits, written reports” (25).

The problem with Gladney, Murray, and the scholars in the pop culture department is not that their topics are inherently preposterous but that they themselves do not appear to take their work seriously. Gladney clearly has hit on the idea of Hitler Studies not because he wants to make a contribution to resisting fascism (or to secretly promoting fascist ideas) but simply because he has decided that this field offered him an opportunity quickly to build a reputation and professional standing for himself. Meanwhile, his work shows no sign of moral outrage at the historical horrors perpetrated in the name of Nazism. As with virtually everything else in the postmodern world of White Noise, these men are simply playing the roles of scholars and teachers: they are simply performing.

Possibly because he realizes that his studies of Hitler are merely a performance, Gladney seems to have a bad case of the “impostor syndrome” that bedevils so many academics. He does seem to carry a copy of Mein Kampf with him virtually everywhere he goes (though he doesn’t often seem to read in it), but otherwise Gladney shows few signs of genuine devotion to his field of study. In addition, his sense of being a charlatan as a scholar of Hitler Studies is seriously exacerbated by his deepest and darkest academic secret: the fact that he knows no German whatsoever. As far as he can tell, most other scholars who have followed him into the field do know German, though they, of course, might be faking it also. Unfortunately, the field has now attracted a number of native speakers of German, making Gladney’s situation as a non-speaker even more problematic. Thus, Gladney spends much of the novel frantically (but not very successfully) trying to learn German—toward a big Hitler Studies conference he will be hosting at the College-on-the-Hill. He then manages to survive the conference and even to use some awkward German in his keynote address, but he spends most of the conference hiding in his office for fear that he might be expected to converse in German with some of the other attendees.

Cumulatively, the implication of the novel’s representation of Gladney’s work is clear. Academia is a competitive world in which academics struggle for professional success in direct competition with other academics, seeking whatever competitive advantage they can find. Often, their work takes the directions it does out of sheer opportunism, out of a perception that working in a certain area will lead to recognition and success, regardless of whether it achieves anything that is actually useful. Often their work is a sheer matter of performance and theater, where appearances are more important than substance. Which mean, of course, that academia, far from standing part in an “Ivory Tower,” is infected with very much the same diseases as the rest of American society. DeLillo’s academia is, in fact, a microcosm of America at large.

Social Satire: Routinization and Consumerism

In addition to his focus on the mediatization of American society, discussed above, DeLillo focuses his satirical critique in White Noise on two interrelated aspects of American society in the 1980s: the routinization of experience and rampant consumerism, each of which can be seen as a natural consequence of capitalism. The lives of Gladney and his family are informed by a mind-numbing sameness, with each day having essentially the same texture as every other day. And that texture largely revolves around the consumption of standardized consumer goods, which are so ever-present that Gladney’s daughter Steffie even murmurs the name of a model of Japanese automobile in her sleep, suggesting that even our dreams have been colonized by consumerism.

The tedium of daily life in White Noise can be associated quite directly with the process of routinization that Max Weber identified as a crucial consequence of the historical evolution of capitalism. For Weber, this evolution has led to the gradual enlistment of all of the resources of the world in the interest of the generation of wealth, thus converting all aspects of life in the world into economic assets. Further, this conversion is the culmination of a long historical process of “elimination of magic from the world which had begun with the Hebrew prophets, and in conjunction with Hellenistic scientific thought, had repudiated all magical means to salvation as superstition and sin” (Weber 105). For Weber, the basic worldview of capitalism reduces everything in the world to an instrument of capitalist productivity, organized, rationalized, scheduled. I would also add that the rise of consumer capitalism, beginning in the final years of the nineteenth century, further accelerated this process, stripping human experience of anything and everything that can’t be rationalized, routinized, packaged, and marketed. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism—originally published in 1904 and 1905, just as the rise of consumer capitalism was shifting into high gear—Weber describes how capitalism (with Protestantism as its accessory and ideological handmaiden) produces a world bereft of magic, in which everything makes sense, everything has a price, and nothing has real value.

