Shopping in the supermarket, Jack and Babette discuss his health. She buys some tabloids for Mr. Treadwell, and they read them together. On the ride home, Jack says the only health problem is his eyes -- he's seeing colored spots again. She tells him not to wear his dark glasses, but he insists he needs them to teach Hitler.
Jack briefly relates some events of his life. At his German lesson, he sees a German-language best-selling book called The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Jack starts throwing things away at home. Jack watches a continuing new story about two dead bodies buried in someone's backyard, though an intensive search yields no more bodies. Everyone, including the news reporter and Heinrich and Jack, is disappointed.
Jack seems to be preparing for his battle against death. People often give their personal effects away before death, but he throws things out. He seems to be saying that his objects may die in the garbage, but he won't. He is intrigued by The Egyptian Book of the Dead, possibly since Egyptians are well-known for preserving the dead through mummification.
The rest of us, however, are simply buried in the ground, as the new story demonstrates, left to rot with the worms. Moreover, the news that there are not more dead bodies, that it does not constitute a grand catastrophe, disappoints everyone, especially Jack (despite his best attempts not to be disappointed). They want to believe that death is a mystical process with ties back to the Egyptians, but more often it is just a fact of life.
It is surprising, then, that Jack is willing in some ways to forsake his health for his identity. He won't trade in his dark glasses to improve his worsening vision, since he hangs so desperately to his academic identity. But perhaps the glasses are not merely for the effect they have on others. Since the glasses are dark, we can surmise that Jack is trying to see the world through deathly darkness; he wants to see it the way Hitler might have seen it. Instead, he sees colored spots. Are these visual manifestations of the deathly white noise around him?
Unable to sleep, and relentlessly thinking, Jack wakes up Babette in the middle of the night. He wants to talk to Mr. Gray. She refuses, since she believes he wants to ingest Dylar, and possibly kill Mr. Gray. He denies the accusations, saying he wants only to see if he qualifies for Dylan and that he's over their sexual trysts. She says she won't allow Jack to make the same mistake with Dylar she made.
Jack follows Winnie Richards the next day, running after her around the campus. Finally, she stops atop a hill, an awesome "postmodern sunset" dominating the view. Jack tells her what he's learned about Dylar, and asks if she knows anything about the group that manufactures it. She doesn't, and believes we need to fear death, as it gives life a "'boundary'"; fear lets humans "'rediscover'" themselves. He asks her how to make death less strange to him. She has no suggestions, but tells him to forget about Dylar and to continue with his life. He recognizes her advice as correct, but harshly tells her she has made him very sad. She blushes and they walk down the hill.
Winnie makes the important statement that one discovers oneself through fear, especially the fear of death. Throughout the novel, Jack fears death has been making him lose his identity. However, his consuming fear has actually sparked his reassessment of his identity; he thinks about people and objects and events in novel ways. The major problem is that he won't accept the idea that death makes life finite and comprehensible; instead, he fixates on the mysterious ambiguities of death. This unknown region is responsible for Jack's identity crisis.
If Jack could find a way, as Winnie has suggested, of focusing on life -- common-sense advice -- he might not have his identity crisis. But his cruel rebuttal of Winnie shows that he is not ready for this course of action. He believes he can only comprehend his life through understanding death.
As the sunset in this chapter indicates, that may not be possible. The colored spots Jack reveled seeing in the previous chapter seem to have morphed into the huge "postmodern sunset." Winnie speaks about the need for death's finality, for the limits it imposes. Here, we see a seemingly infinite sunset that defies limits. While it is beautiful, Jack admits that there is no point in fully describing it, and that there have been more dramatic and meaningful sunsets. Its ambiguity is so immense, it loses any sense of significance. We may say it is a deathless, infinite sunset, lacking the mysterious beauty of contained, regular sunsets. In the same way, Jack wants to believe his life is deathless and infinite, but this belief would prohibit him from gaining any meaning in his life, just as he cannot fully appreciate the beauty of the sunset.
Jack transcribes the 12-part instructions on sending payment to his cable company. He describes a night out to dinner; they order drive-thru chicken and eat in the car. They discuss outer space with misinformed facts.
Jack relates that earlier in the week, a policeman claimed he spotted a body thrown from a UFO. Later that night, a dead body was found dead of multiple fractures and heart failure. Under hypnosis, the policeman gave a detailed account of what he had seen, as well as of a psychic message he had received. Other sightings have sprung up in the area.
The family eats their brownies in the car. Jack describes the family growing awareness of the outer world, and how it makes them want to return home. On the ride home, Jack senses that his children will attack him and Babette in their restlessness. To avoid this, Babette steers the discussion back to UFOs.
At home, Jack receives a postcard from his oldest child, Mary Alice (since Dana Breedlove is her mother, she is Steffie's full sister, though they are technically from different marriages -- Jack's first and his fourth). Babette tells Jack she wishes he hadn't told her about his condition, since the two things she wants most in the world are for her to die first, and for Wilder to stay the same forever.
