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WHITE NOISE BY DON DELILLO - CHAPTER NOTES

PART 2: THE AIRBORNE TOXIC EVENT

CHAPTER 21

Summary

This is by far the longest chapter in the novel. Heinrich is on the roof with binoculars and a radio because he has heard that a tank car has derailed. Heinrich and Jack talk about what the event is (a derailment or a ramming), and whether it is a plume or a cloud. Heinrich says that originally, Nyodene Derivative (Nyodene D), according to a school movie, caused "urgent lumps" in rats, but the radio says that it causes "skin irritation and sweaty palms." The radio then updates its information and says that it causes "nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath." Babette calls up and says that Steffie and Denise have sweaty palms and Heinrich replies "Tell them they ought to be throwing up." Babette also says that her friend has called and said that it is no longer being called a "plume" but a "black billowing cloud." Meanwhile, Jack is saying that everything is okay. At one point he says that they are okay because things like this only happen to the poor: "Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods?"

Wilder is missing again, but found with Heinrich on the roof. Heinrich states that there are new symptoms, heart palpitations and déjà vu, and it is now being called an "airborne toxic event." Jack repeats that this kind of thing does not happen to departmental heads of colleges. Denise is vomiting and Heinrich tells her that her symptoms are now outdated.

A fire captain’s car with sirens blaring speeds by and announces through the loudspeaker: "Evacuate all places of residence. Cloud of deadly chemicals." Babette thinks they have plenty of time because the message did not include "hurry." Steffie is reading a coupon for soap and cries. The radio directs them to an abandoned Boy Scout camp. Once they get in the car and head to the camp, the car radio says if one is inside to stay inside and that the new symptoms are "convulsions, coma, miscarriage." Heinrich is transfixed by the disaster. Steffie is experiencing déjà vu; Jack starts to wonder if she will miscarry next, even if she is only nine and is not pregnant. The car is nearly out of gas so Jack stops at an abandoned (but still operative) gas station. Later, they pass a sign for the most photographed barn. When they arrive, they see a family get out of a car carrying flares and wearing life jackets.


At the camp, information and rumors thrive and coexist equally. Heinrich gains an audience and his youth gives him credibility (because it supposedly means he lacks a special interest in the information). Heinrich announces some of the effects of Nyodene D: after five years, mold; after ten years, rust . . .. Denise tells Jack that she has heard that exposure is bad and he was exposed while he filled the car up with gas. Jack gets in line and talks to a SIMUVAC (simulated evacuation) man behind a computer. It is now a "high- definition event." The SIMUVAC man says that the real event is being used as a model for the simulation, but changes will have to be made because the disaster did not happen like they would have liked. The man then tells Jack that the computer is showing bracketed numbers and pulsing stars. Jack asks if that means he will die but the man only answers, "Not as such." Essentially, Jack is told that they will know more in thirty years. If he is still alive when he is in his eighties, then they will know that the exposure has not killed him (yet). Jack asks the man what to do and he says, "I wouldn’t worry about what I can’t see or feel . . . I’d go ahead and live my life. Get married, settle down, have kids." The idea that this computer has all of this information and "decides" his future bothers Jack. He wants his academic gown and dark glasses.

Babette is reading to a group of people a tabloid article, "Life After Death Guaranteed with Bonus Coupons." She then reads from other tabloids about UFOs, Elvis, Bigfoot, celebrity assassins, ghosts, and cults. Jack is listening in and realizes that they are now part of a media-disaster. Jack finds Heinrich who tells him that they are no further advanced that the cave people or those from the Middle Ages. To prove this he argues that if Jack were to be sent back in time, what could he do for those people that they could not already do or know for themselves: could he make a match or even start a fire with flint? Could he build or explain a radio or computer? Does he or anyone really know anything?

Jack walks outside and finds Murray talking to some prostitutes. Murray is worried that modern diseases are too intelligent to be outsmarted by a condom. Jack tells him that the computer confirmed that he now has death inside his body. Murray then suggests that the moment of death is actually a moment of déjà vu, that we have all seen our death before it happens, but it is only when it happens that we recognize that we have seen it before.

More rumors are spreading: the governor, who was visiting the scene, was killed when his helicopter crashed; more men in Mylex suits were killed; UFOs were spotted; six National Guardsmen had died; two looters had died; there were several miscarriages; and there was a racial incident.

Jack goes back inside and most of the people are sleeping. Steffie is muttering something in her sleep. He leans over and listens. She is saying, "Toyota Corolla, Toyota Celica, Toyota Cressida." This makes Jack feel good, even protected. He lies down and goes to sleep. Denise shakes Jack awake and tells him that the cloud has changed directions and now they need to evacuate to Iron City.

They finally make it the Iron City refugee center and the story going around is that scientists have created a micro-organism which can be placed inside the cloud and will devour the Nyodene D. One of the refugees is walking around with a TV complaining that none of the networks carried the disaster and a local station on gave the disaster fifty-two words, but with no video or no special report. The man then asks the following rhetorical questions: "Don’t they know it’s real? . . . Shouldn’t we be yelling out the window at them, ‘Leave us alone, we’ve been through enough, get out of here? . . . Haven’t we earned the right to despise their idiot questions?" His audience applauds. It was nine days before everyone could leave the shelter and go home.

Notes

The Airborne Toxic Event demonstrates how information is disseminated from the media to the individuals. The information that Heinrich recounts becomes real for Denise and Steffie; they express the symptoms as he tells them. He and Jack also discuss the importance of naming; one idea is that if they can name the event, then it is not so bad. During the event, the news is accepted as authoritative; there is no analysis of the information as it is accepted; it is merely absorbed.

Jack repeatedly mentions that these kind of disasters do not happen to college professors. His evidence is that he has never seen a professor canoeing down the street during a flood. Thus, unless it has been seen on TV, it cannot happen. Reality is dictated by simulation and repetition.

When Jack is told that he has been exposed, the discussion with SIMUVAC operator reveals that nothing is really known about Nyodene D. The only thing that Jack can be told is that he should live his life as if everything were okay: this seems to be Delillo saying that people should not obsess over death without reason.

"Toyota Celica . . ." is Steffie’s mantra which she mutters when she is afraid. The advertising media images and sounds are her God; they protect her and comfort her. In a post-God era, something is needed, and according to this novel, that something is TV.

Like the episode in which the plane nearly crashed, there is no real media coverage of the Airborne Toxic Event. After having been exposed and kept at the shelter in Iron City for nine days, the victims of the ATE are upset that their disaster was not validated by the national press.

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