White Noise

White Noise Summary and Analysis of Chapters 21

The Airborne Toxic Event

Chapter 21:

Jack comes home through the snow and sees Heinrich peering out from the attic window with binoculars. He comes in and tells Babette he's concerned for Heinrich's safety. She tells him to be gentle about it. He goes up to the attic. Heinrich tells him the radio reported that a tank car derailed, but from the heavy black cloud of smoke he sees, it looks like it got a hole punched in it. Jack tells him to shut the window. Heinrich listens to the sirens outside. An hour later, Jack goes up to the attic and looks through the binoculars again -- the black cloud is larger. Heinrich says the radio has defined the toxic chemical as Nyodene D, and first said it caused sweaty palms, then amended it to nausea and shortness of breath.

Babette says the girls are complaining of sweaty palms; Heinrich tells them there's been a correction, and they should be nauseated. Jack assures the family that they won't have to evacuate, and the "black billowing cloud," as the radio now refers to it, won't near their house. Babette is not so sure, but Jack says that natural disasters only occur in poor areas. Jack peers through Heinrich's binoculars again and watches as the many authorities deal with the cloud and pierced tank car. Heinrich tells him the chemical doesn't cause nausea and the associated symptoms, but heart palpitations and a sense of déjà vu. He also says they're now calling it the "airborne toxic event." Jack argues that the cloud won't come their way, though Heinrich is skeptical.

The family eats an early dinner. They hear nearby air-raid sirens. When a new sound arrives, Heinrich opens the door and informs the family that the fire department is telling them to evacuate. They quickly pack some things and get in the car. The radio tells them that the west end of town is to head to an abandoned Boy Scout camp, while the east end of town is to go to a Chinese restaurant. They follow the herd of cars out of town, away from the amplified voice ordering people to evacuate. They pass policemen, an assuring sign that the authorities haven't fled, and people shopping out of town. They listen to the radio in a different town; people are being told to stay indoors.

They approach an overpass and see lines of people on foot carrying emergency gear. They pass the scene of a car accident; Heinrich watches it after they leave it behind, describing the scene in detail. He goes on to discuss the events of the evening, stimulated by the chaos. Jack thinks he sees Babette slip something in her mouth and swallow it. When he confronts her, she says it's a Life Saver. Though he doesn't believe, he decides it isn't the time to bring up her medication. They discuss the effects of Nyodene D, free-associating until they get to a discussion of taxonomy for rats.

They reach the scene of another car wreck, and a man in a Mylex suit directs traffic. Steffie feels like she's seen the scene before. Jack is worried she may have Nyodene D-inflicted déjà vu, but he remembers that the new symptoms of the chemical, as someone on the radio confirmed, are coma, convulsions, and miscarriage. He wonders if Steffie is being influenced by the radio, as she and Denise have been all night, or if the chemical really is affecting her. Heinrich warns them that they're running out of gas. They see an abandoned gas station, and Jack jumps out, shielding his head under his coat, and refills the tank. Back in the car, they see the black cloud lit up by the search beams of seven helicopters. It moves majestically, and Jack says their fear is almost "religious"; even though it is an artificial cloud, it feels like a natural disaster.

Near the Boy Scout camp, they see two school buses ferrying Blacksmith's mentally ill. It is comforting to Jack that the authorities are taking care of them. They pass a sign for the most photographed barn in America. They sit in the car as they enter the camp through heavy traffic. People stare at teach other through their windows. Finally, one family gets out of its car wearing life jackets.

Inside the barracks, various rumors and information issue from certain men, who collect crowds. People camp out in the barracks or in their cars. The sight of the Red Cross workers and nurses comforts the crowd. Jack moves among the small crowds and finds out there are nine evacuation centers total, and that the governor is supposedly flying to Blacksmith in a helicopter. When he reaches another crowd, he finds Heinrich lecturing the people on the chemical properties of Nyodene D. Jack leaves, not wanting Heinrich to see and him become self-conscious.

