DeLillo’s White Noise, in which the domestic drama, the academic satire, the apocalyptic drama, the crime novel, and the social satire meet and mingle, deals, among other things, with the difference and distance between experience and expression. This point is most eloquently written into the novel by DeLillo in his exploration of the representative nature of language, and the often severe [and, to our narrator Jack/J.A.K. Gladney, severely distressing] lack of a concrete connection between the signifier and the signified. The lack of Germans in Germantown is most distressing to Jack, as he searches in vain for them, and the hilarious conversations between Jack and his son Heinrich depict Jack’s anxiety over the absence of meaning in words. Jack is extremely keen to find meaning in words and convince himself of their intrinsic ability to act on the world. He is convinced that Hitler’s power came from the German language, he names his son Heinrich because he assumes it is an inherently powerful name. He even alters his own name to ‘J.A.K.’ because he did not believe that ‘Jack’ would be an appropriate first name for a pioneer of Hitler studies [the narrator’s occupation’s significance is fairly obvious, I should think]. It’s not just language that DeLillo connects to experience and expression. Déjà vu, one of the symptoms of contamination from the airborne toxic event which occurs roughly a third of the way into the novel, renders even past experience, which our characters are so eager to connect with, and are so dependent on, suspicious.
The novel is essentially about, with regard to the characters anyway, about how we deal, or fail to deal with the postmodern condition, with the representative nature of language, a nature we are now acutely aware of, with the construction of self by/from mass media, with the pretension of religion. The characters are in search of a time when language was concretely related to objective reality, when objective reality existed [or at the very least, was thought to exist], because they wish to find a beginning for their journey, which in the postmodern condition feels hopelessly illogical and fragmented. The characters are lost and hoping to find guidance, and they look to the past to find a starting point for a journey which even near its end doesn’t yet feel like it’s begun. Paradoxically, in spite of their search for the concrete, they don’t want to arrive at the one place they certainly know they will arrive at. The characters are obsessed with simulations and with the past. At one point, Jack looks at old photo albums with his wife, instead of having sex. Even the present is too much to deal with for the characters because it necessarily involves, bar the magical appearance of a pause button, the slow linear march to death. The characters also don’t wish to deal with death because they feel that there is a guided path to follow in life, even if they have not found it yet, while death is uncharted territory, with everyone who has been in the position to chart it obviously being literally incapable of doing so.
Jack repeatedly attempts to adopt the language and behaviour of other traditions to solve his problems, but his appeals to the past and planned fusing of it with the present repeatedly fails to achieve the desired effect. To escape the emptiness of his mundane life, Jack frequently attempts to find profundity [and occasionally does] in the mundane and materialistic [and the random]. Religion is not an option for Jack. It is seen as hollow, as outdated by most characters in the novel. The German nuns near the end disturb Jack so much because he finds that even their faith is lost, and that they have the same opinion of religion as he does. Even though religion is not an option, the faith of others was an unknown source of comfort for Jack. A faithless world is extremely distressing to him. The nuns’ [lack of] beliefs also marks another point in the novel where the lack of things to take for granted is a source of concern for the characters, and especially Jack. If we cannot even assume that ‘the dead’ are dead and ‘the living’ are living, what can we assume? [See the conversation between Orest, Jack, and Heinrich if you have no idea what I’m on about]
Dylar, the drug humans can take to alleviate the consuming fear of death, was most interesting to me in its relationship to language. On Dylar, a human can literally feel a non-existent hail of bullets. This does not give us a particularly comforting concrete association between the signifier and signified, however. Regardless of what the person on Dylar may feel like, the hail of bullets never actually materializes. The disconnect between language and meaning is even greater than ever, and the confusion, imprecision and even potential meaninglessness of language is acutely revealed. Jack’s existential angst can essentially be traced to his insistence on tracing a concrete relationship between word and meaning. Jack also cannot stand the fragmentation of the postmodern condition, and desperately seeks, as I described earlier, to seek a connection with a mythical past. Jack, stuck in a shrinking and unchangeably constricted world, seeks the mythic spaciousness of the past.
Jack does eventually have his epiphany. After shooting Mink and being shot [I’m disinterested in extensive summary here, there are plenty of plot summaries you can read elsewhere], Jack is released by that horrific pain from his self-absorption and his preoccupations. He is returned once and for all to the ordinary and the meaningless. He finally finds meaning in the postmodern world, but only after being snapped out of the past. He is forced by the parodic showdown between himself and Mink to confront and accept “the old human muddles and quirks” and feel “compassion, remorse, mercy,” emotions Jack had suppressed for so long in search of nonexistent profundity. Jack’s epiphany seems to me to come in the act of writing and not in the actual events he writes about, during which even after the violence he is as naive [during the conversation with the nuns] and dishonest about himself [he doesn’t admit to shooting Mink] as ever.
I think that there is some clarity in the final chapter, though I know that others disagree. The narrator of the last chapter, post-‘epiphany’ Jack, seems particularly content to live in the present. It seems to me that we can frame his contentment as the acceptance of mystery, confusion, fragmentation, as the acceptance of looking for beauty and meaning not in concrete relationships and clear-cut ideas, but in ambiguity and uncertainty. He chooses, finally, to adapt to a disorderly world. The incongruous and disruptive presence of Wilder’s tricycle on the highway in the final chapter is so because the pace of life is interrupted not by progression but by regression and innocence. Somehow, the cars all escape hitting Wilder, and all of a sudden the order of the road, the presumed truths are thrown into question, forcing the drivers on the highway to confront their concrete ideas of the world. The final conclusion of the language issues the novel deals with seems to be that we must satisfy ourselves with language being an artful way to arrange the chaotic postmodern condition, that we cannot expect language to resolve our mysteries and fears, but that there is beauty in the puzzles themselves. Perhaps, DeLillo seems to be suggesting on a level broader than the language stuff, we ought not to seek indeterminable truths by the way of logic, or to surrender ourselves to technology, or to seek comfort in religion, but instead to find a different faith, the faith in mystery itself, the unknowable, the uncertain, the confused. Jack, who spends most of the novel pondering big questions, doesn’t even bother in the final chapter to find the meaning behind Wilder’s bizarre trip, instead simply starting to discuss, after relating that tale, the family’s visits to the highway overpass. Jack doesn’t discuss death in the final chapter. Presumably his near-death experience has ironically allowed him to progress beyond his consuming fear of death, death being, of course, the greatest mystery of all. How else can we interpret the final chapter, except to conclude that Jack’s newfound ‘faith’ in mystery is what finally frees him from his great existential dilemmas. The final three scenes [the highway, the sunset, and the rearranged supermarket] which comprise the final chapter are collectively a subversion of the notion that are in control of everything, even death. Once Jack accepts that he is not in control of death, that he has no solution to it, he is free. How ‘happy’ an ending this is depends on your worldview, and DeLillo’s is ambiguous based on reading the novel. Perhaps Jack is finally happy and free, but also terribly deluded, and not really free but rather trapped in a delusion, a construct which enables him to deal with the unfathomable reality and the very real existential issues we must confront in our lives. After all, Jack does not find a solution. He merely sidesteps the issue altogether, finding a way not to confront it.