2.3 White Noise
There are few books that inspire a second read. Unlike movies or television programs that have a finite timeline, a book is a commitment. One such book I have returned to multiple times – probably the only book I’ve read more than twice – is Don DeLillo’s White Noise. The chirping sound was just the radiator.
I don’t know why. It was not like Christmas or any other holiday. A specific time of the year did not arrive and my calendar indicated I needed to read White Noise again. No, the book was referenced, an image conjured, an idea appeared, a thought that originated from reading the book presented itself as fully formed and it became necessary I revisited the text.
Blue jeans tumbled in the dryer.
What is it about a book or any other piece of work that resonates with one person and not another? Why can some people pick up White Noise, shrug and say, “Yeah, s’okay.” While I will profess at the top of my lungs to anyone that will listen about its firm place in contemporary literature – an area I’m obviously an expert in. Also, the relevance of White Noise not just as a book, but of its prophetic value in understanding why and how society has progressed since its publication 25 years ago.
We believed something lived in the basement.
White Noise tells the story of Jack Gladney and his wife Babette, both married several times and with a union of kids from multiple partners. They live in a small town and the constant hum of the modern world – television, radio, appliances – constantly echoes their actions and conversations.
We listened to the gently plummeting stream of nighttime traffic.
Jack established the department of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill, wears medieval robes and peers through thick black heavy framed dark glasses while presiding over his students. Babette is his confidant, his most successful life partner and together they run a household of post-modern children.
The TV said: “Until Florida surgeons attached an artificial flipper.”
Jack’s son Heinrich plays chess through the mail with a convicted killer and has a friend named Orest Mercator who is training to break the world record of sitting the longest amount of days in a cage with poisonous snakes. Denise helps her parents navigate very adult situations. Nine-year-old Steffie plays a pretend victim of a toxic spill for a government emergency agency called SIMUVAC. In addition, Murray Siskind befriends Jack at the college, discusses car crash montages as teaching aides and explores his desire to compliment Hitler studies with an academic focus on Elvis Presley.
The networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies.
These are just a few of the characters that broaden out the first part of the story. They help create a world that feels completely constructed but natural at the same time. The weirdness of all the characters is sometimes so exaggerated, but it manages to come around full circle and feels completely rooted in real life. Besides, family life is constructed.
The system was invisible, which made it all the more impressive.
The middle of the book is taken up by ‘The Airborne Toxic Event’. A black cloud appears over the town after a tank car derails and releases toxic gases into the air. The residents are evacuated and the cloud seems to chase Jack and his family to the evacuation centre. Jack is exposed to the potentially lethal molecules in the air and receives information that says he may die from the effects of the toxic waste at some point in the future.
The TV said: “And other trends that could dramatically impact your portfolio.”
The emergency is averted but a more personal one comes to the forefront. Throughout the book, Jack and Babette continually ask each other: Who will die first? Now, with Jack’s potential death sentence, they have an answer. Jack finds out Babette has been taking a very unusual type of pill and acquired them through means that will threaten their marriage. The final third of the book revolves around understanding what this new radical form of pharmaceutical medication means to Jack and his preoccupation with his death sentence.
I bought fifty feet of Manila hemp just to have it around.
Permeating throughout the book are moments illuminating the white noise that surrounds the family. These elements of modern life are constantly at work but mostly go unnoticed. The book forces the reader to wonder what affect technology and modern conveniences have, not on our actual mortality, but on our perception of our mortality.
The small boy remained at the TV set, within inches of the dark screen, crying softly, uncertainly, in low heaves and swells.
Perhaps the image that sticks in my head the most is ‘The Most Photographed Barn in America’. Jack and Murray visit the tourist attraction and on arrival, realize it is just a regular barn, except for the crowd of people snapping photographs at shuttering speeds. There is nothing special about it, someone at some point provided this label and people started to believe.
We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.
I have no idea what this means, but I feel it is important.
What was the barn like before it was photographed? What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.
Another reason I brought up White Noise revolves around an incident in my life that was strongly influenced by the novel. Books provide ideas but sometimes those ideas are not necessarily something we should act on. Two years have passed and I feel it is safe to talk about this particular experience.
I mentioned above that in the novel, Jack’s son Heinrich plays chess through the mail with a prison inmate. Two years ago, I was reading Harper’s Magazine and at the back, there was a small advertisement that said:
Prisoner Seeks Pen Pals. Has two graduate degrees, traveled extensively internationally, enjoys music and writing letters. Write to: PEN PAL, P.O. Box xxxxx, Pittsburgh, PA, xxxxx
Intrigued, I felt this was a sign since I had just finished reading White Noise for the third time and here was a situation similar to something found in the book. It was an opportunity to do something out of character, to insert some kind of danger into my otherwise normalized existence. Plus, I was interested in discovering how someone in prison had ‘traveled extensively internationally’.
I wrote a very simple letter. Introduced myself but did not provide many specific details, just enough to show that I was serious and interested to develop the correspondence. I was dying to know why he was in jail – what crime did he commit? Naturally, I resisted asking this question, out of fear of offending him. He would tell me when the time was right.
Sure enough, two weeks later, I received a reply of a similar nature: Introduced himself, talked briefly of the places he has visited (China, Russia, Mongolia) and what his job was before his incarceration (accountant). He did not reveal the crime he committed. I had traveled to China myself and wrote about my experiences there.
Accountant. That can mean so many different things. Money laundering? Skimming off the top? Creative bookkeeping? I admit now that I was a bit disappointed.
And so, we exchanged a letter about once a month. He told me about his loneliness in prison, about the food and the other inmates. I told him about my loneliness in the city, my bad cooking and my friends. His favorite book was The Count of Monte Cristo, mine was White Noise.
After almost a year, he asked me to visit him, provided an address for the penitentiary, a list of requests and instructions. I didn’t respond right away and had to face some realistic truths. Did I want to be friends with someone in jail? Especially when I didn’t know his offense? In regards to this offense: Should I look past it? See the humanity that existed on paper through our letters?
I have family in Pittsburgh and decided to use this as a covert reason to be visiting the city. It also gave me a place to stay. The night before my scheduled appointment at the prison, I spread out the items I brought along as per his list of requests: A roll of soft tissue toilet paper, a Twix bar, an X-Acto knife, a bar of Irish Spring soap and a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. I followed his instructions: In the middle of the pages of the book, I cut an X-Acto sized space through the pages, inserted the knife and closed the covers. Even from up close, the book looked harmless.
I didn’t know what he wanted with the X-Acto knife and I didn’t ask. Maybe I was aiding in something much more serious than I realized or perhaps he had a new found interest in arts and crafts.
The next morning I drove out in a rental car to the prison. It was a warm day but I wore three layers to hide the perspiration collecting under my arms. The guards looked through my items, picked up the book but did not open it. I came face to face with my pen pal, he was short, wore glasses that were held together by masking tape and had a nervous air about him instead of the professorial image I had in my head after all our letters. He certainly did not look like a seasoned traveler. We barely talked, all he wanted were the items on the list. He went quickly through each one and stopped at the book. He looked at me – the first time he actually raised his head – and I gave a little nod. In the end, I chickened out. I left before he realized the book was empty and didn't include the X-Acto knife.
And that was it. My flight back to Toronto was in the evening and I returned without thinking too much about anything. All I will say is this: We never wrote to each other again and I don’t know what he wanted the X-Acto knife for.
This is about all I can talk about at this point in time. The rest of the story will have to wait. Two years later, just last month, I received a letter in the mail from him. I finally found out what crime he committed.
All I know is this: Books make you do the craziest things.