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Noah Baumbach’s White Noise will premiere at the Venice Film Festival in just a few weeks. The film is based on Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel of the same name. Both a study in satire and humanity’s (particularly America’s) collective response to disaster and death, it’s just as relevant now as it was nearly forty years ago.
The book — in plain language — follows the Gladney family, led by patriarch Jack, a Professor of Hitler Studies, a discipline which he invented. He lives with his wife Babette and their combination of children and stepchildren. It’s a relatively quiet suburban life, marked by an underlying, unavoidable fear of death — which is confronted head on in the face of The Airborne Toxic Event. There’s also fear-of-death drugs, satire, mysterious men, and consumerism.
Although it’s nearly twenty years old, White Noise has not fallen into irrelevance. In fact, it may be more relevant today than it was then — especially in relation to environmental and public health.
DeLillo’s novel draws on the failures of the chemical age, especially those that led to humanitarian crises. The Airborne Toxic Event and Nyodene Derivative (Nyodene D) — the chemical present in the toxic cloud — would fit right into a study of Chernobyl, Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, or even the Union Carbide Disaster. The chemical disasters lead into theory on climate change in the present day.
Human-caused disasters lead to anxiety about impending death.
Sound familiar? It’s hard not to think about the eventual end when it seems like we’re barrelling toward a massacre of humanity’s own making.
The characters in White Noise, including Jack and his work colleague (and the book’s most fascinating character) Murray Jay Siskind believe that they could possibly escape an eventual chemical disaster, because their smalltown affords them a privilege over those who live in “more” toxic areas. Murray even muses on the impact of heat itself:
“‘Heat...that’s what cities mean to me...The heat of air, traffic, people. The heat of food and sex. The heat of tall buildings. The heat that floats out of the subways and tunnels. It’s always fifteen degrees hotter in the cities. Heat rises from the sidewalks and falls from the poisoned sky...The heat death of the universe that scientists love to talk about is already well underway and you can feel it happening all around you in any large or eventual medium-sized city.’”
Now, Murray’s discussion of heat in the city could easily be recognized as the Urban Heat Island Effect — something that is greatly impacting cities all over the world. However, Murray also references death’s role in the fallout of the chemical age with a “poisoned sky.”
We have our own poisoned sky of sorts. The threat of acid rain and smog have been long discussed markers of our environmental woes. I remember reading about pollution in my middle school science textbooks. At that point, it was easy to say pollution is bad and we should stop doing it. Now, though, the pollution of our own bodies has become a contentious subject. With this “poisoning” comes death.
And that’s the whole thing about White Noise. Jack and Babette are constantly worried about their eventual demise and the Airborne Toxic Event makes it worse. Compounded on top of that is Babette’s use of the fictional drug Dylar, which was created to cure the fear of death. She pursued the use of this drug even though there was no research on it and its side effects were unknown. Her intake of the experimental drug adds another layer to this cycle of disaster and death.
Upon confronting Babette about her use of Dylar, Jack says, “‘How can you be sure it is death you fear? Death is so vague…Maybe you just have a personal problem that surfaces in the form of a great universal subject.’
Jack is quite dismissive of Babette’s real mental health crisis (as we would refer to it now). Even what he says — “maybe you just have a personal problem that surfaces in the form of a great universal subject” — puts the onus for her mental state completely on her. She doesn’t actually fear death, she’s just upset about something small. Jack’s logic follows the line of those who claim the millennials and especially Gen Z shouldn’t be worrying about climate collapse. You’re just making yourself hysterical about something big, even though there’s nothing to worry about.
The truth in White Noise is that it’s not so different from our current age. Jack, Babette, their children, and their colleagues are all interacting with both an environmental disaster and the fallout of that disaster on mental health and general quality of life.
Climate anxiety isn’t going away anytime soon — especially because we have a long way to go in securing a livable future both for ourselves and future generations. DeLillo’s writing is just as relevant (if not more?) than it was upon the book's publication 1985.
I’m interested to see where Baumbach took the novel for his adaptation. White Noise has famously been called undaptable. Let’s just hope it gets the climate relevance right. This needs to be discussed.
Want to read more of my thoughts on White Noise? I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the novel, focusing on the idea of chemicals in the air & chemicals in the body. I can’t promise you it’s any good, but if you’re interested, it’s available as paid bonus content.