Thursday, March 17, 2011

Airborne Toxic Event: White Noise

A low, vibrating hum; contrails; things that go 'bump' in the night. We rarely inquire into the causes of these elusive events until they intrude on our daily lives, stick a finger in our eye. Don DeLillo's 1985 classic, White Noise, is all about the intrusion. DeLillo coined the phrase "airborne toxic event" about a chemical spill that forces a mass evacuation in the novel's anonymous midwestern town. Jack Gladney, the narrator, is a professor of 'Hitler Studies' who shamefully can't speak any German. This is his predicament - an expert without expertise; he's everyone postmodern.

Gladney is a life groper - his fumbles his way through with Babette, his wife, and their four kids. At one point, he gets convinced that dylar, a special drug, has the power to dispel all fear of death - the white noise fizzing at the edge of his consciousness - and goes on a mad pursuit to find some.

I've just finished the novel as a real life toxic event is occurring in soundbite morsels via the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station. An evacuation has already taken place and the world is charting the radiation cloud as it shifts out to the Pacific Ocean...

Real life imitating art - Japan intrudes, a reminder of those little triggers that lay hidden just below the surface, ever-present, wrapped inside the surrounding white noise. In the face of such a catastrophe, I heard the cry, "helpless, helpless, helpless."

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