1. How do Vernon Dickey and Orest Mercator act as foils to Jack?
Both Vernon Dickey, Jack’s father-in-law, and Orest Mercator, a friend of Jack’s son, Heinrich, acts as foils to Jack in terms of their very different attitudes to death. In literature, a foil is a character who sets off another by contrast. In the case of Orest, here is a young man who seemingly has no fear of death. He is willing, indeed eager, to sit in a cage with dozens of poisonous snakes for sixty-seven days in order to beat the world record. He seems not to entertain the possibility that this stunt could easily end in his death. Jack finds this incredible; he does not understand how Orest can do something that seems to defy the natural human fear of death. This is why he questions Orest so persistently, trying to find out what the young man’s motivations are. Orest never answers his questions in the terms in which they are asked. He simply exudes self-confidence, sure that death will not touch him. Jack, in contrast, knows that death has already touched him.
Vernon Dickey is an even more pertinent contrast. Orest is young, and so it is perhaps more natural for him to think himself invulnerable. But Vernon is old, much older than Jack, and yet he too seems to have no fear of death. In fact, Vernon is a contrast to Jack in every way. He is practical and knows how to repair things, a skill Jack lacks. Jack is sure that Vernon thinks he is incompetent on account of this difference between them. Vernon seems to live spontaneously, driving fourteen hours to visit the Gladneys on a whim, and arriving unannounced. Jack, who acts with much more deliberation and calculation, would never do something like that. More to the point, Vernon make fun of his own ailments. He smokes, has a nasty, persistent cough, has a limp, suffers from insomnia, and his left hand shakes, among other conditions. Babette worries about him but he does not worry about himself. He would regard Jack’s fear of death, were Jack to confide in him about it, as laughable, something absurd.
Orest and Vernon Dickey, then, show Jack that there are attitudes to death other than the one he adopts, but this knowledge does not help him in his predicament.
2. What role does Wilder play in the novel?
Wilder is Babette’s two-year-old child. His innocence, which fascinates Jack, is often contrasted to Jack’s worried condition. Babette is also fascinated by her son. Wilder has not yet learned to talk, and his mother and stepfather comment that they prefer it that way; it is as if they want Wilder to live in a state of innocence forever in the hope that some of that innocent condition will rub off on them. There is a certain idealization of childhood in the novel that is reminiscent of the English romantic poets such as Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Jack admits that he depends on his children for a sense of transcendence. More than once he watches them sleeping, and it fills him with peace. Of Wilder, he says, “I like being with Wilder. The world was a series of fleeting gratifications. He took what he could, then immediately forgot it in the rush of a subsequent pleasure. It was this forgetfulness I envied and admired” (170). In other words, Wilder still possesses an ability to live in the moment, an ability that Jack left behind a long time ago. Jack later explains to Babette his feelings about the child: “He is selfish without being grasping, selfish in a totally unbounded and natural way. There’s something wonderful about how he drops one thing, grabs for another” (209). When Jack talks to Murray about Wilder, Murray points out that Wilder is free because he has no fear of death; death is a concept he does not understand. The child is a “cloud of unknowing, an omnipotent little person. The child is everything, the adult nothing” (290). Wilder’s miraculous escape at the end of the novel, when he crosses the highway unharmed on his tricycle, suggests indeed, at the symbolic level, that there is something magical about childhood, something that can defy the laws of probability; he escapes death or injury simply because he has no knowledge of these concepts; he lives in a different realm. The tragedy for Jack, and for Babette, is that they cannot return to Wilder’s happy condition. The “plot” of their lives is moving on to its inevitable conclusion, which must always be death.
