In the third section of the book Babette is cheating on Jack, hoping to gain access to a drug (Dylar) that treats people who fear dying. Clearly DeLillo is playing off of society's fear of death. Eventually Jack kills the man Babette was having liaisons with.
White Noise was published in 1985, which makes DeLillo something of a clairvoyant because the author reflects on "…the way the mediations of television map the realm of desire in the space of the supermarket and the shopping mall" -- and today's Home Shopping Network offers exactly "…the intertwined spheres of desire that DeLillo's novel so suggestively connects" (Duvall, 2003, 188). Beyond those links, Duvall references critic Paul Cantor who believes White Noise is in a very real way "…concerned with showing parallels between German fascism and contemporary American culture" (188).
Critic Mark Conroy believes that Jack Gladney's life is coming apart -- and has been "in severe drift for many years" -- because it needs what Conroy terms "several registers of traditional authority in order to stay together" (Conroy, 1994, 1). Those registers of traditional authority are under "attack" not from an American revolution but simply from "those acids of modernity" (Conroy, 1). The postmodern writer uses characters like Gladney and situations like Gladney finds himself in to build a case for cynicism vis-a-vis society's failings and challenges.
Conroy goes on to assert that there are four "master narratives of cultural transmission" in the universe that Gladney is living in: a) the "familial" (people are linked to their forebears through "blood tie"); b) the "civic" (this is the culture relating to traditions and duties in the community that people are expected to fulfill); c) the "humanist" (this relates to the "patrimony of western learning held in trust by the university"); and d) the "religious" (this links to that "larger lineage from the ancestral dead") (Conroy, 1).
The scattered marriage legacy of Gladney represents a family tree that Conroy suspects has "no trunk" and indeed, rather than passing on "of wisdom" that society expects of older generations, Gladney and Babette cling to the television as their main source of "information and even guidance" (Conroy, 1). Here again postmodernism peeks out from within the narrative to critique the obsession that Americans have with television, and the mindless, constant litany of silliness and pathos that is gained from television.
As to the college town, "Blacksmith," it isn't like contemporary college towns that readers may be aware of. it's shabby and run down, and the houses are showing signs of "neglect," Conroy continues. Conroy projects that in fact, "Blacksmith" is nothing but a "backdrop for the careers of the professors" and the College-on-the-Hill is a "phony establishment" where Gladney happens to be employed. The miserable condition of the town of Blacksmith is a "sign of the times," DeLillo writes, on page 170. And so, the juxtaposition of Gladney and Babette gaining knowledge and insights from the television tube while the college is nothing but a phony place where professors are made to feel import is clearly taking a page from postmodernism.
Signs of the pretentiousness that some uppity -- yet pithy -- professors have been known to exhibit can be clearly seen in this novel, as Gladney never really presents highly intellectual or challenging Socratic dialogue to his students. Indeed, his "flights of rhetorical exuberance" in front of his students "have little to do with the Third Reich" (his supposed field of expertise). Rather they have a lot to do with his own "…neuroses and obsessions," Conroy explains (3).
Conroy presents a passage from Gladney that poignantly illustrates his neurosis: "I found myself saying…'All plots tend to move deathward. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers' plots, narrative plots that are part of children's games. We edge nearer to death every time we plot…' "Is this true? Why did I say it? What does it mean?" (DeLillo, 26). Readers see again his obsession with death, but Conroy wonders appropriately why didn't Gladney ask himself these questions prior to saying them out loud? He can't be a complete idiot, given that he actually got the degrees to climb the ladder to professor.
One answer could potentially be that given his apparently flimsy intellect and superficial knowledge -- DeLillo's metaphor for phoniness in America's intellectual circles in the 1980s -- the sound of his own voice uttering these pathetically shallow lines makes them "portentous rather than silly by virtue of his having spoken them" (Conroy, 3).
In Conroy's view of why DeLillo presents Gladney as such a faker, the critic figures that the "professoriate, like the media idols they study and strive to emulate," achieve a sense of authority and power "…not from any innate ability or from credentials but from personal magnetism" (Conroy, 3). If not from magnetism, then a professor like Gladney may come by his apparent authority merely because he stands up there in front of a class of presumed learners in an "enunciatively role" -- i.e., just being there brings a sense of power and authority albeit he is a pathetically phony person wearing the clothes of competence and knowledge (Conroy, 3).
And according to critic Lou F. Caton, Gladney isn't the only character showing signs that the educational system is spurious at best. The cars that students drive "…as a stream of machines slowly weaving through a pastoral landscape" suggests that the students attending the college are cookie cutter creatures, products of "…an assembly-line culture" (Caton, 1997, 1). In the procession of station wagons that DeLillo writes about seems to Caton to mirror a kind of "…mechanical pilgrimage or industrial wagon train" (2).
This scene brings thoughts of a "metallic snake sliding and easing itself into the center of the university," an apparent "residue of the industrial age," Caton continues (2). Even the students are part of the mechanical / un-intellectual setting as they "spring" out of their cars. And DeLillo refuses to provide the reader with descriptions of the students' emotional or personal issues; instead the author defines them by "…the stereo sets, radios, personal computers" and more, including "styling irons" and "hairdryers" (which implies superficiality).
In conclusion, both these novels are excellent examples of postmodernism because they basically deny optimism, and they use the power of metaphor and parody to point to a skewed sense of reality. Moreover, the novels present a skeptical view of America, which is part of the definition of postmodernism. The characters' realities are presented through the interpretations they come up with, which in many instances are not based on how the world really is, but rather on what they perceive through lenses that are out of touch and beyond repair.
Best, Steven, and Kellner, Douglas. The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies at the third Millennium. New York: Guilford Press.
Caton, Lou F. "Romanticism and the Postmodern Novel: Three Scenes from Don DeLillo's
White Noise." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 143, Detroit:
Gale Group (2001): Retrieved from Literature Resource Center.
Conroy, Mark. "From Tombstone to Tabloid: Authority Figured in 'White Noise.'" Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 35.2 (1994): 1-8.
Davis, Robert Murray. "When was Postmodernism?" World Literature Today. 75.2 (2001):
Decker, Mark T. "A Proliferation of Bad Shit: Informational Entropy, Politics and the Crying
Of Lot 49." Pynchon Notes (2000): 1-8. Retrieved from Literature Resource Center.