White Noise - a Novel Full of Narratives Techniques

He has written violent thrillers and conspiracy theory novels, sports and science fiction novels, he has obsessed over pop music, advertising, futurism, military tactics, film and television.

Although Don Delillo’s 1984 novel White Noise boosts no formal ending in terms of plot resolution, it manages to achieve a high sense of narrative closure. The novel ends with a short chapter that runs counter to the narrative demands of plot logic and reader’s expectations. After a long and surrealistic chapter in which the main character Professor Jack Gladney attempt to murder the scientist Willie Mink for seducing his wife Babette and, subsequently, experiences a nightmarish series of adventures in Germantown, the novel ends with a short, epiphanic-like chapter which comprises three narrative vignettes that are in complete discontinuity with the narrative sequence of Jack’s plot.

The murder chapter leaves Jack exhausted and concludes on his authorial-like tongue that: “There was nothing to do but wait for the next sunset, when the sky would ring like bronze.” The final chapter that follows immediately does not fulfill this prophetic promise for it starts vigorously with a new narrative that concerns the highway bike adventure of Babette’s five-year old son Wilder. This narrative does not only distance itself temporally from that of the murder scene but also creates a deliberate sequential ambivalence: “This was the day Wilder got on his plastic tricycle, …”. While this rhetorical initio mimics the openings of the classic folkloric adventure tales it breaks down the line of linear narrative progression Jack’s narrative tries to create throughout the text. The reader can never be sure whether this happened after or before the murder narrative.

The same textual tactics are employed with the second narrative vignettes in the final chapter. The intensity of Wilder’s adventure which arouses in the reader a high sense of fear and expectations after the manner of classical tragedy suddenly give way to the tranquility of the sunset scene: “We go to the overpass all the time. Babette, Wilder and I.” The absence of transitional and cohesional markers between these two narratives shakes further the reader’s sense of plot progression. Self and community intrude to disrupt this sense of tranquility that nature provides momentarily: “Men in Mylex suits are still in the area” undermines the both the narrator’s sense of momentary security and mind peace and that of the reader by positing cultural apotheosis as the other of narrativity. Irony predominates in such moments of narrative apartheid as the ultimate mode of self resistance: “ Dr. Chakravarty is eager to see how my death is progressing.”  Community lost its healing powers as the individual melts into subjectivity and alienation. The narrator recoils into self, as a result, and shuts his ego from the pain of communal existence: “ I am taking no calls”. This simply ushers the narrator’s complete separation from the symbolic order of language and the atrophy of communal identity.

The text suddenly breaks as a new narrative vignette intrudes. The authorial will to silence dissolves into the formal space of the supermarket: “The supermarket shelves have been rearranged.” Everyone is lost and a confusion ensues as people miss their daily routine at the level of cultural habituation which is consumerism. The narrator is elated and experience a spiritual revelation. This transcendence seems to establishes the narrator’s faith in consumerism as symbolized by the supermarket. Once again the narrative distances itself temporally in such a way as to create sequential ambivalence: “It happened one day without warning”. Such effect of temporal distancing is, undoubtedly, meant to create a semblance of narrative independence. This vignette is self-contained as it maintains its own paradigm of signification. Its figuration of meaning and thematization of world-views operate independently as a mini text that is situated within a web of intertexuality.

Apart from the single incident of Jack’s refusal to take calls from his doctor which operates as a sequential consequence of the murder narrative, the final chapter fails to behave as an ending to Gladney’s narrative. It fails to bring that narrative to a point of actational saturation necessary for its resolution. Closure as such never happens at the end of White Noise at least from the perspective of the textual paradigm of classic narrative poetics. The final chapter of the novel is more or less a narrative coda that is designed to cap the main narrative line of the Gladneys. The critic David Cowart makes an accidental reference to this possibility in his pioneering study Don Delillo: The Physics of Language when he states at the end of his discussion of White Noise that : “Like a great symphony, Don Delillo’s novel ends with a triple coda.” 

