…But Not Just Because His Protagonist is a Hitler Scholar; Or, A Feminist’s [Re]Reading of Don DeLillo’s White Noise
When Don DeLillo’s White Noise was published in 1985, Jayne Anne Phillips wrote this in her New York Times review: “In light of the recent Union Carbide disaster in India that killed over 2,000 and injured thousands more, White Noise seems all the more timely and frightening– precisely because of its totally American concerns, its rendering of a particularly American numbness.” She was referring to the Bhopal gas leak, the worst industrial catastrophe in history, a disaster so calamitous that its repercussions are still felt in the community. (In fact, while I was writing this, The Atlantic published an article revisiting its victims.) There is no denying how the second segment of DeLillo’s book, titled “The Airborne Toxic Event,” seems like a microcosm of that tragedy. In this section, a train has either derailed or gotten rammed or something has punched a hole in its side, and as the chemicals spewing from the wreckage change from a feathery plume to a black billowing cloud, the town is forced to evacuate, all while the media, the government, and the healthcare system report a litany of changing symptoms and prognoses to the town’s people.
Certainly the ideas of shifty media and environmental disasters are still relevant thirty-three years later, but what’s notable about White Noise is that as relatable as it was in 1985, it is timely, frightening, and pertinent to American concerns for a new (but perhaps not as praiseworthy) reason: Babette. The first-person protagonist’s wife is often overlooked, both within the novel and in the praise surrounding it. But not only is Babette overlooked, she is also overly looked at, which makes her a pretty perfect representation of American women. But even beyond the male gaze and flattening of Babette’s character, I believe her experience with the fear-of-death blocking, black market drug Dylar is emblematic of our current administration’s war on reproductive rights.
That seems like a lot to pull out of a character who is primarily described as “Jack’s wife who has an affair with Willie Mink,” but bear with me.
In the third and final section of the novel, while the two are lying in bed, Jack confronts his wife about the Dylar pills he and Babette’s daughter have found. (The title of this section, “Dylarama,” sounds like “diorama” and reading it feels like peering into a box of Babette’s drama—it’s microcosmic, almost like a John Donne metaphysical poem, a tiny world unraveling in their bed.) He tells her, “It’s time for a major dialogue;” adding that he and her daughter Denise have her “backed against a wall.” His approach is confrontational, assertive, and accusatory. Jack compares the technology of the pill, which he’s had analyzed by a neurobiologist at the college where he works, to the microorganisms released to devour the toxic cloud. In this analogy, Babette and the airborne toxic event are the same, and a connection between mother-Babette and Mother Earth seems almost too easy. What warrants closer consideration is how this connection erases the individual-ness of Babette’s dilemma, yet also enlarges it. Before she speaks to Jack, he seems to see her use of Dylar as being equivalent to the town’s disaster: a huge, life-altering mystery that overcomes his thoughts. However, once she tells him the whole story, her whole story, the weight of the problem evaporates (at least for Jack) and he diminishes its importance.
After Jack’s opening monologue, Babette is silent for several minutes before she begins to tell her story. She starts by trying to identify the source of her unease, to set up the why before the what. But she doesn’t get very far. Jack won’t stop interrupting. First he corrects her, stopping her midway through her sentence to point out that she meant to say she was going through either a “landmark” or “watershed” period, not a “watermark period” as she has mistakenly said. And then, once she moves past his grammar lecture and begins explaining her crippling, unwavering fear of death, he interjects: “You’ve been depressed lately. I’ve never seen you like this. This is the whole point of Babette. She’s a joyous person. She doesn’t succumb to gloom or self pity.”
Jack is not only dismissing Babette’s understanding of her own mind and body, but he is delineating her person down to a compressed, “joyous” version of her that he has created. To him, her fear cannot be real, for it does not fit how he understands her. And as she continues to talk, he gaslights her into exhaustion. He tries to dissuade her fear of death by blaming her weight. When that doesn’t work, he belittles its seriousness: “If you’re able to conceal such a thing from a husband and children, maybe it’s not so severe;” and then he tries to take her horror away from her: “I’m the one who fears death.” All of this deflects from Babette and undermines her autonomy and her authority. Reading Babette in 2018 reminds me of every man who has spoken over me in a classroom or a boardroom, of every doctor who has ignored a woman’s pain complaint, of all of the men who have told women to smile.
