Jack wakes up in a "death sweat." He sees that it's 3:51 A.M., and wonders if death is odd-numbered. He sleeps, then wakes up in the morning to the smell of Steffie's burning toast (she savors the smell). He finds her in the kitchen with Babette, and reveals that he'll be 51 next week. They speak about Steffie's biological mother, Dana Breedlove, who works for the CIA, though they're not supposed to discuss it. When Steffie is busy with the phone, Jack tells Babette that Dana liked to "plot," embroiling people in sticky situations.
That night, Jack and Babette have dinner at Murray's. After dinner, they discuss Murray's apartment, the building across the street that looks like an insane asylum, and Babette's kids (she has another who lives in Australia). The talk turns to television, and Murray says he's been taking notes on television for the past few months. He has concluded that the "waves and radiation" of television have become a "primal force" in the home. He says he implores his skeptical students to root through television to find the mythological codes in its glitzy commercials.
On the walk home, Babette admits she forgets things, but didn't realize it was that noticeable. Jack suggests she is taking something. Babette says isn't, or at least she doesn't remember taking anything.
Murray opens the discussion of television as the religious medium of America. He finds the glut of information in television a gold mine for mystical interpretation. This is another example of DeLillo's even-handed critique of television; while he acknowledges it is filled with so much commercialism, he understands that the commercialism contains sacred messages.
These messages come out as Jack chants brand names of material in his head, the first of many times this will happen in the novel. The names are of synthetic materials, and he most likely does it because Steffie said the name of one material into the phone earlier. The names are exotic-sounding, and they contribute to the idea that consumerism has its own mystical language; the names become a religious mantra, a prayer of sorts.
When Jack reveals that Dana liked to get him into plots, we are reminded of Jack's statement that all plots tend deathwards. Add this ominous idea to the odd-numbered, deathly time of 3:51 A.M. on Jack's clock and his upcoming 51st birthday, and we have ample reason to believe Jack is heading towards death somehow.
The plot also thickens regarding Babette's memory problem and possible use of medication. While she may be lying about possibly taking medication that destroys her memory (such that she wouldn't be able to remember taking the medication in the first place), the possibility arises that she is taking the medication to impair something -- we just don't know what yet.
Jack describes his awkward German lessons with Dunlop, who teaches a number of subjects. Among them is meteorology, which reassures him with its confident predictions of weather. At home, Jack finds Bob Pardee, Denise's father and a businessman, in the kitchen. Bob takes the kids out to dinner, and Jack drives Babette to Mr. Treadwell, the blind man to whom she reads tabloids. At his house, Babette says she can't find him, and the neighbors and police provide no help, either. They meet Bob and the kids at a donut shop. Jack watches Babette sympathetically size up her former marriage to Bob. The next day, the authorities search the river for Mr. Treadwell.
Dunlop finds something comforting in meteorology, especially because in teaching it he can in turn reassure others. They want to believe they have some control over their environment, that variations in weather is somehow coordinated with them. Although one usually knows as much as one needs to know about weather by looking out the window, Dunlop reminds us of Heinrich's discussion of rain. In that, Heinrich attributed greater merit to the radio's forecast than to his own sensations. It seems that only those who can claim special authority -- in this case, meteorologists -- fully understand their objective reality -- in this case, the weather. Again, we see Jack hungering for this special authority, this ability to construct reality, much as Hitler did so successfully through his propaganda and image-manipulation.
In what we may term DeLillo's vision of the postmodern family, Jack is usurped as the father, or at least as the primary father. Bob, who suits the traditional father figure much better -- he's a businessman, he plays golf -- is the one who takes the kids out to dinner, even the ones who aren't his biological children. Since almost all of Jack's and Babette's children are from former marriages (and two don't live with them), the status of parenthood is a diffuse one. This diffusion reflects contemporary times -- half of marriages end in divorce -- but also contributes to DeLillo's overall theme of ambiguous identity; families, where identity seems so rigidly defined, are shown as the most vulnerable and amorphous units.
The specter of death hangs over this chapter as well, in the form of Mr. Treadwell's disappearance. Combined with Wilder's getting lost in the supermarket, it seems that disappearance occupies the same vague territory as death; no one knows where the person is in each case.
