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Photo Credit: Penguin; Karen Murphy/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Don Delillo’s “White Noise” is 2024’s reality. (Op-Ed)

Don Delillo’s 1985 postmodern masterpiece White Noise was supposed to serve as a warning against rampant consumerism and ecological disaster; instead, it is our current reality.

An early scene in the novel features our protagonist, Jack Gladney, visiting the most photographed barn in America on a road trip. He quietly notes that no one is physically looking at the barn, they are viewing it through their cameras as they snap pictures to prove to others that they saw the barn. As his colleague takes photos of the barn, he wonders if the barn even exists, or if it only exists on film. While the scene may seem pedantic and silly, how many times have you been to a historic location surrounded by tourists on their phones? We are obsessed with having evidence that we were somewhere rather than truly enjoying the moment and engaging with our surroundings.

Midway through the novel, The Airborne Toxic Event occurs: a train crash causes toxic, radioactive fumes that coalesce into clouds to spread throughout the suburbs. Jack is not at all worried and doesn’t feel the need to evacuate his family until it’s too late. As they pile into the family van and drive as far away as they can, they must stop for gas. While Jack refuels the vehicle, he inhales these toxic fumes, and he knows he’s in trouble. An apathetic hazmat suit-covered disaster relief group informs Jack that he is likely going to die from his exposure, though they can’t give him a timeframe. Jack could die in a matter of days, weeks, months, or years, and he is consumed by fear.

With the increasing number of disasters like this taking place all over America, such as the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment in 2023, we are living in White Noise. No one cares about toxic exposure, no one cares about radioactive material in the water or air, and no one seems to think that it could happen to them. We are complacent in taking photos of photos, buying the latest consumer trends, and ignoring the consequences of ecological decay. The warmest winter on record has already seen wildfires and intense storms, it is only a matter of time before the next devastation.

Most of White Noise takes place in a grocery store, as Jack suffers from death anxiety, contemplating his existence post-exposure. As people mindlessly shop cyclically, Jack fears his death and cannot live in the present. He is blind to his wife’s mental breakdowns, unaware of his children’s plights, and almost fails the most important presentation of his career.

Many Americans have become anxious and fearful like Jack, stuck in a routine designed to keep us complacent. Buy, buy, buy! How can you think about any disaster for too long when advertisements are shoved in your face? Don Delillo’s novel was perhaps a bit too radical for the 80’s, but it has come to fruition in the worst way. We have accepted that everything, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear, to the cleaning products we use, has some form of carcinogen in it. We have reached the level of apathy present in White Noise.


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