3. How are old people presented in the novel?
The consumer society, in which technology rules and change takes place very quickly, is not beneficial for everyone. While the young and the middle-aged do well, thriving in the incessant “white noise” buzz of consumerism, the old are seemingly left behind, bewildered and ill-equipped to survive. An example is the Treadwells, the old blind man and his sister who go missing for several days. They are eventually found in some abandoned area of a huge shopping mall; they had no doubt become confused by all the hustle and bustle and wandered off trying to find a safe refuge. This is not an isolated example. Jack observes in the supermarket that many of the customers are old; some are clumsy and slow, some can’t reach the item they want; some are confused and go around muttering. The supermarket, which seems to recharge the batteries of Jack and his family, as well as Murray, do not seem to fulfill such a function for the old. In this particular incident, there has been a TV forecast for heavy snow, and Jack comments that “Older people in particular were susceptible to news of impending calamity”; he thinks they are shopping in a panic. He also comments—and this seems to be an example of his prejudice against the old—“When TV didn’t fill them with rage, it scared them half to death” (168). Jack is being uncharitable here, but his point seems a valid one in the context of the novel. All the things that serve to grease the wheels of American consumer culture in the 1980s—malls, supermarkets, television—do not serve the elderly so well. Right at the end of the novel there is a similar scene in the supermarket. The store has been rearranged, and the old people are distressed because they cannot find the items they want. They wander around, anxious, “sweet-tempered people taken to the edge” (326). In this respect the old are quite naturally contrasted to the young. When Steffie in her sleep speaks those two words, “Toyota Celica” (155) Jack takes this to show she is somehow in tune with the “white noise” that is everywhere present, “Part of every child’s brain noise, the substatic regions too deep to probe” (155). The children are embedded in this fast-paced, advertising slogan-ridden culture in a way that the old can never be. The young may thrive; but the old may become victims.
4. How does the author present the postmodern American family?
If the fear of death hangs like a dark cloud over the novel, the blended Gladney family represents an optimistic counterpoint to this pessimism. The Gladneys embody the kind of change that the American family was undergoing during the 1980s. High rates of divorce over previous decades meant that many American families no longer resembled the nuclear family that was the norm in the 1950s, in which husbands and wives stayed together for a lifetime and produced on average two or three children. The Gladney family is a complex one, and the reader has to piece together the family history as the novel unfolds and all the details come out. Jack has four children from three previous marriages (he married one woman twice), only two of whom, Steffie and Heinrich, live with him. Babette has had other marriages—how many is not stated— which produced Denise, Eugene (who does not live with her) and Wilder. Wilder is not Jack’s child, and since Wilder is only two, this means that Jack and Babette have not been married long. Their marriage, until it becomes negatively affected by their shared fear of death, is a good one. In fact, there are passages in the novel that read almost like a paean to the emotional closeness and physical intimacy of married love.
The Gladney family itself is a reasonably smoothly functioning unit; there do not appear to be any major sibling rivalries, even though none of the children in the home are full siblings. In the midst of change, they have adapted well. They eat together and watch TV together. Father and son seem to enjoy a good relationship also. Ex-spouses visit on occasion, and former marriages and spouses are discussed; the children go off to visit their other parent during holidays.
That is not to say there are no tensions in this family unit. When Vernon Dickey, Babette’s father visits, the children act diffidently towards him. Jack explains: “They were suspicious of all relatives. Relatives were a sensitive issue, part of the murky and complex past, the divided lives, the memories that could be refloated by a word or a name” (249). That comment notwithstanding, the Gladney family that lives together in Blacksmith seems to function for the most part as a stable entity in which the two parents choose to play out their destructive psychodrama about death.
5. DeLillo considered giving the novel a different title, “Panasonic.” Would this have made an appropriate title?
The word “Panasonic” does appear in the novel, as the last word in chapter 32. It comes after Jack has allowed himself to indulge in a distressing fantasy about the many sounds that must have accompanied the lovemaking between his wife and Mr. Gray. His head is full of these imagined sounds, and then the chapter ends with “Panasonic,” as a one-word paragraph. Panasonic of course is the brand name of a Japanese electric products manufacturer. It has no other usage in the English language, but literally the word means “all sound.” “Pan” comes from the Greek word pan or pantos, meaning all, and sonic simply refers to having to do with sound. As such, the word is similar in meaning to the white noise that DeLillo eventually chose as the title, since by that term he means the incessant background hum of life in American consumer and technological society that makes up a kind of subtle energy grid, the “waves and radiation” he frequently refers to. The brand name Panasonic is not the only one found in this incessant white noise that includes all manner of advertising slogans and jingles: “Tegrin, Denorex, Selsun Blue,” (289) “Dacron, Orlon, Lyrca Spandex” (52) are others, as well as “Toyota Celica” (155). Seen in this light, Panasonic might have made an equally effective title for the novel, immediately linking the concept of the everyday white noise in society to the world of advertising, brand names and consumer items.