Jack drives Heinrich, his fourteen-year-old son, to school. It is raining, and they have a discussion about the extent to which they can rely on their senses to inform them correctly that it is raining. Heinrich, who has amazing knowledge for a boy of his age, argues that the human senses are often incorrect in the evidence they seem to provide. Jack explains to the reader that his ex-wife, Heinrich’s mother, is now known as Mother Devi and lives in an ashram in Montana.
The next day Jack goes to the movie theater on campus to wait for his students. He is teaching a class on Advanced Nazism, and shows his students a documentary he has edited on propaganda films. After the film a student asks him a question about the plot to kill Hitler, and Jack finds himself talking about death, saying that all plots move toward death. He comments to the reader that he doesn’t know what that means or why he said it.
Jack walks home with his wife after she has taught her adult education class on correct posture. They go to bed and have a long, amusing (for the reader) discussion about what to do for sexual foreplay that will most please the other. Whose responsibility is it to please? They both want to please each other but don’t want the other person to do something unless they really want to do it. They finally agree that Babette will read to Jack some erotica. Jack goes to Heinrich’s room in search of some magazine in which readers describe their sexual experiences. But instead he finds a family photo album, which he and Babette spend hours looking through. He wonders again, who will die first?
Jack confesses that even though he is chairman of the Hitler studies department, he cannot read or speak German. He has made several attempts to master it but has not gotten far. He decides to try again, and contacts a man named Howard Dunlop, a former chiropractor who lives in the same rooming house as Murray. Jack starts to take German lessons from Dunlop. He later tells Murray that he wants to learn German because there is a big international Hitler conference coming up at the college the following spring, and he wants to be able to hold his own. That evening at home, Steffie reports that they are supposed to be boiling the drinking water. She heard this on the radio.
The grade school had to be evacuated because the kids were having unexplained adverse physical reactions to something at the school. The problem could be due to the ventilation system, paint, asbestos fireproofing, or a number of other things. No one yet knows, but Denise and Steffie get to stay at home that week while an investigation is conducted.
In the supermarket, Steffie tells Jack that Babette uses a drug, which is news to Jack. Steffie knows this because Denise told her. Murray shows up, making comments about how the supermarket, so full of data of all kinds, “recharges us spiritually” (37). He talks about what Tibetans believe about death and how to approach it, with “clear vision, without awe or terror” (38). Murray invites them all to dinner a week from Saturday, and tells Jack that he has been asked to teach a course in “the cinema of car crashes” (40). In the parking lot, Jack hears a rumor that a man has died during the inspection of the grade school.
Analysis, Chapters 6-9
These chapters develop themes already introduced and introduce new ones. The parody of academic life continues with the absurd notion that Jack can be head of the Hitler studies department without knowing any German. It suggests that the entire edifice of academic life is a sham; how can the knowledge it disseminates be taken seriously when one of its leading figures does not even know the language which is central to his discipline?
This idea links to the theme of the uncertainty of knowledge, the fact that we cannot know anything with absolute surety. Many postmodern novels have this theme, pointing out that old ideas of the possibility of absolute knowledge, a clearly defined, objective reference point that allows us to make sense of the world, can no longer be said to exist. The point is made with great humor in the discussion Jack has with Heinrich about whether we can be certain that is raining or not. How do we know what we think we know? Our senses may be less objectively reliable than we like to think, and the truth of any situation or perception less easy to determine. In fact, the idea of truth itself may not even exist.
The evacuation of the school and the need to boil the water introduces the theme of industrial and chemical pollution, a concern about the consequences of technology that was coming to the forefront during the 1980s. This pollution may have been going on undetected for some time, as is suggested at the beginning of chapter 6, in which Jack muses about whether the blazing, spectacular sunsets they are seeing, which are more brilliant than they were many years ago, might be caused by some kind of toxic air from an industrial dump site that might also be causing Heinrich’s premature receding hairline. It seems that the pervasiveness of the technology that has become essential to society may carry with it great and largely unknown risks.
Noticeable also in these chapters is the environmental “white noise” that gives the novel its title. Literally, white noise, according to one definition, is “A combination of random noises in the transmission media caused by various electrical & magnetic sources. A certain amount of white noise is inevitable in any transmission media
(www.connectworld.net/cgi-bin/iec/05GLSU.html). In the novel, the white noise is the kind of background hum of noise we barely notice but which in some form or another is omnipresent in our society. Examples include the following: the “gently plummeting stream of nighttime traffic” (29) that Jack and Babette listen to in bed; the Gladney home in which “Children walked in and out of the kitchen, water dripped in the sink, the washing machine heaved in the entranceway” (33-34); the repeated message, “Kleenex Softique, your truck’s blocking the entrance” (36) that they hear in the supermarket. Jack then realizes that “the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension” (36).