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"How the dead speak to the living": Intertextuality and the Postmodern Sublime in White Noise

From: Journal of Modern Literature
Volume 25, Number 2, Winter 2001/2002
pp. 97-113 | 10.1353/jml.2003.0001

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Journal of Modern Literature 25.2 (2001-2002) 97-113

The simulacrum, "a copy without an original," is the most salient metaphor of White Noise, a novel in which simulations exploit real catastrophes, and in which tourists visit the "most photographed barn in America" not to see the barn but to see photographs of the barn. Further emphasizing the distance between experience and expression is the novel's emphasis on the ineluctably representative nature of language. The disconnection between signifier and signified, pointedly demonstrated in conversations between the narrator, Jack Gladney, and his son, Heinrich, and the collapse of etymologically sound meaning (such as the absence of Germans in Germantown) suggest that words, too, are copies without originals. Déjà vu, one of the many shifting symptoms of contamination from the airborne toxic event, renders memory itself suspect, suggesting that the earlier experiences upon which recollections seem to depend may not exist. The lack of originating moments results in a persistent conversation with the past, an overwhelming nostalgia for a more stable moment in history. Academics and housewives routinely seek distraction in news of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe because, as Murray Siskind, a visiting lecturer on Elvis Presley, aptly notes, "'[h]elpless and fearful people are drawn to magical figures, mythic figures'"; and the narrator, Jack Gladney, fashions his world around a dead fascist in the interest of self-preservation. But it is not just individual characters who are in conversation with the past: DeLillo's entire narrative is a dialogue with older literary works, including sacred texts, Puritan sermons, westerns, and Modernist and Postmodernist fiction.

As Douglas Keesey notes, the novel is a generic hybrid, a nexus of types of fiction—the domestic drama, the college satire, the apocalyptic melodrama, the crime novel, the social satire. That trespassing of boundaries which is typical of Postmodern fiction reminds us that we are the product of myriad representations, and DeLillo's refusal to tie up the loose ends in the novel's conclusion confirms that White Noise is not the last in the series of representations. In addition to maneuvering between reality and art—as Adolf Hitler and Howard Hughes become the icons of invented characters—the reader is required to negotiate between DeLillo's fictional world and previous fictional worlds, but this intertextuality does more than simply remind the reader of the novel's artifice: it places White Noise within a long tradition of Western literature. DeLillo invokes older texts that might shed some light on a contemporary crisis in which the novel's characters find themselves betwixt and between, unmoored from a clear point of origin (be it divine or psychological) and ill at ease with death as the final destination. When Jack is told that "SIMUVAC" stands for "simulated evacuation," he is forced to point out that the airborne toxic event has generated a real evacuation. Incredulously, he asks, "'Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?'" (p. 139). The expected order of events has been inverted: event precedes rehearsal. The result is a life hopelessly circular and illogical, not unlike conversations between Jack and his son, in which origin is indistinguishable from terminus. Aware that language is merely representational, that the self is constructed (in large part from media role models), and that religion is a pretense (even for the German nuns), the characters are homesick, nostalgic for a past in which the ego seemed less fragile and arbitrary and language bore some relationship to objective reality. Jack especially turns to the past in the hope of finding a beginning, but, as the intertexts confirm, humans have never had access to the prototype; our lives are mediated. The only virgin land is death, and so the characters shuttle between simulations, afraid to face that which has not been mediated.

Many critics, most famously Fredric Jameson, have argued that Postmodern pastiche is a neutral borrowing from previous sources, an irresponsible romp through literary, historical, and artistic archives without any particular point or recognition of the previous works' contexts. Linda Hutcheon, however, argues that intertextuality is

not ahistorical or de-historicizing; it does not wrest past art from...



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