Examination of the difference between reality and simulation in White Noise.
Reality and Artificiality in White Noise
In the second part of White Noise, DeLillo focuses on how artificially and simulations play a significant role in people’s lives, which distances them from reality. He provides instances to show how people use simulations to gain power and meaning that reality is unable to provide. DeLillo also shows ways that simulations become more real than the actual event. This blurring between reality and artificiality eventually contributes to the confusion present throughout the novel as it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between what is actually occurring and what the characters perceive.
The way people use artificial means to gain a sense of control and significance is evident when Murray pays a woman twenty five dollars to pretend to choke so he can perform the Heimlick maneuver on her. Murray does not care that the event is staged as long as it looks real. He says “As long as she makes gagging and choking sounds. As long as she sighs deeply when I jolt the pelvis. As long as she collapses helplessly into my life-saving embrace”(DeLillo 153). The woman appearing to choke and Murray saving her will make him look like a hero. It will give him a sense of power, respect, and importance he has never experienced before. He believes that people will look up at him as somebody who is reliable and helpful to others. In his perspective the simulation becomes just as powerful and meaningful as actually saving someone’s life.
Not only does artificiality give the characters a sense of control and significance, but it even takes precedence over reality. This idea is illustrated when Jack meets a member of a group called SIMUVAC. Their job is to simulate evacuations in order to prepare for a real catastrophe. The scenario is actually reversed because they are using the airborne toxic effect, which is the actual catastrophe, to prepare for a simulation. Jack is surprised by their actions when he says “Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real even in order to rehearse the simulation?”(DeLillo 139). This event is unusual to himself and the reader because the simulation is treated as dangerous and life-threatening while the actual evacuation is just a form of practice. The SIMUVAC is unable to help the people that are displaced and dying because they do not take the actual event seriously. This example proves how people are unable to deal with the problems of reality such as the toxic spill because they are obsessed with the replications and images that they created.
This inability to deal with problems is caused by blurring reality and artificiality, which only contributes to confusion. This confusion and chaos is evident when Steffie and Denise appear to be experiencing symptoms caused by the airborne toxic effect. They at first have sweaty palms because they hear it on the radio. What the radio says the disease causes becomes more real than what symptoms infected people actually observe. At the same time it is possible that the girls are in fact really experiencing these symptoms and not making them up. Jack expresses this confusion and chaos of the scenario when he says “What if she was developing real symptoms by natural means? Maybe the scientists were right in the first place, with their original announcements, before they revised upward. Which was worse, the real condition or self-created one, and did it matter?”(DeLillo 126). In the passage Jack is saying that it is possible that the girls experienced the symptoms, but at the same time it does not make a difference between their own perceptions has become a form of reality. It no longer matters that something is just imagined because it unclear where the line between reality and simulation is
drawn and the girl’s actual fears are more significant than their body’s reaction to the toxic spill.
The lack of clarity is present in the form of the symptoms known as déjà vu. It seems like an unusual and even absurd symptom for a potentially deadly disease, but it carries importance in understand the conflict between reality and artificiality. Déjà vu makes people believe that they are experiencing something that has already happened before. It gives people memories of the airborne toxic effect, but they are false memories. It mixes reality and artificiality because people begin to believe that they have experienced the toxic effect such as when Steffie and the man with the television camera at the end of the chapter who says “It all happened before. Steam hissing in the pipes. Tiny little hairs standing out in your pores. That identical look on your face”(DeLillo 163). Ending the chapter with this memory about the toxic spill forces the reader to question the reality of the event itself and wonder whether the whole chapter is reality, a simulation, or if the toxic spill is both real and imagined.
By constantly mixing reality and imagination DeLillo shows how postmodern society is moving away from reality by creating their own versions of the world to deal with their problems. The airborne toxic effect was viewed differently by each characters as some were fearful and others began to experience symptoms, but the real cause of the toxic spill and its effects were lost. The response to the disaster is a panorama used by DeLillo to underscore how the people to gain a sense of reality to better understand the world and each other.
Movement of Narrative Towards and Away from Death in White Noise
In the third part of White Noise not only are characters obsessed with dying, but death is viewed as the culmination of events in the story. As aspects of the story approach death, they also simultaneously move away from death. DeLillo drives the narrative towards danger and destruction to show its inevitability and power. At the same time the story shifts to safety at its most dire moment to emphasize how the need for life and survival is able to overpower death. I will examine instances in the text that support how DeLillo purposefully creates danger and tension and then relieves these perilious situations in the most unexpected of circumstances.
This idea of events moving towards danger and destruction is evident when Jack is speaking to Orest about going for a world record by sitting in a cage full of snakes. Jack asks him “Why would you want to get killed going for a record?” and “Do you understand that you are risking death for a couple of lines in a paragraph book?”(DeLillo 207). In Jack’s perspective, Orest will get bitten and the snake’s venom will kill him because Orest surviving the feat does not appear to be plausible. Later on this apparent shift of the plot towards death is circumvented when DeLillo presents another option. Orest performs his record at a hotel where he gets bitten by a snake, but since the snakes used were not poisonous Orest survives. After the event DeLillo writes about Orest that “He dropped out of sight. He went into complete seclusion”(DeLillo 298). Orest felt humiliated by his failure and isolated himself from society. He may have survived the event physically, but it psychologically deteriorated him. Orest felt so miserable after the event that he felt dead inside. Here DeLillo shows that the nature of death can be experienced emotionally as well and that he can simultaneously move the plot away from possible destruction, but still have the characters feel devastated.
Not only do side plots deal with death, but the narrative that Jack himself tells moves deathward as well. Jack develops a hatred and obsession with Mr. Gray, which is propelled forward from feelings to possible actions when Vernon gives Jack a gun. The presence of the gun is an ominous symbol of violence foreshadowing Jack’s attack on Mr. Gray. By accepting the gun from Vernon Jack is telling the reader that his own narrative plot will lead towards death, which he feared in earlier sections of the book. The fact that Jack knows both the whereabouts and identity of Mr. Gray reinforce the probability of him potential committing murder.
Death is not only seen as the course that his story must take, but it provides Jack with a source of power and sense of importance. This is affirmed by his conversation with Murray where Murray tells him that during a violent crime “the killer lives on. What a marvelous equation. As a marauding band amasses dead bodies, it gathers strength. Strength accumulates like a favor from the gods”(DeLillo 290). This causes Jack to believe that the act of killing will alleviate his own fear of death while make him stronger. DeLillo wants the reader to believe that Jack will kill Mr. Gray. He has the weapon he needs, a motive, desire, and knows where to find his target. Just like the example with Orest and the snakes an escape route is found at the most dangerous moment and death is overpowered by the forces of survival and need for life.
Jack goes to the Roadway Motel, where Mr. Gray is located, but realizes after shooting him that saving the man’s life will make him feel more powerful and important than the act of killing. Jack says that “it is better to commit evil and attempt to balance it with an exalted act than to live a resolutely neutral life?”(DeLillo 314). Jack still views his desire to drive his plot
deathward as essential, but tries to seek redemption by saving the man, which is a sign of promoting life over death.
Throughout the novel this conflict between death and destruction and survival and rebuilding is prevalent. DeLillo depicts how both forces are present in society and one cannot experience survival without enduring the danger of death. In order for Jack to appear to feel important because he saved Mr. Gray’s life, he had to experience the possibility of being responsible for his death. Similarly, Orest did not know that the snakes were not poisonous and despite his denial he was well aware of the possibility of dying while trying to set his record. Life and death are interrelated and act on each other all the time. As events move deathward the forces of life will be there to counterbalance them and forces of life will be acted upon by destructive forces as well.