Critical Analysis of Don DeLillo’s Novel White Noise: Formal Ending or Narrative Closure

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction to Narrative Closure in White Noise
  2. The Ambiguity of Closure in White Noise
  3. Discontinuity and Narrative Vignettes
  4. Temporal Ambivalence and Sequential Disruption
  5. The Final Chapter as a Narrative Coda
  6. Epiphanic Structure and Parodic Nature of Closure

Introduction to Narrative Closure in White Noise

Analysing the narrative structure of the works provide and interconnection between the formal and thematic function of the novel. Fiction provides a distinctively narrative means of countering the loss of individual, meaningful experience so often associated with the ahistorical, simulacral, and absurdly ironic nature of postmodernity. DeLillo is considered as one of the important writers of the twentieth century. Many critics has seen his work as exemplifying novels which examine the present sociocultural condition offered by Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson and Jean- Francois Lyotard, so casting it as Postmodern prototype.

The Ambiguity of Closure in White Noise

Although Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise boosts no formal ending in terms of plot resolution, it manages to achieve a high sense of narrative closure. The novel ends with a short chapter that runs counter to the narrative demands of plot logic and reader’s expectations. After a long and surrealistic chapter in which the main character Professor Jack Gladney attempt to murder the scientist Willie Mink for seducing his wife Babette and, subsequently, experiences a nightmarish series of adventures in Germantown, the novel ends with a short, epiphany-like chapter which comprises three narrative vignettes that are in complete discontinuity with the narrative sequence of Jack’s plot.

Discontinuity and Narrative Vignettes

The murder chapter leaves Jack exhausted and concludes on his authorial-like tongue that: “There was nothing to do but wait for the next sunset, when the sky would ring like bronze.” (2) The final chapter that follows immediately does not fulfil this prophetic promise for it starts vigorously with a new narrative that concerns the highway bike adventure of Babette’s five-year old son Wilder. This narrative does not only distance itself temporally from that of the murder scene but also creates a deliberate sequential ambivalence: “This was the day Wilder got on his plastic tricycle …” (322). While this rhetorical initio mimics the openings of the classic folkloric adventure tales it breaks down the line of linear narrative progression Jack’s narrative tries to create throughout the text. The reader can never be sure whether this happened after or before the murder narrative.

Temporal Ambivalence and Sequential Disruption

The same textual tactics are employed with the second narrative episodes in the final chapter. The intensity of Wilder’s adventure which arouses in the reader a high sense of fear and expectations after the manner of classical tragedy suddenly give way to the tranquillity of the sunset scene: “We go to the overpass all the time. Babette, Wilder and I.” (324). The absence of transition and cohesion markers between these two narratives shakes further the reader’s sense of plot progression. Self and community intrude to disrupt this sense of tranquillity that nature provides momentarily: “Men in Mylex suits are still in the area” (325) undermines the both the narrator’s sense of momentary security and mind peace and that of the reader by positing cultural apotheosis as the other of narrativity. Irony predominates in such moments of narrative apartheid as the ultimate mode of self resistance. Community lost its healing powers as the individual melts into subjectivity and alienation. The narrator recoils into self, as a result, and shuts his ego from the pain of communal existence: “ I am taking no calls” (325). This simply ushers the narrator’s complete separation from the symbolic order of language and the atrophy of communal identity.

The text suddenly breaks as a new narrative vignette intrudes. The authorial will to silence dissolves into the formal space of the supermarket: “The supermarket shelves have been rearranged.” (325). Everyone is lost and a confusion follows as people miss their daily routine at the level of cultural habituation which is consumerism. The narrator is elated and experiences a spiritual revelation. This transcendence seems to establish the narrator’s faith in consumerism as symbolized by the supermarket. Once again the narrative distances itself temporally in such a way as to create sequential ambivalence: “It happened one day without warning” (325). Such effect of temporal distancing is, undoubtedly, meant to create a semblance of narrative independence. This episode is self-contained as it maintains its own paradigm of signification. Its figuration of meaning and thematization of world-views operate independently as a mini text that is situated within a web of intertexuality.