He returns to his family. Nearby, a father and son from a black family of Jeohvah's witnesses hand out tracts and proselytize. The wife talks to Babette, and mentions that the God Jehovah has an even bigger surprise in store. Jack and Babette discuss the possibility that Steffie has the symptoms of toxic exposure, and about Heinrich's new leadership role. Jack brings up his doubt over Babette's "Life Saver," and she insists it was true. The father of the Jehovah's witness family comes over and talks to Jack about the government's ineffectuality in the face of the impending apocalypse. He tells Jack people are either among the wicked or among the saved, and hands him a pamphlet about Armageddon.

Denise overhears a woman discussing exposure to toxic agents, and she tells Jack that he was exposed when he got out of the car to refill the gas. Jack joins a line, and soon tells personal information to a man who wears the word "SIMUVAC" on his jacket. The man tells Jack that his two-and-a-half minutes outside is dangerous. When Jack asks, the man tells him that "SIMUVAC" stands for "simulated evacuation," a new state program. Even though this is a real evacuation, the man tells him, they decided to use it as a model for the simulated evacuations. The man tells him that his computer has processed Jack's data, and his exposure to the chemical, combined with his whole profile, has resulted in a dangerous warning. He doesn't know how much longer Jack has to live, though he will know more in 15 years -- assuming Jack is still alive. He tells Jack not to worry about it, and to live his life. Jack longs for his academic costume.

Jack returns to his children, all of whom are sleeping but Heinrich. Babette reads tabloids to Treadwell and other blind people. Jack joins their group. She reads an article about proof, through hypnosis, of reincarnation. She relates several of the stories from the hypnotized, including one about a little girl who said she was the KGB assassin who killed Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Howard Hughes. The blind listeners are comforted. She reads the cover article about psychics' predictions for the coming year, most of which center around celebrities, famous assassins, space aliens, and political cults. Jack reflects that the evacuees have joined the "public stuff of media disaster." He returns to his children and watches them sleep. Heinrich is still up, and he discusses how despite their technological age, individuals are still as inept as Stone Agers.

After they talk, Jack goes outside, where a few groups of people stand around fires. He finds Murray talking to a carload of prostitutes. He stops talking to them and tells Murray he's worried about sexually-transmitted diseases. Jack confides to him about his exposure to Nyodene D. Murray philosophizes on death; he believes it "has a life independent of us." Then he expresses sympathy for Jack, and says computers frequently make mistakes. Murray pontificates on the reasons behind déjà vu, and says that the air of death is bringing it out. One of the prostitutes tells Murray she'll agree to something for $25; he asks her if she's checked it out with her pimp. Murray tells Jack he's asked her to let him do the Heimlich maneuver on her. He gets into the car, and Jack walks over to the burning fires.

He hears various rumors -- that the governor has died, that two men in Mylex suits have died, that there are more clouds. He observes that people are marveling not at the veracity of the tall tales, but at their ability to instill a sense of awe. He returns to the barracks and sits near his sleeping family. He listens to Steffie's unconscious mumblings, and hears the words "Toyota Celica." He watches his family a little longer, then sleeps next to Babette.

Jack awakens to the sound of the bullhorn. Everyone is packing and dressing and filing out. The voice from the bullhorn tells that there is a wind change, and the cloud is heading in their direction. The family goes outside, where it's now raining on the chaotic assembly of cars. The family follows another car through the underbrush. It starts to snow. The radio tells them to head to Iron City. They see the toxic cloud lit up by 18 helicopters; it appears it contains its own storms. Heinrich leads a discussion on how ignorant people are of their own anatomy. Jack keeps driving through the woods, and finally gets back on to the parkway and heads to Iron City. They meet up with the group from the Chinese restaurant, the cloud still visible behind them.

