Jack Gladney teaches at the College-on-the-Hill. He and his wife Babette live, with four of their children from previous marriage (Heinrich, Steffie, Denise, and Wilder) in the quiet college town of Blacksmith. Jack and Babette are both afraid of death and it is this fear that is central to the novel. Whose fear is the greater? "Sounds like a boring life." "I hope it lasts forever," she said.
Jack and Babette's fear of death, the world in which they live and participate is conveyed satirically through a series of events (some of more direct consequence than others) which are peppered with laugh out loud moments. There's a subtlety in the observation and the writing that makes this novel work.
`The family is the cradle of the world's misinformation.'
Jack serves as the department chair of Hitler studies, a discipline that he invented in 1968, despite the fact that he does not understand German. Hitler's importance as an historical figure gives Jack a degree of importance by association: `Some people are larger than life. Hitler is larger than death. You thought he would protect you.' His colleague, Murray Jay Siskind, has come to Blacksmith to immerse himself in what he calls `American magic and dread.' Murray is a lecturer in living icons who is trying to establish a discipline in Elvis studies. Murray finds deep significance in things that are ordinary - especially the supermarket: `This place recharges us spiritually, it prepares us, it's a gateway or pathway. Look how bright. It's full of psychic data.'
The major events in the novel concern an airborne toxic event and its consequences, and Jack Gladney's search for a mysterious psychopharmaceutical drug called Dylar once he discovers that Babette is participating in an experimental study (of sorts). All this fear of death becomes an inability to really live, especially in a world full of white noise, rampant consumerism and simulations, or does it?
`In a crisis the true facts are what other people say they are.'
This novel was published in the mid-1980s, and while I read it then, I enjoyed it a whole lot more this time around. Disturbingly, it made more sense.