As Gladney tells his father-in-law in White Noise, “Routine things can be deadly, Vern, carried to extremes. I have a friend who says that’s why people take vacations. Not to relax or find excitement or see new places. To escape the death that exists in routine things” (237). Soon afterward, when Gladney issues forth on what he believes will be a mission of murder, it is clear that his decision to kill Willie Mink is much more than the emotional response of a cuckolded husband. Rather, it is an expression of a much broader revolt against routinization in general. Tired of going through the motions and following the rules, Gladney (emboldened by a belief that he is nearing death) seems intent on committing as many transgressions as possible, leading up to murder, the ultimate transgression. He steals a car, runs a red light, then bursts through a toll gate without paying the toll: “What’s another quarter to a state that is billions in debt? What’s twenty-five cents when we are talking about a nine-thousand-dollar stolen car? This must be how people escape the pull of the earth, the gravitational leaf-flutter that brings us hourly closer to dying. Simply stop obeying. Steal instead of buy, shoot instead of talk” (288).

It should come as no surprise, of course, that, after committing this string of preliminary offenses, Gladney falls short in committing his final crime, ultimately rushing the wounded Mink off to seek medical attention. In so doing, Gladney shows how thoroughly he has been programmed to follow the rules, after all. He also meets a nurse/nun and is somewhat taken aback by her no-nonsense approach to religion. This woman clearly does not believe in God or in the literal truth of any other aspect of her religion. Instead, she admits that her religious devotion is a mere performance, a pretense: “Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible” (304).

The artificiality of the nun’s belief is another indication of the postmodern nature of the world depicted in the book. Her performance of a religion in which she does not believe is merely the carrying out of professional duties, just as Gladney’s work as a professor is a performance with absolutely no supporting conviction that his work in Hitler Studies makes a genuine contribution to American social or intellectual life. In the nun’s case, though, the lack of belief is a particularly clear indication of the thoroughly routinized nature of this world, a world that is entirely bereft of magic, with all aspects of reality reduced to elements of the capitalist economic system. But this system is more directly addressed throughout the novel in the way that every moment of daily life seems saturated with advertising, marketing, and a nonstop stream of commodities.

The novel begins with a classic scene of campus life: as the new school year is set to begin, parents and students arrive in a caravan of station wagons loaded with all of the items the students are taking to their dorms from home. Delillo takes the time to supply us with an extensive list of the items being unloaded—at the risk of getting his narrative off to a slow start. And, indeed, this list is very telling, including everything from basics such as clothing and blankets, to educational essentials such as personal computers, to reasonable luxury items such as stereos and refrigerators, to almost comical items such as saddles, inflated rafts boats, and bows and arrows—not to mention an array of junk foods and even “controlled substances” (3). The point is clear, though: these students might be leaving home (many for the first time) to explore a new world of new ideas, but they basically can’t go anywhere without taking along a large collection of consumer goods, without which they would presumably be unable to function. These goods (and the station wagons that deliver them) are, in fact, crucial markers of identity, the possession of which assures all of these families that they belong here, serving for the parents as signs that they have provided their children with “normal” lives: “This assembly of station wagons, as much as anything they might do in the course of the year, more than formal liturgies or laws, tells the parents they are a collection of the like-minded and the spiritually akin, a people, a nation” (4).

Such consumer goods, in fact, are prominent throughout the novel, as are the advertisements that market them, filling the air with nonstop jingles and slogans and providing a sort of soundtrack to the lives of the characters, apparently giving them some sort of comfort. And then, of course, there are the trashy tabloid articles that Babette reads to Old Man Treadwell, offering him some sort of unspecified comfort. But these articles also offer a window into one of the more postmodern aspects of American culture: “news” reports that are completely disengaged from any actual events or material reality, manufactured simply as lurid entertainment, reflecting the breakdown between fact and fiction that is a crucial symptom of life in the postmodern era[2]. These reports also address the routinization of life in this era, suggesting that the readers of such tabloids are so desperate to experience, or at least read about, something out of the ordinary that they can consume with pleasure even the most preposterous of articles.