Nevertheless, Babette persists with her story. Yet it seems that Jack, for all of his determination to get her to explain herself, still cannot pay attention. Perhaps this is the whole point of Jack—to be obtuse, self-involved, and childish. But his dismissiveness and insistence on talking over her feels too familiar.
Even when the conversation ends, the misogyny continues. The two get up, use the bathroom, and head back to bed. But Jack waits while Babette fixes the sheets, and when they both tumble in, as she tells him how tired she is and curls up for sleep, he peppers her with more questions. She acquiesces, but when she asks to stop after answering a few, he continues. It seems as though Jack still cannot conceive of a Babette who does not fit his meaning. He is dumbfounded: “I have watched you bathe Wilder, iron my shirts…” Through his confused musings it becomes clear that he only wants her to be his happy wife, the teacher of simple tasks, mother to children, reader to the blind.
But wait. Despite all Jack’s interruptions, we do get to hear from Babette regarding what Dylar is, where she got it, and what has happened to her since. After she finishes telling Jack about the mounting fear of death that has swelled within her, she tells him she found out about Dylar in a magazine. Her blind client requests that she read him tabloids, and it was while Babette was reading from the National Examiner that she saw an ad. She is vague in her description of what it said, telling Jack, “Volunteers wanted for secret research. This is all you have to know.” In a world full of fear where things stop making sense, even rag magazines hold truth. (How often does reality feel like an article in The Onion? How often does one read an article that feels real without realizing its satire?)
Babette tells Jack she followed through on the ad, passed a battery of tests, and became part of the study, ingesting the capsules that slowly released Dylar into her body, in theory, blocking the receptors that allowed her to fear death. However, just as the experiment seemed to be in full swing, three of the four scientists changed their minds, concerned the drug was too risky and its side effects too unknown. They worried she could die, or that parts of her brain could die, and even though Babette’s whole reason for seeking out the drug was because she fears death, she wanted to move forward. The mental gymnastics there are difficult, but the desperation is easy to understand. Babette, removed from the study but determined to alleviate her fear, must do anything to get the Dylar, and so, like Eve in the Garden of Eden, she followed the snake to the forbidden fruit. Babette confesses to Jack that she slept with the fourth scientist, Willie Minks. “It was a capitalist transaction,” she says.
Of course, the novel is bursting with commentary on American consumerism; it’s full of car brands and commercials, food lists and fashion choices, so Babette’s assertion that sex with Willie Minks was “a capitalist transaction” fits well within the scope of the story. But how raw it feels to read this now, when women’s rights to their bodies are increasingly controlled by the wealthy white men running our country, when women who cross the border seeking asylum have their children taken, are themselves sent back. Women’s bodies as commerce, traded, exchanged, and transacted, is a tale as old time and as new as tomorrow. Considering Babette while Title X funding is under siege, science-based healthcare for women is being overridden by moralistic ideals, and Brett Kavanaugh steps closer to being on our Supreme Court shifts my understanding of this diorama-esque section into something more macrocosmic. It seems like all women are Babettes, existing in a country full of Jacks certain that they know where women should be: “I have watched you bathe Wilder, iron my shirts.”
And it’s not just Babette, it’s the Dylar she’s taking, that begs us to consider how relevant, maybe even prophetic, White Noise has turned out to be. I can’t help but think about how similar Dylar is to another slow-release drug that staves off fear: birth control. IUDs and implants seem to me to be just as miraculous as the capsule Babette takes. And it doesn’t seem difficult to jump from fear of death to fear of pregnancy, especially as maternal mortality rates in this country are on the rise, and threats to contraceptive freedom (which not only prevents unwanted pregnancies, but also relieves symptoms of endometriosis, ovarian cysts, even acne) are hovering over our heads like their own toxic cloud. Is it too hard to imagine a world where men use their power to elicit sex in exchange for birth control? The Handmaid’s Tale is not the only dystopian feminist novel we need to hand out.
It seems easy to swap out some of the words from Jayne Anne Phillips’ NYT review to make White Noise just as pertinent today. This book is, at its heart, an examination into how we function while the outside world is uncertain, how we come to normalize change, how the minutiae of life marches forward, how grocery shopping and newspaper deliveries coexist with disasters. That is, I believe, what Phillips was describing as “a particular American numbness.” Babette’s character is certainly emblematic of this phenomenon; she functions quite well despite her inside and outside world’s chaos. However, a close look at her experience with Dylar and with her obtuse husband with twenty-first century mindset is illustrative of our current (and long-held) male-dominated power structures. Babette’s story, like so many women’s stories, is one about resilience.