White Noise at once seemed terribly dated and full of cultural insights that blew me away. My best example of the latter—I can’t find it in the book so am not quoting exactly: If you found yourself among hunter-gatherers, would you be able to bring one thing to them from our world. A car? A computer? An air-conditioner. I wouldn’t and I don’t think most others could either, even if you understood in some detail—as I don’t—how they work and how they’re built.
The main character—and also the narrator—of White Noise is Jack (professionally J. A. K.) Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies at a College in a small town in what seems to be New Jersey. In the words of Jayne Ann Phillips, who reviewed the novel for the New York Times when it was published in 1985, Gladney is “one of the most ironic, intelligent, grimly funny voices yet to comment on life in present-day America.” Gladney and his wife Babette live in a blended family, with children belonging to him, her, and them and are occasionally visited by other children who don’t life with them. Gladney has two girls, 9 and 19, who are full sisters from two different marriages to the same woman. I think he had 4 wives and 5 marriages.
There are two major and many minor plot events in a plot that frankly isn’t very plotlike. The first is the “airborne toxic event” when a toxic cloud from an industrial accident causes the Gladneys and everyone else in a large section of the state to evacuate. But the cloud, with includes a dangerous chemical called Nyodene Deritive (a byproduct of the manufacture of insecticide), blows with the wind, and is at one point in front of the crowd escaping along freeways in the middle of a blizzard. Nevertheless it was a more orderly evacuation than that leaving Houston in the face of Hurricane Rita and the accommodations for the evacuees were splendid compared to New Orleans Superdome during Katrina. The camps were managed by men in Mylar suites who work for SIMUVAC an emergency organization delighted to have a real crisis—we see it in later chapters endlessly conducting simulations and recruiting school kids and housewife and training them to be victims. There was even plenty of gasoline, though when Gladney gets out of the car to pump the gas, he’s exposed to Nyodene D which is rumored to cause all sorts of symptoms, from convulsions to déjà vu, symptoms which Jack’s daughters experience immediately after they hear each on described on the radio. As the crisis diminishes, everyone worries about the effects of the tiny microbes they seeded the cloud with to neutralize toxic chemical. Soon all that’s left are the spectacular sunsets which attract crowds at the freeway overpass.
Jack is told he’ll probably die prematurely because of his exposure. He doesn’t tell Babette who’s already obsessed about his dying first and leaving her alone. The second big plot item focuses on the mysterious pills Babette turns out to have been taking, pills, which, when Jack has them analyzed reveal a unique delivery system which is not yet on the market and an experimental drug called Dylar that’s supposed to banish the fear of death.
It turns out that what the “white noise” of contemporary society—the details of which permeate the book—obscures is death. Only Wilder (interesting name), Babette and Jack’s youngest is young enough to not to know he will die and therefore unafraid of death. The novel ends with Wilder riding his tricycle across all the lanes of the freeway.