Like something out of the film adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, it seems that Don DeLillo’s White Noise has the power to make the plot points on the page come to life in 2023. More specifically, that plot point about the train derailment near Blacksmith. A fictional town in (you guessed it) Ohio, where White Noise’s protagonist, Jack Gladney, works as a professor of Hitler Studies (a department he created, naturally) at College-on-the-Hill. Released in 1985, renewed interest in the novel already arose at the end of 2022 with the arrival of Noah Baumbach’s filmic version of it. But with news of the February 3rd train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, even more attention is being drawn to White Noise for its uncanny parallels to what’s happening with this real-life airborne toxic event.
Of course, what DeLillo wrote in the mid-80s was not necessarily “prescient,” so much as an accurate reflection not only of what was happening at the time, but a so-called “on steroids” depiction of modern (non-)reality that the twenty-first century was only likely to catch up to if things kept continuing at the same rate. Which, as we know, they did. I.e., the increasing reverence of consumer culture (therefore, Capitalism as God), mass cover-ups, simulations posing as reality and reality posing as simulations, etc. All DeLillo did was take the grotesque makings of American society and roll it up into one giant ball of panic intermixed with inherent blaséness about said panic. Because when the government—the entity theoretically designed to “protect” people—is actually the greatest detriment to humanity, it’s difficult to react in any other way. Hence, Babette, Jack’s fifth wife, turning to some black-market trial drug called Dylar to help stave off her crippling fear of death. A fear also shared by Jack, as the two constantly argue over who should die first, with both insisting they couldn’t deal with the sadness of being left alone without the other.
All this discourse about death and loneliness from the outset of the novel sets the tone for what’s coming, with the tenuous “happiness” presented in the first part of the book doomed to have a gaping hole cut into it. For, like slaves building America’s wealth, the Gladney family’s “happiness” is founded on something entirely exploitative and sinister: neoliberalism. The pervasive murmurings of brand names and assorted advertising in the background all being designed to reinforce that unsettling sense of anxiety looming behind alleged “contentment.” With the Reagan administration reigning over most of the 1980s, the “Gipper” was among the first to deregulate the economy with such a pronounced “laissez-faire” attitude (read: he didn’t actually give a shit about monitoring “every little detail,” and it behooved his popularity with major donors). So it was that industries were able to operate with far more free-wheeling laxity than ever before (excluding that period when industrialism itself was born in the 1700s). This included, needless to say, big oil and chemical industries that had been only “lightly” plaguing American life in the post-war era (for it was too early yet to understand how much damage was being done).
Not that any amount of regulation would have stopped a company like DuPont from going about its life-threatening business. For it was also Ohio that served as a primary “go-to” in the 1980s for being a chemical dumping ground. Not from a derailed train, but from DuPont calculatedly unloading hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of perfluorooctanoic acid into the Ohio River. Miraculously, Robert Bilott, the Erin Brockovich-esque lawyer who would eventually take on the class-action lawsuit against the chemical giant (and, like Brockovich, get his own movie [called Dark Waters] made about it), was able to secure a settlement for his cancer and ailment-ridden clients in 2004. But it still didn’t feel like a “win,” what with DuPont not being required to immediately pull all C8/Teflon products from shelves. Instead, “the best” they could “voluntarily” offer was a gradual phase-out by 2015. In 2019, sixty-seven years after DuPont already knew full well that the chemical they were shilling was toxic, C8 was given an official global ban by the Stockholm Convention.
But the lessons that should have been learned about being “careful” (or at least not all-out callous) with public health was not learned here. And, with the derailment of the aforementioned train (caused by a faulty axle) run by the vaguely-named Norfolk Southern Corporation, Ohio has taken another grave hit to its environment, therefore its people. For the chemicals being carried within at least over a dozen of the fifty derailed train cars were none other than vinyl chloride (not to mention its additional “fun friends”: ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether). Highly flammable and highly toxic. Hence, the videos coming out of Ohio looking like an almost exact re-creation of the explosion and a resultantly forming noxious cloud (initially billed in White Noise as a “feathery plume”) that looms over the Gladneys’ town in Baumbach’s adaptation.
Incidentally, in translating the book to film, Baumbach kept the setting “strictly Ohio” (even if DeLillo aimed to be less precise with the geography), with all filming locations taking place in this ultimate beacon of an “Anywhere USA” milieu. Which is the “charm” of Middle America, one supposes. Until the chemical-filled train comes along. That the simulation has “run out of ideas”/generally gone completely haywire in confusing whatever is left of reality with the simu is made all the more spine-chilling by the fact that a number of East Palestine residents actually worked as extras on White Noise.
