White Flight: The Graying of Suburbia in DeLillo’s White Noise
In addition to addressing the premonitory electricity of death, the title of Don DeLillo’s White Noise alludes to another, subtler, sort of white noise the muted death of suburban white identity. College-on-the-Hill is not only an elite academic promontory, but also a bastion for white flight in which Jack Gladney’s family has taken refuge. Instead of John Winthrop’s clear City-on-a-Hill morality, DeLillo presents us with J.A.K. Gladney’s muddled postmodern inheritance of J.F.K.’s civil rights legacy. Racial identity no longer demarcates a simple binary between whites and Native Americans, but complicates a nation in which all races stake a claim towards American nativity. Jack’s inability to classify the Other in obvious racial terms feeds back into his own identity crisis; unable to gauge what he is not, he is left without the tools necessary to understand what he is. This anxiety of faulty racial organization leaves Jack with America’s preeminent homegrown product, consumerism, as a cultural machete for cutting through swaths of identity. But consumerism, exemplified by the supermarket’s position as the novel’s locus of societal reflection, is a philosophy too scattered and massive to equip Jack with any ordered understanding of race. Furthermore, any insight consumerism might yield is negated by its production of a confusing strain of commercial colonialism. The most feasible “solution,” although the novel’s persistent chaos denies any clear answers, is for Jack to accept racial hybridization and regard the world not as white noise and black clouds, but as shades of gray. This diminishes his anxiety for a need to identify others and, consequently, himself, through race, by flattening the three-dimensional globe to a two-dimensional model for comprehension’s sake, yet allowing the hazy idea of heterogeneity to exist elsewhere in his mind. Paradoxically, Jack can only gain this knowledge by embracing his ignorance, a fitting complement to his obsession with death, the great unknown for which science, intellectualism, and religion all concede defeat in explaining or conquering.
The most obvious form of racial classification in the novel emerges when Jack confronts the visual hodgepodge of a new, multinational society:
What kind of name is Orest? I studied his features. He might have been Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, a dark-skinned Eastern European, a light-skinned black. Did he have an accent? I wasn’t sure. Was he a Samoan, a native North American, a Sephardic Jew? It was getting hard to know what you couldn’t say to people. (208)
For Jack, the immediate importance lies within the cross-referencing of race, the permutational mixing-and-matching Jack performs on color and nationality which fosters his conversational anxiety. Several other keys to this anxiety lie within Orest Mercator’s name. Orest may take his first name from Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who avenged his father’s death by killing his mother and her lover. The Classical allusion repositions Orest as a mythological origin who blends both Greek myth and Biblical allusions (by returning to Eden and confronting the serpent) with his indeterminate lineage. The binary extends to the quasi-palindromic nature of his name, beginning and ending with “or.” This is different from an either/or system of a forced “option”; instead, Orest’s two “or”s imply a ceaseless search for an answer. That Orestes avenged his father’s death reminds us that Orest’s father is an unknown progenitor, hailing from seemingly every continent. By squaring off against a “slimy” (267), slippery, serpentine death, Orest tries to slay his indeterminacy, an equation DeLillo writes throughout White Noise. Considering that “Orest” could hint at either the French “L’ouest” for West, or at an English-French blend of “Or-Est” (Or-East, negating Manifest Destiny’s movement West in other words, describing the flow of immigration and not of colonialism), then language remains the only definite father of Orest while simultaneously shrouding exact etymology behind layers of allusions and variables.
Indeed, the language barrier and the breakdown of any linguistic barriers and unintentional creation of a fluid and fluent Esperanto is what incites Jack’s need for maternal protection at the supermarket check-out line or, more directly, his urgency in protecting the white womb from heterogeneous insemination:
Not everyone spoke English at the cash terminals, or near the fruit bins and frozen foods, or out among the cars in the lot. More and more I heard languages I could not identify much less understand, although the tall boys were American-born and the checkout women as well?I tried to fit my hands into Babette’s skirt, over her belly? (40)
As if the unintelligibility of other languages weren’t bad enough, Jack even finds difficulty in learning the Germanic tongue, supposedly his area of expertise, and roots out contradictions and conflicts in his native English. Before they reach the checkout line, Jack murmurs “‘Dirty blond’” (40), a reference to his previous statement that Babette’s hair is “a particularly tawny hue that used to be called dirty blond” (5). He gives no reason for why this is no longer an acceptable term, but the fact that the adjective “blond” generally denotes a hair color while “blonde” is a noun loaded with gendered implications may have something to do with his censorship. Textually, “dirty blond” is appropriate, but orally it may be confused with the misogynist “dirty blonde.” As the founder of Hitler studies, Jack would be well aware of the additional quarrel this poses for Hitler’s vision of a flawless master race; for Hitler, there is no such thing as a dirty blond(e) person, while for Jack it is a signifier of the ways the changing world can alter language’s relationship to visual identity.
