A staple of “Intro to Postmodernism” courses (with sentences such as, “Is it possible to have a false perception of an illusion?”), DeLillo’s 1984 novel is at times an amusing period piece, from a time when the concept of “Hitler Studies” and “Elvis Studies” were considered equally absurd. However, the “fear of death” subplot which takes over at the end really fizzles for me; I would have rather the novel stayed in the realm of ironic academia, rather than the intrigue of sexual politics and stolen drugs. Still, it’s worth reading, if for nothing else than the spot-on description of the annual arrival of new students on campus which opens the novel.
The novel opens with the arrival of station wagons on campus in the fall and tabular descriptions of the objects students bring with them. Not only does this provide an entertaining insight into the life of mid-eighties college students, but such repeated lists demonstrate how such assemblies of commodities function as tribal demarcations in postmodern America. The scene is narrated by protagonist Jack Gladney, professor and chair of Hitler Studies at the “College-on-the-Hill,” a middle-aged man who lives with his wife Babette and their children from previous marriages.
A primary theme of the novel is fear of death as the constant modern state. From the beginning of the novel, the idea of death appears again and again, as Jack’s children and stepchildren volunteer to be victims in simulated disasters. Early on, Jack and Babette discuss whether wealth might provide a defense against death: “Maybe there is no death as we know it. Just documents changing hands” (6). Even more significantly, Jack finds himself saying in a lecture that “All pots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots” (26). This theme reaches its climax at the end of the novel, as Jack confronts the inventor of the pill which is alleged to combat fear of death. Babette had sex with the man in exchange for access to the pills: interestingly, the drug’s side effect is that it makes the patient unable to distinguish between signifier (the words “speeding bullet”) and the signified (and actual bullet). This seems to support a Lacanian understanding of language, that individuation (and, by extension, understanding of mortality and fear of death) is a result of the realization of the difference between signifier and signified, as a result of the separation from the parent and recognition of the self as a separate entity.
The novel also provides a commentary on the state of the academy at the time. In 1985, the idea of “cultural studies” was avant-garde enough to merit parody in White Noise through the existence of disciplines such as “Hitler Studies.” Academia here is still a very masculine enclave, as Jack’s department is composed primarily of men who wear “rumpled clothes, need, haircuts, cough into their armpits. Together they look like teamster officials assembled to identify the body of a mutilated colleague. The impression is one of pervasive bitterness, suspicion, and intrigue” (9).
In this reading, I was quite struck by the attitudes toward women in the novel, especially with respect to Babette. Here is the first description of Babette in the novel:
Babette is tall and fairly ample; there is a girth and heft to her. Her hair is a fanatical blond mop, a particular tawny hue that used to be called dirty blond. If she were a petite woman, the hair would be too cute, too mischievous and contrived. Size gives her tousled aspect a certain seriousness. Ample women do not plan such things. They lack the guile for conspiracies of the body. (5)
Such “ampleness” is connected throughout to maternity, sensuality, and—as an outgrowth of these—a certain kind of ignorance and stupidity. The description continues:
Babette, disheveled, has the careless dignity of someone too preoccupied with serious matters to know or care what she looks like. Not that she is a gift-bearer of great things as the world generally reckons them. She gathers and tends the children, teaches a course in an adult education program, belongs to a group of volunteers who read to the blind. (5)
Here, the tabular style gives Jack’s analysis of Babette—her guilelessness and lack of greatness—a certain tone of authority. Babette is different from Jack’s former wives, whom he describes as “a self-absorbed and high-strung bunch, with ties to the intelligence community” (6). Change “intelligence” to “intelligentsia,” and you’d have a decent description of Jack himself.
Jack is not alone in his condescension toward women: his friend and fellow academic Murray has a similar attitude toward women: “it’s not the bodies of women that I ultimately crave but their minds. The mind of a woman. The delicate chambering and massive unidirectional flow. What fun it is to talk to an intelligent woman wearing stockings as she crosses her legs. That little staticky sound of rustling nylon can make me happy on several levels” (11). Men of the mind seem incapable of seeing women as anything other than Woman-with-a-capital-W—when it comes to women, these men can only see the signifier, and not the signified.