Waves and Radiation:
The narrator, Jack Gladney, describes the annual arrival of station wagons, students, and their parents at his college, College-on-the-Hill. He believes the event reassures the parents that they are part of a larger group. Jack walks into his quiet town, where he makes his home with his wife, Babette, and their children by previous marriages. He invented the concept of Hitler studies in 1968, and is now the chairman of Hitler studies at the college.
The parade of station wagons is a deservedly famous opening for the novel. The cars resembles a modernized version of nomads, their (Dodge) caravans stacked with accoutrements and nourishment. That they go through the "west campus" may even be a sign that dropping one's kids off at college is the new kind of Western colonization.
DeLillo goes to great lengths to catalogue their packs because they do, in fact, resemble glossy catalogues. In this consumerist world, DeLillo suggests that people buy things to join groups, and that these groups are somehow reassuring. Even the items are grouped together in subtle ways -- note the preponderance of items that begin with the letter "b" or "s" in the first round ("boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets"). This concept of groups and safety will assume greater importance throughout the novel.
Also notable here is the last item listed -- "Mystic mints." Why are mints given such a lofty term, beyond alliterative purposes? Other items, especially the string of electronic ones which involve sound (stereos, radios, etc.), may also gain significance throughout the novel. For now, however, DeLillo provides only one hint when Jack describes the "remote and steady murmur around our sleep" of the expressway behind his house, like "dead souls babbling at the edge of a dream." There is some kind of connection between sounds and death, though it remains unclear as of now.
The description of the expressway also foreshadows a crucial event in the novel. While White Noise is mostly a novel of ideas, of characters expressing different beliefs, it is also structured carefully, and it is worthwhile to keep DeLillo's plotting in mind -- and also what the idea of plotting means (something else that will be explored later).
In his kitchen, Jack tells Babette about the station wagons and their rich inhabitants. She is an "ample" woman who teaches in an adult education program, and volunteers to read to the blind -- she reads supermarket tabloids once a week to an elderly man, Old Man Treadwell. Jack is happily married to her, feeling she handles the world with ease, especially compared to his former wives. Babette brings in her toddler, Wilder, and their daughters, Denise (Babette's) and Steffie (Jack's), come in for lunch. Heinrich, Jack's only son, briefly comes in and leaves. The smoke alarm goes off, though they ignore it.
Babette brims with life -- she's active, "ample," and is the nucleus of the family. However, her apparent fixation on death -- she finds it hard to "imagine death" at high income levels and is concerned with her health -- foreshadows future conflict. Jack also wonders why the possessions from their previous marriages "carry such sorrowful weight," which scare him not because of the reminders of the failed marriages, but because of "something more general." This "something more general" is the crux of White Noise, the dark cloud overhead that causes Jack's deep-rooted anxiety. That Jack has invented Hitler studies points us to an answer; he is obsessed with the man who is synonymous with death in the 20th-century.
More foreshadowing occurs when they ignore the smoke alarm, an emergency sound that normally heralds death. A great irony is that the smoke alarm could be going off because it has "died"; either way, death is present in the sound of the alarm, and this is the first example of "white noise" in the novel, of the background noise that supposedly wards off death but, in fact, only announces its presence.
As do the other department heads, Jack wears a sleeveless black academic robe on campus. Hitler studies shares a building with the popular culture department, headed by Alfonse Stompanato. Jack is friends with Murray Jay Siskind, a Jewish visiting lecturer on "living icons" who finds some of the subject material of popular culture absurd. Murray is pleased to be in the town of Blacksmith, where he can be away from the "eventual death heat" of cities and not worry about sexual entanglements with women. Murray praises Jack's groundbreaking work on Hitler, and says he wants to do the same with Elvis Presley.
A few days later, Jack accompanies Murray to the country to what signs call "the most photographed barn in America." They watch the hordes of camera-wielding tourists. Murray takes notes and comments that the signs make it impossible to see the barn for what it really is; they turn the barn into a "collective perception," an inescapable "aura."
Since Murray, an urban intellectual Jew, is very much the opposite of Elvis, an All-American Southern musician, we may assume part of his fascination with Elvis stems from their duality. Though we don't know much about Jack yet, his attraction to Hitler probably comes from similar oppositions. Hitler is still a mystery to most people, who wonder, at the simplest level, how a human could be so full of evil, hatred, and the capacity for death. Since Jack heads Hitler studies, and not a more general Nazi studies, it is clear that he also finds Hitler a compelling, mysterious figure.
Murray says the college now has an "identity" because of Jack's pioneering Hitler studies. Jack, too, has acquired a new identity for his studies. For one, his robe makes him part of a group, the department heads. Moreover, he is the foremost authority on Hitler, and as such he has taken on some of Hitler's mystique. There will be more on this later, but for now it is important to remember that Hitler studies shares its building with the popular culture department; to Jack, Hitler's ascendance was not so much the historical product of economically depressed and racially outraged Germany, but a figure alongside Elvis who held sway over the populace with his aura.