As Gladney increasingly reaches a point of desperation leading to his would-be murderous rebellion against routinization, he also rebels against consumerism with a frenzy in which he begins to try to rid himself of the tyranny of the things he has been accumulating through his life: “I went home and started throwing things away. I threw away fishing lures, dead tennis balls, torn luggage. I ransacked the attic for old furniture, discarded lampshades, warped screens, bent curtain rods. I threw away picture frames, shoe trees, umbrella stands, wall brackets, highchairs and cribs, collapsible TV trays, beanbag chairs, broken turntables. I threw away shelf paper, faded stationery, manuscripts of articles I’d written, galley proofs of the same articles, the journals in which the articles were printed. The more things I threw away, the more I found. The house was a sepia maze of old and tired things. There was an immensity of things, an overburdening weight, a connection, a mortality. I stalked the rooms, flinging things into cardboard boxes. Plastic electric fans, burnt-out toasters, Star Trek needlepoints. It took well over an hour to get everything down to the sidewalk” (249–50).

By the end of the novel, though, Gladney and most other things in Blacksmith seem to have returned to normal, though the town’s inhabitants do experience one final consumerist crisis when the local supermarket decides to rearrange the items on its shelves, leading to panic when the shoppers discover that items are no longer located where they expect them to be: “There is a sense of wandering now, an aimless and haunted mood, sweet-tempered people taken to the edge” (309–10). It is clear that the citizens of Blacksmith depend upon easy access to consumer goods in order to continue to feel that their lives are safe, orderly, and privileged. Anything that disrupts this access, even momentarily, triggers a genuine emotional crisis.

White Noise as Climate Fiction

At first glance, White Noise does not obviously address the topic of climate change. On the other hand, that the central event of the novel is a toxic spill that pollutes the air of Blacksmith with a deadly toxin could certainly be taken as a reference to the way in which modern industrial society has damaged the natural environment. Even before this event, Gladney informs us that the sunsets in Blacksmith seem to have changed in recent years, suggesting that modern industrial society might have already begun to change the natural environment, even before the airborne toxic event. We are informed that Jack’s teenage son Heinrich, only fourteen, is already beginning to lose his hair, leading Jack to wonder if some sort of toxicity in the environment (foreshadowing the airborne toxic event) might be causing this hair loss, in addition to changing the local sunsets:

“Did his mother consume some kind of gene-piercing substance when she was pregnant? Am I at fault somehow? Have I raised him, unwittingly, in the vicinity of a chemical dump site, in the path of air currents that carry industrial wastes capable of producing scalp degeneration, glorious sunsets? (People say the sunsets around here were not nearly so stunning thirty or forty years ago.)” (22).

The family tends to enjoy watching these stunning sunsets, except for Heinrich, “either because he distrusted wholesome communal pleasures or because he believed there was something ominous in the modern sunset” (61). Ominous, indeed, though the sources of the changes in the local sunsets over decades—and in the weeks since the airborn toxic event—are never identified. It just seems natural to attribute any apparent change in the environment to the impact of modern industrial civilization, because everyone (even climate change deniers), at some level, suspects that the natural environment is being changed by damaging human activity.

Meanwhile, after the crisis of the airborne toxic event has passed, the locals suspect that this event continues to exercise an influence on the environment in the form of the even more brilliantly colorful sunsets that are now typical in the town. Granted, this effect would seem almost to be a benefit, but no one seems to understand exactly what is causing these colorful sunsets, leaving open the possibility that they might be a marker of ongoing damage to the environment. Thus, Jack and Babette stop on a parkway overpass to observe one of these amazing sunsets, which (since the event) have become “almost unbearably beautiful. Not that there was a measurable connection. If the special character of Nyodene Derivative (added to the everyday drift of effluents, pollutants, contaminants and deliriants) had caused this aesthetic leap from already brilliant sunsets to broad towering ruddled visionary skyscapes, tinged with dread, no one had been able to prove it” (162).

