Why We Make Jokes After A Horrible Event: Don deLillo’s White Noise

Don de Lillo’s White Noise, published in 1985, came off as a bit of surprise to me. I had previously read deLillo’s masterful novel, Libra, which was basically the fictional retelling of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life, the lone gunman who is still believed to be behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I found that novel to be quite brilliant and challenging. Not only did he effectively render the assassin’s life with utmost precision and elegance, which made me sympathetic to the protagonist’s plight and eventual descent to madness and evil, he gave me a difficult time in the reading of the text, as he continually blurred and merged the lines which separated fact and fiction. It was presumptuous and foolish for me to assume that White Noise, which initially caught my eyes because of its sleek and haunting cover and the rumor that it actually coined the term ‘Airborne Toxic Event,’ would be of the same level. Truth be told, when I grabbed the book from my bookshelf, I was expecting a complex plot, a dead-serious tone and a difficult read, one that would make me doubt if I even understand anything

White Noise, which won the National Book Award in 1985, narrates the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies, and his quirky, unusual and disfunctional family, which consists of his fourth wife, the voluptuous and perceptive Babette, and their children, the cynical and brilliant Heinrich, the precocious and untrusting Denise, the compassionate Steffie, and the unknowing and silent Wilder. The novel is divided into three sections. The first one, Waves and Radiations, serves as an introduction and an initial analysis on contemporary American culture, focusing on the dynamics of the family, using Jack and Babette’s odd but very tender relationship and the status of their living, and the absurdity of the academe and its scholarly pursuits, specifically their nonchalant need to apply critical theory onto everything and their irrepressible desire to intellectualize everything in their midst. The second part, aptly entitled The Air Borne Toxic Event, tells of the toxic mushroom cloud that rises above the Gladney’s small little town, a plume which was said to be lethal, and the measures that Jack and his family take to escape the crisis and survive. This section delves into the prevalent condition of American society, and the world, at the 20th and 21st century, that state of eternal fear. It also speculates on what happens once these fears have been realized. It shows how ill-equipped the government can be at the advent of a disaster of this magnitude, how men, like little Heinrich, take advantage of the chaos to find themselves and seek personal fulfillment, and finally, the way they adapt to the certainty and inevitability of death. Finally, the third part, Dylarama, deals with the aftermath of the Airborn Toxic Event, as both Jack and Babette continue to deal with their fear, which eventually leads to Babette’s sexual affair with a pharmaceutical expert just so she could have access to Dylar, an experimental drug which inhibits the receptors in the brain and makes them unafraid of death. In turn, Jack resorts to his primitive nature, and ends the novel by shooting the man who Babette had an affair with. What comes out in this painful conclusion is an exploration of infidelity, on the intricate dynamics of a marital relationship, on substance and drug dependency, on mass-consumerism, and on the fear of death.

What I particularly enjoyed about the novel is the amount of humor and wit employed in the treatment of a narrative thread and subject that is serious, complex and very relevant. Given the story that the book wishes to tell, I half-expected a serious tone, a formal, “bore me with the barest details, plant the necessary and relevant plot points, then dangle me at the face of scandal” tale. I anticipated something totally distant from the story, from the characters and from their personal ordeals, something unbearably cold, something that would make me feel alienated from the text so I can analyze it critically and scholarly, without having to deal with the tumultuous emotions that I might get from reading an affective text. Instead, I got humor. I got cynicism and sarcasm. I got an “in your face”  treatment, one that gave me the occasional smirk and laughter.  The banter among family members and among colleagues, the inappropriate sexual and vulgar remarks in the middle of a very important conversation to solve and analyze marital and domestic problems, or during a heavy discourse on popular culture, was very refreshing and made me feel more confident to read the novel. It made the entirety of it all quite welcoming. The hilarity and irony introduced in some of the scenes, even in the most dire and crucial of moments, like during the Airborne Toxic Event, is probably the shining moments of the novel. Despite the chaos and the presence of death looming over the populace of the town, we see Murray pursuing a conversation with a pimp and a number of prostitutes just so he could research on “lifestyle diseases” and remark on the fact that the toxic event is “not the kind of disaster that leads to sexual abandon.” In the midst of the panic, we see Heinrich, like the pre-teen Jesus, lecturing on the nature of life and the disaster to confused and lost individuals, who knows better, and makes the astute remark concerning their wait in the refuge center, saying that they have been “flung back in time,” since they apparently have a wide knowledge on technology and the modern way of living, yet only a few can actually create them in dire situations such as what they found themselves in. Although they jolt us from the horrible experience, one cannot deny that they hold some truths their situation holds, truths which we may not necessarily notice because we are too preoccupied with the graveness of what has happened.

As a Filipino, I find myself familiar with the whole attempt to reconcile humor and human tragedy. It’s not so unusual in our nation that people find themselves joking after something horrible happens, whether it’s the latest gossip or sex video, a social upheaval, a natural disaster, a highly-publicized political case that may cause turmoil and that may produce grave ramifications in the way the country and its leaders work and function. Even death is laughed at. Sometimes, it is a tad bit offensive. Sometimes, the jokes and the comedic remarks come too soon, and may add, to use a cliché, insult to injury. But regardless of these circumstances, this is how we deal; this is our efforts to understand every single angle of what had just transpired; this is the manner in which we attempt to comprehend the sheer gravity and the immense nature of what had happened. This is the way deLillo uses humor in this book. It is not to sugarcoat the horror, it is not to add cushion to the powerful and painful impact of what happened and what will happen to the characters, it is not to hide the pain and the intricacies and sharp elegance of pain. It is to highlight it, it is to show it even more, it is to expose our weakness towards a crisis, it is to divulge the grand secret that mankind will forever be ill-equipped in the matters of chaos and death.


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