Babette tells Jack the news that Mr. Treadwell and his sister were found in an abandoned cookie shack in a mall. No one knows how they got there. The previous day, the police had enlisted the aid of a psychic. Her tips led them to a gun and a supply of raw drugs. The psychic had previously led the police to a number of other intriguing finds, although each time the police had been looking for something else.
The Treadwells' adventure is almost a parody of a suburban outing; they go to a mall and end up its prisoners, surviving in a kiosk and scavenging for discarded food. More amusing in this short chapter is the discussion of the psychic. She, too, has a mystical power others do not understand, and it is all the more mystical because it is not completely accurate (she misleads the police, though they eventually do find something). As we have previously seen in other examples throughout the novel, the psychic can construct her own reality through this power. She surrounds herself with an undeniable aura, and even if what she predicts is not the "real" answer (it's not correct), but a "simulated" one (she manufactures a different answer), somehow it becomes more real -- the fact that she leads the police to a different crime is even more incredible.
Jack worries about his German for the spring conference. Denise interrupts him, saying she's worried about Babette's memory. She knows she's taking medication because she saw a prescribed bottle of a medicine called "Dylar" in the trash, but her drug reference book doesn't list Dylar. Denise asks him why he gave Heinrich his name. Jack says he wanted to give him an authoritative, German name. He and Steffie and Denise look through the German-English dictionary. Heinrich comes in and tells them there's footage of a plane crash on TV. That Friday night, the family attentively watches TV news of natural disasters. Each disaster makes them crave a bigger one.
On Monday, Jack finds Murray in his office. Murray is having problems securing his Elvis Presley studies, and Jack promises to visit his next lecture to lend him some validity. At lunch Jack sits at a table with Alfonse, the popular culture head. Jack asks him why people are intrigued by catastrophe on television. Alfonse believes that we need them to break up the constant flow of information, and that we enjoy them when they happen to other people, such as Californians. The other men in the popular culture department ask a series of personal trivia questions, such as where they were when James Dean died. They all have detailed answers, though one of them can't remember where he was.
DeLillo, as he frequently does, uses a character -- here, Alfonse -- as a mouthpiece for his ideas. Here, the idea that catastrophes break up the inundation of other information does not require further interpretation, but DeLillo shrewdly sets it against the professors' trivia contest. These men absorb, it seems, all information that has ever passed to them, so they don't require catastrophe in the same information-breaking way the rest of us. Therefore, it makes sense that one of them cannot remember a catastrophe -- James Dean's death -- while he could probably remember the times he's brushed his teeth with his finger.
While Jack claims that Heinrich wasn't named for anyone, Heinrich Himmler was a central figure in the Nazi's Third Reich, the head of the Gestapo (secret police). Although Jack's son obviously is more pacifist, his attraction to information, especially information from the media, accords with Himmler's, who trafficked heavily in secret information. Regardless of the allusion, Jack admits that he was trying to instill a sense of authority in his son, something Jack frequently attempts for himself.
The plot line picks up -- we now know that Babette is taking medicine, and that she either lied to Jack about it or it really is disrupting her memory.
Jack enters Murray's lecture. Murray discusses Elvis's mother, and then Jack makes a point about Hitler's mother. The men go back and forth, trading nuanced observations on Elvis's and Hitler's relationships with their mothers -- they both adored their mothers, couldn't bear to be apart from them, became severely depressed when their mothers died. Murray soon cedes the floor to Jack, who speaks at length about Hitler's relationship with crowds, one charged with eroticism. He argues that crowds are a way to keep out death, and that to break away from the crowd is to face death alone. A crowd gathers around Jack, and Murray escorts him out of the room.
This chapter is renowned for its humorous comparisons of Elvis and Hitler, but little is said about why, apart from comic value, DeLillo focuses on the men's mothers. Since mothers are associated with fertility, it seems fitting that Elvis and Hitler were obsessed with them, as they were men renowned either for their suicides (Elvis's by a drug overdose, Hitler's in a bunker) or for the ones they caused (only Hitler, obviously).
The more important feature of the chapter is the conflation of Hitler and Elvis, two towering popular culture figures, and the meanings that carries. If we look back on the discussion of catastrophe and information, Elvis can been seen as a representative of all the excessive information that filters our way, and Hitler is the catastrophe that rouses us and catches our attention. But in Jack and Murray's dialogue, Hitler is reduced to the level of Elvis, a mere pawn of historical trivia, while Elvis is enlarged to the level of Hitler, a maker of history.