White noise, black clouds revisited

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill reads like a toxic 25th-anniversary homage to Don DeLillo’s postmodern novel, says Robert Zaretsky

May 22, 2010

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise – a date Penguin has marked with an artsy new edition. Coupling a postmodern sensibility with a traditional narrative, DeLillo portrays a world where meaning is unmoored, appearance trumps reality, and characters (academic types, of course) know their Marx Brothers – namely, Groucho and Karl.

How better to celebrate the book’s birthday than with the recent catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? After all, it has already happened in White Noise. The “Airborne Toxic Event” – the disastrous consequence of a chemical spill from a punctured tank car in the train yard of Blacksmith, a bucolic college town deep in the heart of America – hovers over the novel just as our waterborne toxic event haunts the Gulf. Both events bear witness to our reality-challenged society.

“Leak” and “plume” have been the metaphors du jour. The word “leak”, used as a noun, describes what guys do in the woods; as an adjective, we commonly link it to the word “faucet”. A leak? No problem. Just use the bathroom sink to rinse those plates!

There has also been a veritable “plume” of oil. The word conjures the graceful arc of feathers, a decoration, or in French, a quill. In neither language, however, does it mean what BP’s just-released video, more than a month after the accident, so clearly reveals: the relentless vomiting of black clouds from the jagged end of a shattered pipe.

When the “event” first occurs in White Noise, the protagonist, Jack Gladney, argues with his son Heinrich over its description. The authorities, we are told, first refer to the growing mass of toxic gas as a “feathery plume”. But Heinrich rejects the metaphor. Looking through binoculars, he describes it as a “shapeless growing thing. A dark black breathing thing of smoke.” How, he wonders, could this be a “plume”?

Jack replies: “Air time is valuable. They can’t go into long tortured explanations.” But Jack knows, as we do, that language tends to obscure, not reveal, our world. When the authorities no longer call the phenomenon a “plume” but a “black billowing cloud” instead, Jack is relieved. It’s more accurate, he reassures his son, “which means they’re coming to grips with the thing. Good.”

Good, indeed. True to our postmodern condition, the word merges with the world for both the residents of Blacksmith and those of us on the Gulf Coast. The New York Times reports that locals are arguing over whether the air in New Orleans has grown more fetid than usual since the appearance of yet another “plume” – aka black billowing clouds – issuing from efforts to burn off the oil slick. For many, there’s a chemical odour in the air, but others say it is all in their heads. According to a sceptical local scientist, “You try to tell someone you don’t smell it, and they say, ‘You’re crazy!’ But the only thing that can overcome emotion is fact.”

Who, exactly, is crazy? The city residents who insist that something is rotten in New Orleans, or the scientist with his faith in the power of facts? In White Noise, such claims are downright quaint. When Heinrich’s sisters learn that exposure to the Airborne Toxic Event leads to skin irritations and sweaty palms, they dutifully manifest the very same symptoms. When the authorities change course – the symptoms become nausea, vomiting and shortness of breath – Heinrich urges his sisters to catch up with the script. The characters desperately seek reality, all the while tangled in a web of words.

A resident interviewed by the Times reporter said that there are so many smells in New Orleans that it’s “hard to know what’s what anyway”. This describes the Big Easy’s usual miasma, but does it also apply to the black clouds being vomited into the Gulf? Before the video, all I had were the words of others – a white noise of talking heads jabbering in front of cameras and cryptic crawls at the bottom of the screen. But now I have the video. While my reaction may be unfashionably pre-postmodern, I think I now have a much closer approximation of reality – one that excludes “plumes” and “leaks”.

But it is a reality that leads us back to DeLillo’s work. While Jack, his wife Babette and their family are in their car, fleeing from the Airborne Toxic Event, they are about to run out of petrol. Babette reassures the children that there’s always extra, to which Heinrich replies: “There can’t be always extra. If you keep going, you run out.” Babette’s answer is our answer in the wake of our Waterborne Toxic Event: “You don’t keep going forever.”

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