The Final Chapter as a Narrative Coda

Apart from the single incident of Jack’s refusal to take calls from his doctor whom operates as a sequential consequence of the murder narrative, the final chapter fails to behave as an ending to Gladney’s narrative. It fails to bring that narrative to a point of actational saturation necessary for its resolution. Closure as such never happens at the end of White Noise at least from the perspective of the textual paradigm of classic narrative poetics. The final chapter of the novel is more or less a narrative coda that is designed to cap the main narrative line of the Gladneys. The critic David Cowart makes an accidental reference to this possibility in his pioneering study Don Delillo: The Physics of Language when he states at the end of his discussion of White Noise that: “Like a great symphony, Don DeLillo’s novel ends with a triple coda.”( 3)

While the critical reception of White Noise agrees that the novel lacks a formal ending some of its astute advocators are too conservative to admit this lack. Marion Muirhead, for instance, theorizes that “the final chapter of White Noise contains two endings, the traditional American sunset, followed by the real of final ending, a scene from the supermarket, which may actually be a new beginning.” (4) Such a reading is necessarily minimalist as it seeks to simplify things at the risk of affective fallacy. However, Muirhead’s categorization of White Noise as a novel with double ending is sound enough in terms of internal textual logic in spite of its misplaced assumptions. The sunset scene in the last chapter can be considered a formal ending to Jack’s narrative in chapter 39. This scene maintains strong connections with Jack’s concluding sentence in chapter thirty-nine: “There was nothing to do but wait for the next sunset, when the sky would ring like bronze.” (321) The sunset sightseeing narrative incident in chapter forty reproduces the apocalyptic tone of this concluding sentence. The narrative voice frames the sightseeing as 'waiting' in 'awe' in front of the 'atmospheric weirdness' of the sunsets because of the toxic airborne event. Yet the highly charged language used to describe the 'secular response' of Jack and other watchers, rather than the scene of the sunset itself, tends to furnish the narrative with strong apocalyptic overtones of doom and annihilation. The whole sunset sightseeing narrative becomes a communal ritual rather than a sequential episodic narrative. The murder narrative happens once but the sunsets are always being watched by the Gladney’s and the community in such a way that nullifies any sense of a specific temporal perspective.

In the closing chapter of the novel, the narrative momentum generated by Jack's unsuccessful plot against his panic gives way to a series of interchangeable sequences. Thus, by reading this plot as one against Jack's own panic of death, Reeve and Kerridge manage to present the narrative episodes of the last chapter as textual spaces of belated psychic reactions. Panic inscribes itself in the narrative threads of the final chapter as the ultimate force in the world of White Noise. This turns these narrative threads into textual manifestations of the phenomenology of death in the novel: 'The anxiety for control which had driven Jack on, towards knowledge and murder, or towards hosting his Hitler conference, is set in these last episodes against various forms of reaction.' (7) Such a reading, however, extends the sense of action and reaction that leads to these narrative descriptions to thematize contesting forms of panic. In each of the narrative threads in the final chapter panic is extended from the 'personal' into the 'communal' and then contested towards resolution.

Wilder's tricycle adventure across the highway, the sunsets watching and the rearranged shelves of the supermarket evoke different forms of 'communal' panic which are ultimately contested to disrupt the very cultural grounds of this panic as a form of mass hysteria. This hysteria is fashioned and encountered through narracistic recoil into selfhood. Jack's failure to resolve or, at least, face his chronic panic of death resolves itself in the therapeutic power of communal healing. The subsequent resolution of this mass hysteria into catharsis helps bring closure through the grading of this cathartic resolution of panic throughout the three threads. In each of these vignettes Jack experiences a revelation that brings his world-view to a crucial reorientation. This starts with his fascination with Wilder's defiance of death on the highway. It progress further in his resignation to his doom after the toxic event, directly after the sunset scene when he refuses to take calls from the doctor responsible for his fatal radiation case. He actually comes to accept his world with all its apocalyptic atrophies. Death, after this enlightenment, becomes a curious mixture of beauty and terror. In the sunset watching scene it adds beauty to the apocalyptic terror of the toxic residual in the sunset. Fascination and the ultimate revelation culminate in the supermarket scene which crystallizes in self-recovery. Jack renews his faith in the existential codes of his world. The new identity that commodity culture confers on him is the ultimate point in the novel's politics of closure as it involves both completion and catharsis.