Exercising restraint, Jack is careful to qualify his observation that his German tutor’s “complexion was of a tone I want to call flesh-colored” (32). Jack’s sentence is of a tone I want to call politically correct, although this is not the true reason for his delicacy. Rather, he acknowledges the havoc the new world has wrought on the phrase “flesh-colored,” rendering it obsolete not through newfound sensitivity but gross inaccuracy. When even Bee, Jack’s own daughter, is portrayed as a racial composite of a “small face smooth and white in a mass of kinky hair” (92), DeLillo reminds us that even for those whose racial identity is clearly known, the visual remains blurry. This is why the most sacred of suburban rituals come under fire in White Noise. After Jack tries to play the stilted role of an accommodating husband, Babette corrects his clinical usage of the word “partner”: “‘I’m your partner when we play tennis, which we ought to start doing again, by the way. Otherwise, I’m your wife’” (28). That she recommends they resume playing tennis, the clichéd institution of suburban sport, the married couple playing in their club-friendly whites, underscores their sterile sex life in lieu of intercourse, they pore over old family albums, a return to a past that temporarily wards off the approach of death. Jack’s castration through suburban ritual advances when he comes home one day in the transition between the traditional climax of one paternal routine (working as the family’s breadwinner) and inception of another (Normal Rockwell’s daddy comes home to his evening paper, slippers, and martini): “When I got home, Bob Pardee was in the kitchen practicing his golf swing. Bob is Denise’s father. He said he was driving through town on his way to Glassboro to make a presentation and thought he’d take us all to dinner” (56). Bob has usurped all of Jack’s patriarchal duties his secret job for the government is paying to treat the family for a night out in one fell swoop of his suburbanized golf swing. Jack no longer has these stock suburban traits to fill out his identity, and with their effacement comes the novel’s treatment of the dissolution of suburbia.
DeLillo, presaging his ideas in Underworld, refines his take on the crowds as a case of safety-in-numbers: “To become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone” (73). This is a reasonable account for white flight from the city to the suburb, the repulsion from heterogeneity and attraction to a homogenized subculture. However, the new heterogeneous makeup of the town compromises this safety; the town’s name, Blacksmith, implies both a utilitarian staple of white rural life and an anonymous black man, a black Mr. Smith. In the nearby countryside, a pastoral heaven of “[W]hite fences” and “trailing fields” (12) welcomes tourists to the most photographed barn in America this is the next logical step for the threatened suburbanites, a sub-suburbia sullied only by the reassuring invisible hand of capitalism and not the visible admixture of integration. This integration is most visible in the black cloud of Nyodene D which, if we read as a visual metaphor for minority immigration spurring a mass white exodus, finds its personification in the black family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their family unit is a cohesive core of propaganda: “Father and son were handing out tracts to people nearby and seemed to have no trouble finding willing recipients and listeners” (132). This, then, is the new face of suburbia; not a white father and son playing catch in the backyard, but their black counterparts distributing philosophy to the white masses. It makes sense that the whites are “willing” in the midst of death, they recognize the death of old suburbia and the need to belong to yet another group. Murray connects deathly urban anonymity and the palliating identity of suburban death with consumerism: “In a town there are houses, plants in bay windows. People notice dying better. The dead have faces, automobiles. If you don’t know a name, you know a street name, a dog’s name. ‘He drove an orange Mazda’” (38).
The equation of the face with the automobile is just one of DeLillo’s many plays with American consumerism as a signifier of identity. The helpless Treadwells are found “alive but shaken in an abandoned cookie shack at the Mid-Village Mall” (59). The suburban mall outing is inverted as newspaper-driven tragedy; the cookies descend from luxury to sustenance, the shack becomes an actual domicile. Jack redefines his personality at the same mall, relishing its glossy veneer: “I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgotten existed. Brightness settled around me” (84). The blanket of blinding whiteness, the consumer cloud, is both cause of and cure for Jack’s forgotten self, just as the alliterative rhythmic play of objects beginning with “b” and “s” in the opening catalogue of station wagon apparel amplifies and drowns out the importance of each individual component (3). DeLillo takes this to parodic extremes when a mountaintop Jack recites a list of chewing gums: “I watch light climb into the rounded summits of high-altitude clouds. Clorets, Velamints, Freedent” (229).
This form of consumerism, though innocuous, hints at its inherent colonialism (here, a Wrigley line-up reconfigured as a Zen mantra). Expanding his empire’s reach is the white man’s way of resisting integration in his own country (or city or town). Babette deflects a question about Dylar to a discussion of “the black girl who’s staying with the Stovers” (80), which leads to a conversation about the “country” Dakar, and then turns into a culturally ignorant discussion of Africa and Asia informed by Hollywood product. The conversation prompts an even more ignorant question:
“If she’s an African,” Steffie said, “I wonder if she ever rode a camel.”
