White Noise: Part II - The Airborne Toxic Event

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One evening in early January, Heinrich brings the news that a tank car has derailed. He can see a black mass of smoke beyond the river. The fire engines are not going near it, so he assumes the spill is highly toxic. Later that evening, Jack joins Heinrich in the attic, and Heinrich tells him that the chemical spilled is called Nyodene Derivative or Nyodene D, which is known to be toxic to rats. The authorities are saying it can cause skin irritation and sweaty palms in humans. They then update that information, giving the symptoms as nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath. Heinrich is confident the toxic cloud will not come their way. He adds that part of the interstate has been closed, and Babette says that people have been warned to stay out of the area. They hear police sirens blaring. The family is still confident, however, that they are in no danger.


Jack looks again at the scene, seeing floodlights, army helicopters and colored lights from police cars. He can see the tank car, with fumes arising from it, and men in Mylex suits and masks moving  cautiously through the haze.


Heinrich says the symptoms have been updated again. Now, Nyodene D is supposed to cause heart palpitations and déjà vu. The authorities are calling the spill an “airborne toxic event” (117). Influenced by the descriptions of symptoms, Denise is starting to have fits of vomiting.  Local air-raid sirens sound as the family eats dinner together. Next, a fire captain’s car goes by, making an announcement through a loudspeaker that everyone is to evacuate their homes.


They grab some belongings and within twenty minutes are in the car, taking the main route out of town and following directions to an abandoned Boy Scout camp.  Snow begins to fall, and traffic moves at a crawl. They pass the scene of a serious car accident. As they pass a man in a Mylex suit and an abandoned Winnebago, Steffie says she has seen that before, and Jack assumes that this example of déjà vu means that Steffie is merely suggestible to what she may have heard about possible symptoms. Symptoms have been updated again to include coma and miscarriage.


They stop for gas. A few minutes later, back on the road, they get a clear view of the toxic cloud, lit up by army helicopter lights. They arrive at the designated area and find the place awash with rumor. No one seems to know for sure what is going on. Jack and the family find themselves fairly comfortable in a barracks. It is crowded, but supplies are plentiful. Heinrich seems to have become an expert on the toxic event and people gather around him to hear what he has to say. He tells them that once Nyodene D gets into the soil, it has a lifespan of forty years.


A black man who is a Jehovah’s Witness comes to talk to Jack, telling him that the accumulation of natural and man-made disasters mean that God’s kingdom is coming. He talks with certainty about life after death.


Denise tells Jack that he was exposed to the toxic cloud when he got out of the car to buy gas. Jack waits in line to be interviewed about it. He gives his a medical history to a technician who types the data into a computer and then asks him more questions. Jack says he must have been exposed to the toxins for two and a half minutes. The technician enters more data. He tells Jack that Nyodene D has a lifespan of thirty years in the human body. Jack feels that death has entered him. He returns to join his family, and then goes to listen to Babette reading accounts of life after death, taken from supermarket tabloids, to a group of old people. She also reads dramatic predictions by psychics about the future that emphasize apocalyptic events that somehow end happily, with benefits and progress for all humanity.


It is getting to nighttime and people are settling in for the night. Jack talks with Heinrich, who laments the fact that although modern man has great technical knowledge, the average person would not be able to explain it in any detail that would make a Stone Age man better off. Jack goes outside where he meets Murray, who is negotiating with a group of prostitutes in a car. Jack admits to Murray that he has been frightened of death since he was in his twenties, and now death has entered him in the form of Nyodene D. Murray offers him no solace, instead explaining his theory of déjà vu. Jack leaves Murray to the prostitutes. It turns out that Murray does not want sex; he only wants one of the prostitutes to allow him to perform the Heimlich maneuver on her.


Jack hears rumors about men in Mylex suits dying, and of UFOs in the area. He finds some comfort in watching his young children sleeping. He then goes to sleep himself, but is quickly awoken by Denise. There is an announcement that the toxic cloud is heading their way and they must move. Jack and the family run to their car as rains falls, which soon turns to snow. They head for Iron City, where food and shelter will be provided. It is dawn when they arrive, and they find themselves with forty other families in an abandoned karate building. A rumor circulates that technicians were going to plant genetically engineered microrganisms in the toxic cloud that would break it down and eliminate it.


At about seven in the evening, a man walks around the room with a small TV set, complaining that there is nothing on TV about the toxic event. He thinks they have suffered a lot and have earned the right to some TV coverage.


Nine days later they are all allowed to go home.



The role played by the media in creating reality is emphasized in this section. Jack’s daughters start to show symptoms of Nyodene D exposure simply because those symptoms have been announced on television or radio. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the girls have heard the announcement or not; what the media says has a habit of creeping in, via its “waves and radiation,” into the collective consciousness. Television has the immense power of suggestion, because if something appears on TV, people automatically, even unconsciously, believe it. 


At the end of the section, the  man’s disgust at the fact that there is no TV coverage of their plight hints at the fact that being on TV represents a sort of validation, a vital endorsement of what people experience in their lives. If their disaster is not on TV, it leaves them feeling cheated, as if they are lacking something. It is almost as if what is happening to them is not really happening, at least not in the sense that they can fully, vividly experience it, so attuned are they to the fact that reality is mediated to them through television. 


The several pages devoted to excerpts from the items that Babette reads to the old people are significant because again they make the point that popular culture, as here expressed in wild stories in supermarket tabloids, actually serve a positive function in giving people hope. It does not matter whether they are “true” or not. But as Jack notices, the disasters and solutions that the tabloids report, even if they are made up, are not so very different from a reality in which microorganisms can be sent out to devour toxic clouds. The fact that the old people do not seem surprised by what they hear, shows, according to Jack, that they “recognized the predictions of the psychics as events so near to happening that they had to be shaped in advance to our needs and wishes” (146).


Jack seems to have picked up from Murray his observations about the signs and symbols of popular culture. When in her sleep, Steffie keeps calling out “Toyota Celica,” which she must have heard in an advertisement, the two words seem to him like some strange mantra, charged with esoteric meaning, “part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant” (155). The name of an automobile, then, repeated many times in TV advertising, becomes part of the complex network of “waves and radiation” that make up the “white noise” of society. However, what the ritual meaning of “Toyota Celica” might actually be, Jack declines to guess at. It is simply part of a mystery, part of the secret connnectedness of things that in a sense acts as a bulwark against death, giving Jack what he craves, “a moment of splendid transcendence” (155). 


White Noise is very much a novel of the 1980s, reflecting topical concerns. DeLillo was unusually prescient in shaping it around the “airborne toxic event,” since almost at the same time as the novel was published, there was an industrial accident in Bhopal, India. A Union Carbide pesticide plant released 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas, killing between 2,500 and 5,000 people. This remains one of the worst such disasters in the world. 

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