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Delillo’s White Noise follows narrator Jack Gladney, a professor at a small Liberal Arts college and describes an academic year. Though the novel digresses frequently into small episodes and speculation, the bulk of the novel covers some large events which come to define the narrator and his life.
Jack is a professor at The College-on-the Hill where is the chair of a department he created himself: The Department of Hitler Studies. He and wife Babette, their four children from different marriages, Heinrich, Steffie, Denise, and Wilder, live in the nearby town of Blacksmith. The various ex-wives and other ex-spouses make appearances throughout the novel. Jack loves his wife Babette sincerely. He sees her as steadfastly honest and a solid bulwark of their domestic life and he ruminates on this at various times in the novel.
Jack more or less admits that he created the department of Hitler studies because he wanted to capitalize on the historical significance of Hitler, something he believed would lend him an air of importance and significance by creating a field unto himself. Jack is acutely aware of small details which make him appear more important. After he founded the department, for example, he added an initial to his name because he thought it appeared more dignified. Because he is so preoccupied with his image over substance, Jack is also constantly worried he will be exposed as a fraud. As the novel opens we find Jack quickly trying to learn German since an international conference on Hitler Studies will be hosted by the college. As the founder of the discipline, he is terrified that anyone will find out he does not speak German.
In the same building as the Hitler Studies department is the American Environments Department. This is essentially a department of popular culture. Jack belittles this by referring to the people in this department as “New York emigres” concerned primarily with inconsequential things. Nevertheless, Jack becomes friends with Murray Jay Siskind from this other department. Murray is sarcastic and glib about life. He says that he came to Blacksmith simply to “immerse himself in the American culture of magic ad dread.” Murry constantly sees great significance in the most common and ordinary things. He offers deep insights on the logic and culture of the supermarket, for example.
The two major plot points in the novel turn on what is called the “airborne toxic event” and Jack’s discovery that Babette is taking an experimental drug called Dylar.
Jack discovers his son Heinrich on the roof of their house as Heinrich watches a cloud of smoke in the distance. Heinrich explains that there has been a train wreck which released a toxic cloud of smoke into the atmosphere. They soon learn that the entire town of Blacksmith has been ordered to evacuate in front of the airborne toxic event. They are told to evacuate to an abandoned boyscout camp.
On their way to the evacuation site, Jack finds that he has been exposed to the toxic chemical: Nyodene-D. The technician who gives him this news explains that Nydene-D is a lethal substance. It lasts 30 years in the human body. He explains that he can give Jack a better idea of his survival odds after about 15 years. Jack becomes completely obsessed with the chemical in his body and the very idea of death. A strange effect of the airborne toxic event is that the sunsets at Blacksmith become uncommonly beautiful.
As this unfolds, the other main plot motif also unfold. Babette’s daughter finds a bottle of pills her mother has been secretly taking labeled Dylar. When Jack and Denise try to ask Babette about the pills, she becomes evasive and will not give a straight answer. In an attempt to get to the bottom of things, Jack steals one pill and has it analyzed by a scientist at the College-on-the-Hill named Winnie Richards. Winnie explains that Dylar is an advanced and experimental psychopharmaceutical. Jack finally confronts Babette on the use of the pills and Babette breaks down in tears. She explains that the Dylar is an experimental drug designed to help cure her of her obsessive fear of dying. Babette also admits to having an affair with Mr. Gray, the Dylar project manager, in order to obtain the pills. Jack then confesses to Babette his own obsessive fear of dying after being exposed to Nyodene-D. Jack then goes to find Babette’s stash of Dylar and discovers that Denise has thrown them all away.
Jack develops sleeping problems after this. He goes to the doctor frequently and becomes obsessed with cleaning up his home and clearing out clutter. He stays up at night and watches the children sleeping.
One evening, Jack’s son Wilder wakes him up because Jack’s father-in-law, Vernon Hickley, is asleep in the back yard. Vernon is something of a stereotypical tough old man. He is unlike the progressive academics in Blacksmith. During Veron’s visit, he secretly gives Jack a gun. This plays into Jack’s morbid fascination and fear of death.
Right after this, Jack lets Murray know about his death issues. Murray’s explains that Jack’s fear of death might be cured by actually killing someone. This leads Jack to think about the gun. He even brings it to class with him on one occasion.
As it happens, Jack runs into Winnie Richars again who tells him she knows who the man behind Dylar is and she knows approximately where he is living. The man’s name is Willie Mink and he is staying in motel nearby. Jack decides to track down Willie Mink. Jack finds him in the same motel where Babette had her affair with him and, in a general state of disarray, decides to kill Mink.
After a brief exchange with Willie Mink, Jack pulls out the gun and shoots Mink twice. As Jack attempts to arrange the scene to make it look like Mink committed suicide, Mink shoots Jack in the wrist. As Jack becomes overcome with the enormity of the moment, he drives Mink to a hospital run by atheist German nuns who save Mink’s life.
Jack comes home to watch the children sleep. The novel ends as Jack watches in horror as his youngest son, Wilder, ride his tricycle across the highway and survive. This snaps Jack out of his fear of and fixation on death. Jack, Babette, and Wilder watch the new spectacular sunset. The novel ends with a discussion of how the supermarket re-arranged everything so that everyone is in a state of confusion.