DeLillo delves into the various systems seemingly beyond human control. The cable bill is a parody of the specialized instructions required to make a simple monetary transaction. The family eats at a place specializing in "chicken parts and brownies," an odd combination that even has an interior level of specialization ("chicken parts," not just chickens). The family becomes aware of the world outside themselves while they eat; the simple pleasures of food turn into the complex, frustrating network around them. It seems they rebel from the inexplicable world through their incorrect facts; they would rather believe their own half-baked theories than admit that the world is beyond their knowledge.
And, of course, the alien-sightings are the greatest example of a mysterious system beyond human knowledge. To counter this ignorance, people claim they have seen them, been abducted, received psychic messages. They want to believe they are privy to this extra-terrestrial life-form so that, somehow, the regular world seems less bewildering to them.
Babette, on the other hand, wants the world, and her current system, to stay the same; she does not look forward to discovering new systems. While she fears death, a system she truly doesn't know, she also does not want to have to adjust to life without Jack, to the loneliness that entails. Moreover, she prefers Wilder to stay the same -- in other words, to continue not talking. She would rather his current system, his non-linguistic way of interacting with the world, remain out of her domain. As of now, he seems almost magical to her, but if he learned language, he would become a normal human, using language to symbolize his thoughts and feelings.
Jack and Murray walk across campus. They discuss Jack's misgivings about Dunlop, his German tutor. Murray brings up a number of Dunlop's characteristics -- his soft skin and the dry spit around his mouth, for example -- which Jack agrees are at the root of his uneasiness. Jack still feels there is something else about Dunlop that unnerves him. A few days later, Murray reveals it: "'He looks like a man who finds dead bodies erotic.'"
Jack goes to one final German lesson, but finds it unbearable now that Dunlop has a fixed, "diseased" identity. Jack admits he will miss the lessons, as well as the German shepherds which have now disappeared, though the Mylex-suited men still investigate the town for toxic residue.
Jack takes Heinrich to watch as the insane asylum burns down. Other fathers and sons are there, too. They see an insane woman in a burning white nightgown walk across the lawn. They watch the firemen battle the flames from her nightgown and from the building. Murray comes out from his nearby boarding house then quickly disappears. The acrid smell of burning artificial substances disperses the crowd and makes them "feel betrayed," as if they have become aware that death is both real and synthetic. They now think not only of the victims of the fire, but also of themselves.
At home, Jack and Heinrich drink warm milk. At night, Jack stays up thinking about Mr. Gray. He envisions his seduction of Babette through Mr. Gray's eyes, but his images continue to be hazy, though the sounds are clear to him. He ends relating this with the word "Panasonic."
This chapter details Jack's increasing discomfort with the idea of death. That Dunlop might find dead bodies erotic frightens Jack, who previously told Murray he hoped sex and death were not linked. However, they must be linked in Jack's mind, and not only because of the traditional concept of sex (creation of life) and death (end of life) as opposites: Babette's attempts to ward off the fear of death involved sexual acts. Understandably, Jack has trouble imagining their trysts, both because Mr. Gray is an ambiguous figure to him, but also because he cannot combine images of sex and death.
The burning asylum adds a new sensory quality to death. While the asylum was always a reminder of deathly white noise as a place where minds died, its burning scent infects the bystanders. Now they must confront the death of others; they can smell the white noise. They even see a virtual ghost, the woman in the white nightgown.
Jack's last word in the chapter, "Panasonic," was DeLillo's original title for White Noise. Panasonic, the name of a large Japanese technological company, literally means "all-sound." It is the omnipresent white noise of death Jack fears, whose volume intensifies as the novel reaches its climax. No wonder that Jack, unable to see clearly the meetings of Mr. Gray and Babette, can hear them so accurately.
Jack wakes up and finds Wilder staring at him. Wilder leads him to the window on the backyard, where they see a white-haired man sitting in an armchair. Wilder retreats to his bedroom. Jack is scared, thinking the man is Death itself, come to take him. Jack hides in the bathroom for a while and plans how to keep Death out of the house. He takes his copy of Mein Kampf outside, and the man turns in Jack's direction. As he comes closer, Jack realizes it's Vernon Dickey, his father-in-law. They make some small talk and go inside.
They discuss Vernon's moonlighting work as a handyman. Jack feels insecure about not knowing how to fix things. Vernon talks about a woman who wants to marry him and about sexual liberation for women in the home. Jack thinks that Vernon is shrewd, especially in the way he flirts with women. Babette comes in and is shocked to see her father. They all have breakfast. Jack observes that Babette regresses into a childhood state with her father. Vernon hangs around for several days. One day he asks Jack if people were "'this dumb before television.'"
One night, Jack goes into Denise's room and roots around for the Dylar bottle. She wakes up and says she knows what he's looking for; he says he needs the Dylar to solve a personal problem. After she refuses to give them to him, he eventually tells her about the medicinal properties of Dylar, though he leaves out his exposure to Nyodene D and Babette's trysts with Mr. Gray. Denise tells him that she threw out the Dylar a week ago, fearing Babette would find it. Jack says he's grateful to her, kisses her, and goes into the kitchen.
