Oil Plumes and White Noise: On Rereading DeLillo

July 2, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 1 6 min read

“They seem to have things under control,” I said.
“Whoever’s in charge out there.”
“Who’s in charge?”
“Never mind.”
White Noise

Despite having closely followed the disastrous events in the Gulf for over a month with something akin to self-flagellatory devotion, growing increasingly angry and disillusioned with each failed attempt to contain the stricken oil well, I recently booked a South Caribbean cruise for my honeymoon in January. It was only after the plans had been finalized that I realized how little the oil spill had actually affected me: I operated under the assumption that someone—the government, BP, someone—would have the “situation” resolved, cleaned up, and concluded before it could intrude on my vacation. I had blithely researched and planned the cruise, never considering that the worst manmade natural disaster in our nation’s history might have real repercussions for me. This naïve self-assurance gave me pause and, like many avid readers, I turned to what literature might teach me about such hubris.

coverDon DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise narrates the events of a manmade disaster so eerily similar to the Gulf oil spill in some of its details that it has an aura of prognostication. The novel is narrated by Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies at College-on-the-Hill in Blacksmith, a quiet town somewhere in the U.S. Jack is an incredibly empathetic character. Contrary to what we might predict for the professor who founded an academic discipline devoted to studying the most heinous figure in modern history, Jack is a good husband and father, kind to his coworkers, and generally affable. Even his idiosyncrasies are endearing: he wears dark-tinted sunglasses on campus, changes his professional name to J. A. K. Gladney, and gains weight to bulk out his frame, each pose an attempt to acquire the gravitas expected of him by students and fellow professors. The careful cultivation of his public persona is matched by his need to provide answers for his family, to be a source of knowledge and assurance to his adolescent son, and to appear to have control over events outside his field of expertise.

When an accident in a nearby train yard spills 35,000 gallons of “Nyodene Derivative” (a fictional, highly toxic byproduct of commercial insecticides), creating an amorphous black cloud quickly named an “airborne toxic event,” Jack assures his family that they will be safe without fleeing home: “These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters. People in low-lying areas get the floods, people in shanties get the hurricanes and tornados. I’m a college professor. Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods?” Even as the air currents threaten to send the toxic cloud toward his neighborhood, Jack insists that alarm would be out of step with his professional position, saying “I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event.”

Jack’s self assurance can be maintained only through an illusion of control. He assumes that the weather, government, and his socio-economic status will all contrive to protect him from the threatening black cloud. But this illusion is wrested from him after he learns that his two minute exposure to the toxin will likely jeopardize his health, though it will be fifteen years before the symptoms begin to manifest. “Scheduled to die,” Jack’s fear of death encroaches upon his ability to see himself among the living. Confiding to a fellow professor, he speaks of the trap he finds himself in: “It’s almost as though our fear is what brings it on. If we could learn not to be afraid, we could live forever.” Caught between the living and the dead, fear and uncertainty drive all of Jack’s actions after the exposure.

The victims of the Gulf oil spill are now trapped in the same epistemic gap in which Jack finds himself. Possibly the most confounding aspect of the disaster is that after two months there is still no certainty as to the extent of the damage. It is not merely a problem of tracking the massive, miles-long invisible plumes of oil that are suspected to be floating below the surface. A more essential problem is that the government and BP have been unable to determine how much oil is leaking from the well. There are only best and worst case scenarios separated by tens of thousands of barrels per day (as of this writing, it was estimated that between 12,600 and 40,000 barrels per day were bleeding into the Gulf before the riser was cut, and between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels per day afterwards).

Being unable to fathom such quantities, we are in a situation similar to Jack’s: things are bad, danger is lurking, but we don’t know its full extent. Like Jack’s, our exposure has been consummate, and fatal for the health and economic stability of many, but the final tally is not yet in.

Much of the novel’s pathos derives from Jack’s attempts to regain control of his life while living in the gap—living with the uncertainty of certain death. First, he alters his routine and begins to obsessively see his doctor and search for a miracle cure for his fear of death, a drug called Dylar. In the end, he violently steals the drug, consciously plotting his movements, the effort to superimpose order on his actions altering his narrative voice from the avuncular professor to the conniving criminal. The reversal of Jack’s fortunes is classically tragic, resulting from his flawed self-assurance. He both fears and longs for a conclusion to the uncertainty, desiring the resolution inevitable at the conclusion of any plot. It is as if he had read Aristotle’s Poetics and now awaits the catharsis available at the ending.

coverKeeping in mind E.M. Forster’s comments in Aspects of the Novel on the difference between “plot” in drama and the modern novel—the latter of which gives much greater emphasis to character development and action which derives organically from that development— Aristotle’s well-known emphasis on the unity and parts of a plot reveals what we as readers seek in narrative. Turning on either (though ideally both) a recognition on the part of a character or a reversal of his fortunes, the best plots are those which elicit sympathy and pity for the characters, resulting in catharsis for the audience. But the emotional payoff can come only at the conclusion, the result of both identifying with the characters and realizing that though you could be in their situation, you are not.

DeLillo not only masterfully plots White Noise, his characters also speaks eloquently of “plots.” Lecturing to his class, Jack opines that “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.” In other words, plotting is a way of reaching an end, the conclusion, and resolving whatever degree of mystery is left in a narrative or life. A plot gives structure to messy and meaningless facts by tying them together but in so doing, requires that the telling be curtailed, sometimes prematurely (for instance, the litigation and environmental cleanup from the oil spill will undoubtedly be with us for years to come, but the “narrative” of events that our culture will construct—in the media and in court—will likely provide an ending that doesn’t account for these lingering signs of the spill).

Aware that death is growing inside him, Jack has essentially short-circuited his life’s “plot.” There is no mystery left. Asked if he would like to know the exact date of his death, he says “Absolutely not. It’s bad enough to fear the unknown. Faced with the unknown, we can pretend it isn’t there. Exact dates would drive many to suicide, if only to beat the system.”

As writers and readers, we are bound to what Forster called the “tyranny of the plot.” Obligated to tie up loose ends, the writer must often sacrifice true characterization, curtailing the organic development of his characters (often with a “contrived” death or marriage, though obvious exceptions are the modernist ambiguous ending and the postmodern fragmented narrative). Forster questions the necessity false endings: “Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? Alas, he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is at work, and our final impression of them is through deadness.” Why must all things move “plotwards”? How can the “deadness” of the characters (both creatively and in the plot) be accounted for? It is as if writers are compelled to sacrifice their characters to the reader’s need for catharsis and redemption, found in the resolution of the plot. This, I believe, is the answer given by Aristotle. We need endings to reassert our own humanity and to find life even in death.

In this way, there is something life affirming in even the greatest disasters. But only after they have ended: only after the tale of survival has been concluded and can be retold, filling in the gaps in a way that brings logic to bear on the messiness of life, creating a narrative that allows those not directly affected (the “audience” of the disaster) to live with fear by rehearsing disaster through its displacement. As stated by one of the characters in the novel, “The more we rehearse disaster, the safer we’ll be from the real thing.”

But we live in the gap, in that middle section of the novel where nothing is resolved and everything is at stake. Rereading White Noise, I recognized that plotting and planning are just ways in which I try to project order onto chaos. This is where fiction departs most drastically from life. In reading fiction, we must learn to willingly suspend disbelieve. But the beauty of living in the middle is the ability to will ourselves to believe that in these moments of suspension there is opportunity for human action.

is a graduate of Columbia Law School and is completing a Masters thesis on the censorship of Ulysses. He lives in Tennessee.