And here’s where the SIMUVAC portion of the story becomes only too apropos. An abbreviation for “Simulated Evacuation,” the organization uses the real catastrophe unfolding near Blacksmith as “a model” of how to improve the simulation of an evacuation. In disbelief over how insensitive and absurd that sounds, Jack demands of one of the workers, “Are you saying you saw the chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?” The worker happily confirms and, when asked by Jack how it’s going, he replies matter-of-factly, “The insertion curve isn’t as smooth as we’d like, we don’t have our victims laid out where we’d want them and, if this were an actual simulation, you’d have to make allowances for the fact that everything you see tonight is real.”
Providing yet another example in White Noise of how the chaos and unpredictability of modern existence might be posing as both “highly organized” and “pulsing with life,” it also signals that beneath it all is an omnipresent sense of death lurking at every corner. All of these “advancements,” ironically, were meant to make life “safer” and “easier” for people—instead only seeming to put the populations of the globe further at risk from the various fallouts of “modernity.” This includes, needless to say, the climate change effects caused by industrial phenomena like a train carrying toxic chemicals (in cars not even labeled that such materials are inside) from state to state in the name of aiding commerce. “The greater the scientific advance, the more scared I get,” Babette says to Jack after hearing a rumor of army helicopters filled with technicians swooping in to plant microorganisms into the toxic cloud as a way to, who knows, “calm” it. Babette admits this still other fear in an endless stream of them to Jack after they’ve been corralled from one evacuation point to another, with the residents of East Palestine similarly being told to get out of dodge—that leaving their homes was “a matter of life or death.” And yet, now, in a similar instance of mixed messaging, East Palestinians have been told “everything’s fine” and to go on back home among the dead fish and birds that so clearly serve as harbingers of how everything is not fine at all.
So it is that one of the evacuees in Baumbach’s White Noise rouses the crowd with the indignant series of questions, “Are they telling us this is insignificant? Do they think this is just television? Don’t they know it’s real?” And yet, once the cloud has “blown over,” according to authorities, the residents themselves can scarcely seem to distinguish between reality and an ephemeral nightmare any longer, thrust back into Blacksmith after nine days so they can keep shopping and pretending “everything’s fine.” That’s why Murray tells Jack as they walk through the fluorescently-lit aisles together, “It’s comforting to know the supermarket hasn’t changed since the toxic event.” For the only thing more terrifying than a monstrous, cancer-causing black cloud hovering over your town is signs of scarcity in the supermarket (hence, the mass hysteria that occurred when toilet paper was plucked off the shelves at an alarming rate in the U.S. during the pandemic). And then Murray actually says, as though willing it to be true, “Everything is fine, and will continue to be fine as long as the supermarket doesn’t slip.”
Those with a greater sense of “pessimism” (read: realism) will understand that it doesn’t matter how stocked the shelves are: something is utterly and irrevocably rotten in the state of modern existence. Where a train derailment filled with toxic chemicals is just a “passing triviality” to those who were actually responsible for causing it. This doesn’t refer only to big business, but it’s ultimate enabler: government. As Bilott said of the lasting DuPont catastrophe, “How did something like this happen here in the United States, and how is it that it continues to happen? One of the things I really try to explore… is the connection between failures in the regulatory system, the legislative process, the scientific world and our legal system. There are some real systemic issues there that created this problem.” And, in the meantime, while blame is being shifted, those problems will continue to augment and assure highly-damaging ripple effects.
“I hope we both live forever,” Jack tells Babette in White Noise. But honestly, why would anyone (correction: anyone poor or middle-class [pretty much synonymous with poor at this moment]) want to when things continue to become evermore unpleasant (to use understatement) for those who can’t financially afford to insulate themselves from the results of “progress”?
While in their beloved supermarket, Babette’s kids berate her for picking up a pack of sugar-free gum that caused animals to die during its testing. Previously, she had been berated by them for chewing the artificial sugar kind. This “caught between a rock and a hard place” scenario prompts Babette to snap, “Either I chew gum with sugar and artificial coloring or I chew sugarless gum that’s harmful to rats. It’s up to you.” Steffie retorts, “Don’t chew at all, you ever think of that?” The subtext seeming to be, “Don’t participate in consumerism at all.” The only way to do that? Kill yourself. But then, we find, somehow, a certain masochistic joy in learning what fresh ways modern society can come up with to kill us “slowly” without actually doing it ourselves. No muss, no fuss.