Later, Gladney describes these new sunsets as “postmodern,” though that description is not explained. Indeed, it is immediately followed by a suggestion that these sunsets are “rich in romantic imagery,” which is not something that is typical of the postmodern (216). It is almost as if Gladney is reaching for a description of these sunsets but is unable to find the appropriate language or analogy. Meanwhile, he observes this later sunset with Winnie, noting to her that the brilliance of these sunsets might be diminishing. When she says she would miss the sunsets were they to go away, Gladney suggests that the “toxic residue in the atmosphere” might be diminishing, in response to which she notes, “There’s a school of thought that says it’s not residue from the cloud that causes the sunsets. It’s residue from the microorganisms that ate the cloud” (216).

Thus, in keeping with the uncertainty of interpretation in the postmodern world, no one really knows exactly what is causing these sunsets, other than the natural suspicion that the airborne toxic event is involved. There are, however, signs of toxicity in the environment throughout the novel, as if modern life itself might be inimical to human life. Early in the novel, for example, the grade school in Blacksmith is evacuated and closed after both students and teachers begin to exhibit odd symptoms. However, given all the environmental dangers that accompany modern life, no one is able to identify the cause of these symptoms:

“No one knew what was wrong. Investigators said it could be the ventilating system, the paint or varnish, the foam insulation, the electrical insulation, the cafeteria food, the rays emitted by microcomputers, the asbestos fireproofing, the adhesive on shipping containers, the fumes from the chlorinated pool, or perhaps something deeper, finer-grained, more closely woven into the basic state of things” (35).

The apparent contamination of the school and the airborne toxic event both bring home to Blacksmith the kinds of disasters that supposedly occur only in impoverished Third World locations that are exposed to dangers from which the privileged citizens of the town are accustomed to seeing on television but from which they are accustomed to feeling protected. Thus, when reports of the accident that causes the toxic event are first received, Gladney assures Babette that they are not the kind of people who have to be worried about such things:

“These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters. People in low-lying areas get the floods, people in shanties get the hurricanes and tornados. I’m a college professor. Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods? We live in a neat and pleasant town near a college with a quaint name. These things don’t happen in places like Blacksmith” (112).

But, of course, such things can potentially happen anywhere, and the Gladneys soon have to evacuate their comfortable suburban home in order to escape an approaching toxic cloud. At that, their escape is not entirely successful, and Gladney himself is momentarily exposed to a toxic gas, an exposure that might prove to be fatal. This reminder that the kinds of disasters we are accustomed to watching on television as they occur in remote locations can also occur in the most idyllic of American towns can certainly be taken as a commentary on assumptions of American privilege and exceptionalism. But it is also the case that climate change and the dramatic dangers it brings are inherently global and that the effects of climate change not only can be seen anywhere but will, in fact, be seen everywhere. In this sense, White Noise can be read as a cautionary tale that warns American readers against the sanguine assumption that they will somehow be spared the impact of climate change.

Works Cited

Baya, Adina. “‘’Relax and enjoy these disasters’’: News Media Consumption and Family Life in Don DeLillo’s White Noise.” Neohelicon, vol. 41, 2014, pp. 159–174

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. 1985, Penguin Classics Reprint Edition, 2016.

Dewey, Joseph. “The Dark Humor of White Noise.” Dark Humor. Edited by Harold Bloom and Blake Hobby, Bloom’s Literary Criticism; 2010, pp. 229–39.

Frow, John. “The Last Things Before the Last: Notes on White Noise.” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 89, no. 2, 1990, pp. 413–29.

Marinaccio, Rocco. “Slow Food/White Noise: Food and Eating in Don DeLillo’s Postmodern America.” Literature Interpretation Theory, vol. 26, 2015, pp. 62–84.

Michael, Magali. “Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985).” Handbook of the American Novel of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, Edited by Timo Müller, Walter de Gruyter, 2017.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1904–1905. Translated by Talcott Parsons, 1930, Routledge, 1995.


[1] That cereal is a food might be significant as well, food being the ultimate example of an object that is literally intended for consumption. On the treatment of food in general as part of the examination of consumerism in White Noise, see Marinaccio.

[2] For a broader discussion of the consumption of news media in White Noise, see Baya.