Fear of Death
Fear of death is the fundamental theme of the novel. Jack and Babette both fear death; it is a fear that comes to dominate their lives. This fear first reveals itself in the question that Jack and Babette ask themselves, Who will die first? This is something they discuss from time to time. Each claims to want to be the first to die, since neither could bear the isolation and loneliness that would result from the death of their spouse. However, Jack later admits that he is so scared of death that it outweighs his desire to die first. It appears that Jack has always had this fear. It motivated him to create the Hitler studies department because he wanted to immerse himself in a larger-than-life figure who would somehow protect him. At least, this is the theory of Murray Suskind, who tells Jack that “You wanted to be helped and sheltered. The overwhelming horror would leave no room for your own death. ‘Submerge me,’ you said. ‘Absorb my fear.’” (287).
In fact, Jack has every reason to be fearful about death, since the “waves and radiation” that characterize the white noise of a modern technological society may indeed contain the seeds of death, as the “toxic airborne event,” in which Jack is exposed to the deadly Nyodene D, clearly shows. Once he is officially deemed to have been exposed to Nyodene D he regards himself almost as a dead man walking. Reminders of death are everywhere, in the daily events of Jack’s life and the news he hears: the drowning of Cotsakis; the near escape of the aircraft passengers, his walk around the graveyard, the Egyptian Book of the Dead he sees in Dunlop’s room, the mysterious figure sitting in the chair outside his house (who turns out to be Vernon Dickey), the burning down of the insane asylum.
Babette, who is seemingly so well adjusted and outgoing, has the same crippling fear of death. She has taken tests that indicate she is unusually sensitive to such a fear, and it so takes hold of her that she is willing to cheat on her husband in order to obtain the experimental pill Dylar that promises to cure her fear of death.
Murray offers Jack various strategies, for dealing with his fear, such as believing in reincarnation, or in the power of technology to lengthen life, or simply to repress the fear, which he says is what most people do. Jack says this is impossible for him. It seems that the only time he is able to transcend his fear is in moments when he is part of a crowd of shoppers in a supermarket or mall, enjoying all that the consumer culture offers.
The Positive Aspects of Popular Culture
The superficiality of America’s consumer culture, full of supermarkets, shopping malls, and radio and television, with their advertising jingles and ever-present marketing pitches, is an easy target for any novelist or social commentator, but DeLillo does something very different. He presents that consumer culture in a positive light through the characters of both Jack and Murray Suskind. Jack gets a satisfaction from loading up his cart in the supermarket, and in going on shopping sprees in the mall, that he can get nowhere else. These experiences lift him up, make him feel larger than himself, as if by fully entering into the community of consumers he can keep his existential angst, his fear of death, at bay. As for Murray, he is the great theorizer, and sees in the supermarket all kinds of significant signs and symbols. He can get excited by mundane things like how a product is packaged, and he marvels at the variety of products and their countries of origin: “It’s like being at some crossroads of the ancient world, a Persian bazaar or boom town on the Tigris” (169) he says. For Murray, the supermarket is full of “psychic data” that can be decoded. “Everything is hidden by symbolism, hidden by veils of mystery and layers of cultural material” (37) he says. When he sees a banner advertising a raffle to raise money for research into an incurable disease, he thinks of it as like “a Tibetan prayer flag” (288). Similarly, Jack finds that advertising slogans stick in his mind, and he repeats them as if they might be full of meaning, part of the “waves and radiation” that permeate society and create a cohesive network. Even the supermarket tabloids, with their bizarre stories of UFOs and other strange supernatural phenomena, provide people with some hope, which otherwise would be missing from their lives. As long as the supermarket, brightly lit up and well-stocked, remains, it is a reassurance to everyone that “Everything was fine, would continue to be fine, would eventually get even better as long as the supermarket did not slip” (170).
Simulation vs. Reality
A recurring theme is that in 1980s America, people’s sense of what is real is created by the media; simulation, a copy of something real, has become more important than reality. Several incidents in the novel illustrate this theme. When Murray and Jack go to visit the “most photographed barn in America,” they see many signs on the highway announcing it, there are many cars and a tourist bus there, everyone has cameras, and postcards and slides are being sold. The actual barn is never described; “No one sees the barn,” Murray says. The point is that the various photographic copies of the barn and the hype surrounding it have become the reality, not the barn itself. Reality has become hidden behind so many layers of copies and other paraphernalia of media-inspired tourism. It is like someone going to an art gallery, not looking at any of the pictures but instead going straight to the shop to buy some postcards of the art he has not in fact seen. Simulation has replaced reality.
The theme recurs in the evacuation due to the toxic spill, which is conducted by SIMUVAC, an organization that practices simulated evacuations. For them, the real evacuation for a real emergency is a rehearsal for a simulated evacuation, not the other way round. Later, SIMUVAC conducts another exercise based on the idea of a bad odor; three days later, there is a real noxious odor, but no one takes any action. The simulation is all that matters. This idea is extended further when the evacuees from the real toxic spill are angry that their plight is not featured on network television. If their reality is not mediated to them through television, they feel cheated, as if it is not really happening, because they have learned to experience things fully only when they see them taking place on television.