While the critical reception of White Noise agrees that the novel lacks a formal ending some of its astute advocators are too conservative to admit this lack . Marion Muirhead, for instance, theorizes that “ the final chapter of White Noise contains two endings, the traditional American sunset, followed by the real of final ending, a scene from the supermarket, which may actually be a new beginning.” Such a reading is necessarily minimalist as it seeks to simplify things at the risk of affective fallacy.

However, Muirhead’s categorization of White Noise as a novel with double ending is sound enough in terms of internal textual logic in spite of its misplaced assumptions. The sunset scene in the last chapter can be considered a formal ending to Jack’s narrative in chapter 39. This scene maintains strong connections with Jack’s concluding sentence in chapter thirty-nine: “ There was nothing to do but wait for the next sunset, when the sky would ring like bronze.” The sunset sightseeing narrative vignette in chapter forty reproduces the apocalyptic tone of this concluding sentence. The narrative voice frames the sightseeing as 'waiting' in 'awe' in front of the 'atmospheric weirdness' of the sunsets because of the toxic airborne event.

Yet the highly charged language used to describe the 'secular response' of Jack and other watchers, rather than the scene of the sunset itself, tends to furnish the narrative with strong apocalyptic overtones of doom and annihilation.

The whole sunset sightseeing narrative becomes a communal ritual rather than a sequential episodic narrative. The murder narrative happens once but the sunsets are always being watched by the Gladney’s and the community in such a way that nullifies any sense of a specific temporal perspective.

In the closing chapter of the novel, the narrative momentum generated by Jack's unsuccessful plot against his panic gives way to a series of interchangeable sequences.' Thus, by reading this plot as one against Jack's own panic of death, Reeve and Kerridge manage to present the narrative episodes of the last chapter as textual spaces of belated psychic reactions.

Panic inscribes itself in the narrative threads of the final chapter as the ultimate force in the world of White Noise. This turns these narrative threads into textual manifestations of the phenomenology of death in the novel: 'The anxiety for control which had driven Jack on, towards knowledge and murder, or towards hosting his Hitler conference, is set in these last episodes against various forms of reaction.' 

Such a reading, However, extends the sense of action and reaction that leads to these narrative vignettes to thematize contesting forms of panic. In each of the narrative threads in the final chapter panic is extended from the 'personal' into the 'communal' and then contested towards resolution.

Wilder's tricycle adventure across the highway, the sunsets watching and the rearranged shelves of the supermarket evoke different forms of 'communal' panic which are ultimately contested to disrupt the very cultural grounds of this panic as a form of mass hysteria. This hysteria is fashioned and encountered through a narracistic recoil into selfhood. Jack's failure to resolve or, at least, face his chronic panic of death resolve itself in the therapeutic power of communal healing.

The subsequent resolution of this mass hysteria into catharsis helps bring closure through the grading of this cathartic resolution of panic throughout the three threads. In each of these vignettes Jack experiences a revelation that brings his world-view to a crucial reorientation. This starts with his fascination with Wilder's defiance of death on the highway. It progress further in his resignation to his doom after the toxic event, directly after the sunset scene when he refuses to take calls from the doctor responsible for his fatal radiation case. He actually comes to accept his world with all its apocalyptic atrophies. Death, after this enlightenment, becomes a curious mixture of beauty and terror. In the sunset watching scene it adds beauty to the apocalyptic terror of the toxic residual in the sunset. Fascination and the ultimate revelation culminate in the supermarket scene which crystallize in self-recovery. Jack renews his faith in the existential codes of his world. The new identity that commodity culture confers on him is the ultimate point in the novel's politics of closure as it involves both completion and catharsis.

The critic Stephanie S. Halldorson uncovers the same politics of closure in the final chapter of White Noise but with important differences. First, she characterizes the ending of the novel as 'triptych' which means that a politics of plurality is highlighted to achieve closure. Delillo abandons the classic narrative closure of resolution and ending in favour of a more postmodernist politics of closure which manipulates a multiplicity of textual spaces that 'taunts the reader and the consumer' by virtue of its indecidibilty. 

07 July 2022
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