In Iron City, they end up in an abandoned karate studio. They are not allowed to leave. By noon, the rumor spreads that technicians are trying to plant microorganisms in the cloud to defeat it. Babette finds the idea of custom-made organisms worrisome. Steffie still refuses to take off her protective mask. At night, someone brings in a small TV and reveals its blank screen. He gives a fiery speech condemning the fact that they're hardly getting any media coverage despite all they've gone through. The crowd cheers. The man, near Jack, tells him he's seen this scene before, of Jack standing before him, looking "lost." Nine days later, everyone is allowed to return home.


Jack refers to the cloud, lit by the helicopters, as a "sound-and-light show," and later as a moving advertisement, a "national promotion for death." It is as if a movie is playing before their eyes, and the whole evacuation is played out voyeuristically. Not only does everyone stare at the cloud, but they rubberneck at the two car accidents, they watch the people shopping, the pedestrians, and finally each other in their cars. This air of simulation, of it all being some kind of a movie, makes the artificially-created disaster seem more real than a truly natural disaster. Of course, the greatest irony is that the SIMUVAC people view this real event as practice for when they simulate evacuation; the simulation is somehow more important than the real disaster.

The voice of authority is given center stage in the evacuation. The radio accompanies the family from the tank car accident to the evacuation center, and there are loudspeakers and air-raid sirens in between. The girls follow the authority of the radio when they complain of their symptoms, trusting the voice of the media over their own sensations. Jack is also constantly assured when he sees signs that the authorities are doing their job, and not fleeing as well. In the same way, the blind listeners of the tabloids are reassured; mystics and psychics continue to make predictions or remember the past (the article about reincarnation), assuring that the future and past are still within our control; therefore, the present must be, as well. It is no wonder that Steffie mentions the name of a car in her sleep. The media mantra restores her faith in authority and gives off the aura of safety. Jack does the same thing by reciting the names of rust removers; he probably wishes he could just as easily remove the looming black cloud. As he explains to Babette, the "greater the scientific advance, the more primitive fear." In the face of this awesome technological disaster, they are all reduced to relying on mystical aids -- tabloids or consumer products. When the airborne toxic event doesn't rate media coverage, it is as if these mystics, the authorities, have abandoned them.

But Jack has also been told, with a fair amount of certainty from an authority figure, that his future is in jeopardy because of his exposure to Nyodene D. Even this form of death feels like a simulation to Jack, or a media projection, as he can see on the computer screen the signs of his looming death. The man's advice is to ignore the effects of Nyodene D, exactly what Jack has been trying to do all along in regards to death. But Jack has been unsuccessful at his denial, and the man tells him that there's no point in worrying about something one "can't see or feel." While he refers to the effects of the chemical, the same can be said about the gradual approach of death -- generally, one can't feel or see oneself dying (unless one is stricken with an illness). Instead of denying death, then, one can ignore it -- or, in an even more positive sense, embrace it and recognize that it will happen no matter what one does.

The anticipation of death grips everyone, though. The Jehovah's Witness father is pleased, since it validates his faith. Murray wants to do the Heimlich maneuver on the prostitute, possibly because it lets him feel like he can physically save someone in this time of crisis.

The exodus is a reversal of the opening scene. Instead of joyous college students returning to school in station wagons packed with expendable items, families fearfully evacuate their homes in cars or on foot packed with emergency gear. The other major reversal in the chapter is that after detailing all the white noise of death generally found in the modern home, DeLillo uses an external black cloud to symbolize the approach of death.

The distribution of the townspeople in the evacuation represents a greater geographical divide. The west end, symbolizing the Western hemisphere, goes to a symbol of America, a Boy Scout camp, where they receive aid in American staples -- Red Cross volunteers, juice, coffee. The east end, representing the Eastern hemisphere, goes to a Chinese restaurant. We are witnessing a kind of colonial movement, but one based on retreat, not imperialism. Heinrich's belief that we are as rudimentary as Stone Agers bears some validity when Jack goes outside; people huddle around fires and sleep in low-level conditions.