Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise is an almost absurdist tale of angst and fear in modern post-Industrial life. Narrator Jack Gladney frequently discusses death, but characters in the novel go to great lengths to avoid death. Disasters run throughout the novel, witnessed both on television and in real life by various characters. These disasters are the white noise of modern life, the background music that reminds us always that death is lurking.
Watch any major television network in real-life, and a string of disasters play out across the screen. Recently, two Russian airliners crashed, believed to be the work of terrorists. Industrial accidents, hurricanes, wild fires, the list goes on. Jack Gladney and his family watch disasters on their televisions. “That night, a Friday, we gathered in front of our set, as was the custom and the rule…. There were floods, earthquakes, mud slides, erupting volcanoes” . The ironic thing about these disasters is that they are all natural occurrences, and Gladney’s family absorbs them as if they were watching a Made-For-TV movie of the week. “We were otherwise silent, watching houses slide into the ocean, whole villages crackle and ignite in a mass of advancing lava. Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping”.
The disasters on television are tragic, but removed from the reality of the novel. Gladney and his family watch them attentively, disassociated from the tragedy. Later in the novel, Gladney is at the airport to pick up his daughter Bee. Half and hour before her flight, passengers from another plane disembark, relating the story of how their plane almost crashed. One man relates the story, while a crowd listens. “They were content to let the capped and vested man speak on their behalf. It was as though they were being told of an event they hadn’t personally been involved in. They were interested in what he said, even curious, but also clearly detached” . Again, the disaster plays out as if it were on television. The people, even those who had been on the plane, are unable to experience any near tragedy with any sort of emotional impact.