“Try an Audi Turbo.”
“Try a Toyota Supra.” (81)
The gross stereotyping of the unfamiliar leads to the very familiar land of automobiles (themselves imported products) as the discrete sections of the conversation geography, a movie, waves, a play, an animal, cars form a continuous link only through the encompassing scope of cultural colonialism. Colonialism provides all the rewards of a country’s product without any of the dirty work; Murray lavishes praise on the supermarket’s eclectic tastes of the globe: “‘Exotics fruits, rare cheeses. Products from twenty countries. It’s like being at some crossroads of the ancient world, a Persian bazaar or boom town on the Tigris’” (169).
DeLillo deepens the novel’s view of colonialism beyond a simple critique of corrupt American values. Colonial history seeps into every crack of American life, especially those based on survival and information, the foundations of America’s red-blooded Protestant values and blue-chipped computer-age success. The town’s evacuation mimics the bi-directional sweep of empire:
The voice on the radio said that people in the west end of town were to head for the abandoned Boy Scout camp, where Red Cross volunteers would dispense juice and coffee. People from the east end were to take the parkway to the fourth service area, where they would proceed to a restaurant called the Kung Fu Palace, a multiwing building with pagodas, lily ponds and live deer. (119)
The western advance towards America and its cultural signifiers (Boy Scouts, Red Cross, refreshments) opposes the exotic retreat to the restaurant and demonstrates the natural tendency of different peoples to separate themselves by geography and, subsequently, culture. This fractured quality of colonialism is at the heart of Jack’s confused relationship with the world:
Our newspaper is delivered by a middle-aged Iranian driving a Nissan Sentra. Something about the car makes me uneasy the car waiting with its headlights on, at dawn, as the man places the newspaper on the front steps. I tell myself I have reached an age, an age of unreliable menace. (184)
The menace has something to do with the electronic surveillance by the car’s inanimate eyes, but it also has to do with the jumbled delivery of the newspaper, handed over by an Iranian who drives a Japanese car. The newspaper serves information on an escalating scale of local, national, and international news, but the Iranian’s presence reminds us that the local is already international and that borders are increasingly porous. The border-less world incites Jack’s central fear, prompted by Willie Mink (a.k.a. or, perhaps, J.A.K.[A]. Mr. Gray): “‘Why are you here, white man?’” While his question suggests a revision of the white man’s attempt at spiritual purchase from a Native American (in this case, buying Dylar), the question smacks less of spirituality than of spatiality, of the indeterminacy of spatiality, of the meaninglessness of spatiality.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Babette tries to protect Jack from the truth of her Dylar exchange by drawing Mink as the composite figure Mr. Gray, from Gray Research. The dilution of identity follows through when Jack meets Mink and spews out a list of internal questions that echoes the passage on Orest quoted at the beginning of this paper: “His nose was flat, his skin the color of a Planter’s peanut. What is the geography of a spoon-shaped face? Was he Melanesian, Polynesian, Indonesian, Nepalese, Surinamese, Dutch-Chinese? Was he a composite?” (307) As with Orest, Jack must take this entity and blur Mink’s three-dimensionality until he is completely indistinct and no longer a threatening figure, even in the pose of a sexual predator: “I thought of Mr. Gray and his pendulous member. The image was hazy, unfinished. The man was literally gray, giving off a visual buzz” (214). The haziness tortures and calms Jack, defying his visual comprehension (he soon after runs “upstairs to find my glasses” ) but applying the “sheer relief” (213) of a nebulous simulacrum standing in for reality. The heterogeneity cannot be completely compacted but, as with the Mercator map from which Orest takes his surname, it can be tamed and made appreciable for white eyes. The melting pot of America produces a gray stew of definite flavor whose ingredients are ultimately unknown, and Orest’s and Mink’s races remain ones of specificity and generality. This paradox, which makes Jack wonder “what you couldn’t say to people,” finds an account for its terror in Melville’s rumination on the White Whale’s color in Moby Dick: “?in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors?a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink” (Moby Dick, 282). One-hundred-and-thirty-four years after Melville, the spectacle is not absolute whiteness, but the repressed chiaroscuro of white on black (as with the nuns), used copiously in the book’s design (diagonally-split section divisions of white and black) and, of course, in the actual text of black ink on white pages. This may be a book which can be judged by its cover; “White” is printed in black lettering on the top white half background, while the bottom black half has the word “Noise” superimposed not in white, but gray. That Penguin is the publisher of White Noise can be chalked up to mere coincidence, or because in the gray haze of postmodern criticism, where everything is a shade to be filled in, the critic shares the same philosophy with Jack: “In the commonplace I find unexpected themes and intensities” (184).
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