Vernon smokes at the kitchen table. He brings Jack out to the car and gives him a handgun. Jack doesn't want it, but Vernon is persistent, speaking about the dangers against which Jack can defend himself, and Jack relents. The next day, Vernon leaves, and Babette cries at his departure. He tells them not to worry about his various physical ailments and lack of money, but he tells them to worry about his awful car.
Jack's further anxiety over his ignorance of different systems -- here, it emerges that he is helpless at home repair, and wishes he could fix things as Vernon can. He seems to envy Vernon's systematic approaches to life -- his "Sets of special methods." Vernon does seem to have everything figured out, and what's more important, he clearly does not fear his impending death. His body is failing, his life is in disarray, but in Vernon's long speech at the end, he manages to see the bright side of every flaw.
What does Vernon fear, then? He carries a gun, and makes Jack take one. He fears someone else's taking his life, but not his own gradual approach to mortality. This may be why he jokingly tells Babette to worry about his car; if anything, it will kill Vernon before he kills himself. Despite his risky behavior -- his initials, V.D., even recall venereal disease -- it does not seem that Vernon will cause his own death.
Jack now has an instrument of death in the gun. He feels it is a measure of one's "competence" in life, as it gives him access to that world of Vernon's he aspires to -- one of confidence, of know-how, of knowledge of systems. Additionally, the gun seems like an important foreshadowing. The well-known axiom about dramatic foreshadowing -- if you show a gun on a mantle in the first act, it must be fired by the third act -- is utilized here explicitly, and continue's White Noise's deathward plot drive.
Jack and Murray continue their habit of walking and trading ideas. They discuss nostalgia in relation to German architecture. Ten days after Denise threw out the Dylar, Jack roots through the garbage. He feels like he is spying on his own house, as if the garbage conceals great secrets. Though he finds a number of intriguing items, including shredded underpants with lipstick markings, he cannot locate the Dylar.
Jack has another checkup. His doctor tells him his potassium is very high, but won't tell him what that means. Jack asks if it's possibly due to exposure to some substance; when his doctor asks if he has been exposed, Jack says no. His doctor refers him to a medical center in a nearby town. At home, Jack throws out a great number of things. He puts them in boxes and brings them out to the sidewalk.
Again, we see the garbage as a reservoir of consumer death. Everything is fused together, a mangled mass from far-flung reaches of consumerism. In particular, there is a curious mixture of gender-typed objects; first, the crayon drawing of a figure with female breasts and male genitalia; then the banana skin (phallic symbol) and tampon; then the male underpants with lipstick marks.
Perhaps garbage is the American consumer's version of reincarnation; everything mixes together, grafting on to other "lives." But Americans don't recycle -- they just throw things away. Their version of reincarnation is ultimately just a hellish afterlife, promising nothing fruitful to come. Jack throws things out in response to fears of his own death, as he did in Chapter 29 when he saw Dunlop's The Egyptian Book of the Dead. But he wants only to eliminate waste, to make other things die before he does. He does not embrace death like Eastern religions, but runs from it.
Babette continues her addiction to talk radio, and wears her sweatsuit constantly. When Jack asks her how she feels, she tells him Wilder helps her feel better. Denise frets over Babette, making sure she's amply protected against the sun.
Jack takes Heinrich and Orest out to an Italian dinner. They discuss Orest's training for sitting in the cage of snakes (he now has a personal trainer). He asks Orest if he's worried; the only thing Orest's worried about is if he's not allowed to go through with the challenge. He asks if Orest fears death; Orest says he doesn't. Jack is fascinated by the directed way Orest eats. Jack brings up the sliminess and bite of snakes, but Orest still isn't fazed.
At home, Jack tells Babette that Denise threw out the pills. Babette says she hopes this is the end of Jack's fixation on Mr. Gray, as she will never help Jack locate him. Jack helps Steffie pack for her trip to visit her mother in Mexico City. Steffie asks what he would do if her mother kidnapped her; Jack assures her he would go to Mexico to retrieve her.
The next day, a simulated evacuation takes place for noxious odor. Three days later, a real noxious odor drifts over the town. There is no official action; if anything, people are more polite. After a few hours, the vapor disappears.
Orest is assuming more of a god-like persona. He now has a spiritual trainer, and people are, according to Heinrich, starting to "believe him now." He is attempting the closest thing to a religious miracle now, one made all the more symbolic since he is battling snakes. As Jack points out, snakes occupy an especially fearful part of the human subconscious, let alone their Biblical allusions to the Garden of Eden.
We again see a simulated emergency take precedence over a real one. Throughout the novel, and in this chapter, characters are constantly getting worked up over simulated events in place of real ones. Mr. Gray, although a real figure, torments Jack more as a figure of his imagination, a hazy nightmare. Even Steffie agonizes over the absurd possibility of her mother's kidnapping her, not over something like a plane malfunction or getting lost in the airport. Even Orest misplaces his fears (though it is necessary for his goal); he doesn't fear the snakes so much as the Humane Society, which may block his project -- in other words, he's scared his dream won't become a reality.