And "aura" is a key word in this chapter. The most-photographed barn episode is one of the more famous scenes in modern literature. It accords with one of the major ideas from French philosopher Jean Baudrillard's 1983 book, Simulations: that in modern society, the reproduced simulation has replaced the original reality. In Baudrillard's prime example, he argues that Disneyland, a simulated fantasy environment, is somehow more "real" to us than "reality." In White Noise, Murray makes the same point; it is only the most-photographed barn because signs constantly reinforce the "aura" of its being photographed -- these signs, or simulacra, as Baudrillard refers to them, dictate reality. As a result, the tourists cannot see the "real" barn anymore, but only the simulated, photographed barn -- and this is the barn that is real to them.
There is another great irony in the scene that often goes unnoticed. David Foster Wallace, in his book of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, points out that while Murray critiques the tourists for voyeuristically participating in the spectacle of the barn, Murray, too, is guilty of voyeurism. While Murray does not fixate on the barn, as a professor of popular culture he fixates on the tourists, and his notes surround them with an aura much as their photographs surround the barn with an aura. The tourists may not be able to see the barn anymore, and may be "taking pictures of taking pictures," but Murray cannot see himself, and he is even further removed from reality, taking notes of people taking pictures of taking pictures.
Jack comments on the general compulsion to overeat in bad times. He goes to the high school stadium and watches Babette run up and down the steps. He compares her hyper-activity with his own passivity, and wonders who will die first. He says the question sometimes arises in their conversation, reminding them of their lack of innocence. He tells Babette that Bee, his daughter from his previous marriage to Tweedy Browner, wants to visit at Christmas.
The family orders Chinese food that Friday night and watches television together, a rule of Babette's (she believes if the kids watch television with their parents, it will "de-glamorize" the activity). No one enjoys the time together. Jack obeys his own custom after TV night; reading about Hitler. He remembers how the college chancellor, in 1968, told Jack his name was not suitably powerful as the pioneer of Hitler studies. Jack added an initial and called himself "J. A. K. Gladney." Jack also followed the chancellor's advice of gaining bulk and ugliness, wearing dark glasses and a bushy beard.
Jack's identity is clearly in crisis. He fully admits that he is the "false character" that follows around his invented name. His fake initials -- J. A. K. -- echo those of President John F. Kennedy, whose status as a golden-boy icon often overshadows his true identity.
In the previous chapter, we learned the town's name is Blacksmith. This potentially holds a few meanings. First, it is a sturdy, working-class name that resounds of Middle America. Second, it alludes to the forging of material. The color of black has already been associated with Jack's robe, and black typically has identifications with death. "Smith" is also the most common surname, and suggests a kind of anonymity in the town. Perhaps Jack is trying to forge his own identity in the town of Blacksmith, running away from the death and anonymity that seem to cover everything.
The brief description of the Gladneys' television ritual is the first of many conventional family scenes that DeLillo ironizes. Unlike most families, who watch television together without any conscience, Babette forces them to watch in an effort to reduce television's power. However, the effect is the same; the family still watches mostly in silence, and it is uncomfortable for them all.
However, DeLillo is not over-the-top in his critique of television. It is still a bonding device, one that brings together the family, however failed. This may be the best way of analyzing DeLillo's view of consumerism in modern-day America. While he exposes its faults and the lurking "white noise" of death behind our technology and customs, he seemingly connects our habits to ancient traditions; gathering around the television is the new way of gathering around the fire, and while it may not be as productive or gratifying, at least we still gather together.
Babette reads the family members' horoscopes aloud. At night, Jack is jarred awake by the normal muscular contraction of myoclonic jerk, and wonders if death resembles its abrupt movement. He and Babette run into Murray at the supermarket; Murray buys only generic brands in white wrappers. As he sniffs Jack's cart, Murray tells them he's pleased with his seminar. When Babette wanders away, Murray says she must be great in family tragedies; Jack says she isn't, that she broke down when her mother's died and even when Steffie's broke her hand.
They drive Murray to his boarding house. Jack feels secure as a result of all the products he and Babette have bought. Murray makes something of a proposition to Babette. Jack relates Murray's strategy of seduction: earnest and vulnerable desire that does not include any kind of manipulative insincerity. Murray leaves.
Jack thinks death should be "white-winged and smooth," alluding to the white noise around him. Murray buys only generic brands, showing his contempt for traditional consumerism, but it is important to note that all the wrappers on his food are white. No matter what, death is inescapable; just as Americans read the tabloids and worship celebrities in an attempt to distract themselves from death, Murray's cultured rebellion is just another, albeit white-winged and smooth, way to deflect death.
Murray's seduction strategy is one steeped in irony. He says that in his natural approach, he does not allow himself to manipulate his image to seduce women -- tactics that are otherwise most natural to him. In other words, he has to work hard at being natural, an ironic and almost paradoxical mission. The key, however, is that he is like the photographers at the barn. Just as they are taking pictures of taking pictures, launching themselves into a simulation more real than reality, Murray has to act to appear natural, and this unnatural naturalism is somehow more real than plain naturalism. The idea may be confusing, but it's supposed to be; what we should remember is that simulations have replaced reality, even for someone like Murray who is aware of the replacement.