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Epiphanic Structure and Parodic Nature of Closure

The critic Stephanie S. Halldorson uncovers the same politics of closure in the final chapter of White Noise but with important differences. First, she characterizes the ending of the novel as 'triptych' which means that a politics of plurality is highlighted to achieve closure.(8) DeLillo abandons the classic narrative closure of resolution and ending in favour of a more postmodernist politics of closure which manipulates a multiplicity of textual spaces that 'taunts the reader and the consumer' by virtue of its indecidibilty. (9) This sense of indecidibilty results from the fact that the 'images' that DeLillo uses to construct this ending 'hint but do not assert; they seem unfinished without a narrative, and remain, essentially, unnarrated, unexplained.' Indeed, DeLillo uses narrative to build up metaphors whose connection to the main narrative of White Noise remains ambivalent. DeLillo’s 'images' fail to materialize into 'narratives' in the concluding chapter is symptomatic of the failure of 'representation' to materialize as textuality throughout the entire novel. It is in this respect that the 'triptychs ending' can be said to share a common ground with the main narrative bulk of the novel.

Although Jack's journey is not that heroic, Halldorson insight remains intact. Jack is more an antihero caught in the logos of his decentred narrative. The anxieties of the authorial voice to adapt to the 'pain of self-consciousness' in the final chapter are undoubtedly parody in nature. (12) Each of the narrative episodes in the final chapter is designed as an epiphany where the authorial presence is geared towards utter self-consciousness. Such an epiphanic structure is essentially parodic in nature as it echoes the string of epiphanies that makes up Jack's encounter with Mink in chapter thirty-nine. This is particularly relevant to Wilder's death-defying tricycle trip across the highway which ends in 'a baptism into a new realm of awareness similar to Jack's awakening after his own wound in the previous chapter.' (13) What is being parodic here is definitely Jack's epiphany early in his encounter with Mink. Both epiphanies have similar linguistic structures and narrative bent:

I have continued to advance in consciousness. Things glowed, a secret life rising out of them…. I knew for the first time what rain really was. I knew what wet was…. I knew who I was in the network of meanings…. I saw beyond words…. I tried to see myself from Mink's view point. (310)

Not only perceiving the nature of pain and death as the essential ingredients of humanity was Jack able to achieve through this encounter but also the very human instinct to socialize and be part of a community. The last sentence above suggests strongly that Jack has learnt to transcend the closure form of individuality into the openness of the community and the communal self.

The sunset watching scene and the supermarket scene further enhance the parodic nature of Jack's epiphanies in the final chapter. They show Jack caught in the duality of the self as individualized and communal. While Jack is fully rejoicing in the communal rituals of sunset watching and consumer ethos, he is not yet completely liberated of the narcissism of narrow individualism. Jack's sharing the community perspective of the intensified sunsets betrays a note of doubt and apocalypse.

Throughout White Noise, Jack’s ability to buy highly advertised marketed images is directly related to his psychological need to belong. Such a marketing system is based upon the illusion that belonging to this cultural advertising scheme is a guaranteed method for staving off death. Murray reminds of this when he states that “here we don’t die, we shop” (p.38). Jack acts accordingly when he feels disconnected and alone as he confronts the cultural dumping ground known as the mall:

I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it…I began to grow in value and self-regard. I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgot existed. Brightness settled around me. We crossed from furniture to men’s wear, walking through cosmetics. Our images appeared on mirrored columns, in glassware and chrome, on TV monitors is security rooms. I traded money for goods. I was bigger than these sums. (84)

The final supermarket scene introduces two important existential metaphors as objective correlatives for this transcendence of death via commodification of selfhood. DeLillo invokes the powers of technology and the tabloids as the agency of Jack's rebirth. Technology restores the shoppers to their existential serenity:

But in the end it doesn't matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of age , our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. (326)

Jack's acceptance of the divinity of technology in his world reflects yet another crucial change in his perception of himself and his reality. In the paragraph immediately preceding the supermarket episode in the final chapter Jack stops taking telephone calls from his doctor. He explains his decision to be resulting from his phobia of technology: 'He wants to insert me once in the imaging block, where

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Critical Analysis of Don DeLillo’s Novel White Noise: Formal Ending or Narrative Closure. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-don-delillos-novel-white-noise-formal-ending-or-narrative-closure/
“Critical Analysis of Don DeLillo’s Novel White Noise: Formal Ending or Narrative Closure.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-don-delillos-novel-white-noise-formal-ending-or-narrative-closure/
Critical Analysis of Don DeLillo’s Novel White Noise: Formal Ending or Narrative Closure. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-don-delillos-novel-white-noise-formal-ending-or-narrative-closure/> [Accessed 26 May 2024].
Critical Analysis of Don DeLillo’s Novel White Noise: Formal Ending or Narrative Closure [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2024 May 26]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-don-delillos-novel-white-noise-formal-ending-or-narrative-closure/
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