Like the many who’ve recently revisited it, you may have picked up your old copy of The Plague and marveled at how prescient Albert Camus was in imagining an animal-borne pneumonic disease that sends a bustling town into quarantine and condemns its citizens to death and dread.
Except for the fact that the victims of Camus’s plague were allowed to sip cappuccinos at sidewalk cafes, the novel reads like a blow-by-blow of the present-day coronavirus crisis. But there’s something missing. Despite the occasional mention of telephones and radios, Camus’s pandemic feels timeless, like it could be happening in 1849 (when Oran, Algeria really did face a deadly wave of cholera) just as easily as in the 1940s. The Plague fails to capture a crucial aspect of our current quarantine: our tortured relationship with technology, and the way it simultaneously salves our anxiety and amplifies our dread.
For that, we turn to Don DeLillo’s masterful 1984 novel, White Noise. The plague at the heart of this dark comedy is caused when a train crash releases an “airborne toxic event” over a suburban college town. Like the government leaders who shrugged off the coronavirus with statements like “This isn’t China,” narrator Jack Gladney at first doesn’t think the chemical cloud will disturb his comfortable life as a professor of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill. “I’m the head of a department. I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event,” he thinks. “That’s for people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the county, where the fish hatcheries are.”
Until this moment, Jack has experienced death primarily through the obituaries he reads in the paper and disaster only on the television that serves as white noise in his family’s home. He wonders why his kids gleefully race to the TV set every time there’s news of tragedy (“come on, hurry up, plane crash footage”) and one of his colleagues seems to know the answer: “Because we’re suffering from brain fade,” says Alfonse “Fast Food” Stompanato, chair of the American Environments department. “We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information.”
Ah, yes, brain fade. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling a lot of that lately.
“For most people there are only two places in the world: Where they live and their TV set,” says Alfonse. Nearly three decades later, the same can be said of the smartphone. Just as television “welcomes us into the grid, the network of little buzzing dots that make up the picture pattern,” our phones have sucked us into Zoom meetings and Houseparty happy hours. The pandemic has forced us into a virtual reality, just as Jack finds himself thrust into the TV news when he and his family are ordered to evacuate their home, flee the airborne toxic event, and shelter in place at a Boy Scout camp. “We’d become part of the public stuff of media disaster,” Jack realizes.
More than a month into New York’s stay-at-home order, it’s safe to say the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated our love/hate relationship with technology. Our phones offer vital information about how to avoid infection while at the same time spreading noxious conspiracy theories. They connect us with loved ones while also making us loathe that Facebook friend who posts daily quarantine selfies. They offer us welcome distraction (virtual concerts, streaming movies, online film fests, Minecraft theme parks) while at the same time horrifying us with news of “mass graves,” of bodies rotting in trucks outside of a Brooklyn funeral home, of New York City’s death rate skyrocketing sixfold. As Jack would put it, “Terrifying data is now an industry in itself. Different firms compete to see how badly they can scare us.”
In White Noise, the TV— like the smartphone— conveys an incredible amount of information, but still Jack wonders: “Were people this dumb before television?”
The TV set is “where the outer torment lurks, causing fears and secret desires.” Chief among these fears, of course, is that of death. Jack’s wife, Babette, is so gripped by it that she jumps at an ad in one of her favorite tabloids (the Fake News of their day) for an experimental pill that claims to eliminate the dread. Dylar turns out to be about as effective as drinking bleach, but Jack wants a piece of it, too. Unbeknownst to his family, he was exposed to Nyodene D., a harmful insecticide byproduct, during the airborne toxic event and told that it will likely kill him as it spreads through his body over the next 30 years.
It’s safe to say this fear of body betrayal and death has gripped us all during the past couple of months, especially in the early phases when little was known about Covid-19 and its deadliness, and we lay awake at night wondering whether we were going to end up gasping for air in a tent in Central Park.
As with Covid-19, the symptoms associated with Nyodene D. exposure change over time: “At first they said skin irritation and sweaty palms,” Jack’s son says of the radio reports. “But now they say nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath.” Later, that changes to “heart palpitations and a sense of deja vu.” Later still: “coma, convulsions, and miscarriage.” Even the name of the airborne toxic event changes as the story unfolds. (Remember when CNN called it the “Wuhan coronavirus”?) At first news reports refer to it a “feathery plume,” then a “black billowing cloud.”
As with the coronavirus, it becomes hard to distinguish symptoms from paranoia. When Jack’s daughter experiences deja vu, he laughably wonders whether it’s “false deja vu,” presumably caused by hearing about the symptom in news reports. His frenzied internal debate will be familiar to anyone who has wondered, as one headline put it, “Is My Chest Tightness Anxiety or the Coronavirus?”
Exacerbating all this anxiety is the government’s failure to lead and inform. After Jack evacuates his home in a somewhat leisurely manner (“I’m sure there’s plenty of time, or they would have made a point of telling us to hurry”) he discovers that others have been ordered to stay indoors. “It made us feel like fools, like tourists doing all the wrong things,” he says as he watches shoppers from his car. “Why were they content to shop for furniture while we sat panicky in slowpoke traffic in a snowstorm? They knew something we didn’t.”
Reading this, it’s hard not to think of the daily photos of Swedes sunning themselves at Stockholm cafes. We all know that the spring breakers partying on Florida beaches were idiots, just as Jack knows that his son’s friend will fail to set the Guinness world record for being enclosed with snakes: “These snakes don’t know you’re young and strong and you think death applies to everyone but you,” Jack scolds, as if the kid is out marching for the liberation of his state. “They will bite you and you will die.” But what about those liberal, cappuccino-sipping Swedes, who love their health minister so much that they’re getting tattoos of him? It’s hard not to wonder— even if there’s evidence to the contrary— whether they know something about flattening the curve that we don’t.
When they get to the fallout shelter, Jack and his fellow “seekers of news” share rumors, including one that the governor is on his way. His helicopter will “probably set down in a bean field outside a deserted town, allowing the governor to emerge, square-jawed and confident, in a bush jacket, within camera range, for ten or fifteen seconds, as a demonstration of his imperishability.”
The rumor no doubt offers some comfort, since “what people in an exodus fear most immediately is that those in positions of authority will long since have fled, leaving us in charge of our own chaos.” As Jack’s colleague Murray later puts it, “Helpless and fearful people are drawn to magical figures, mythic figures, epic men who intimidate and darkly loom.”
Murray is referring to the popularity of Hitler here, but he could have also been talking about Trump and his brief bump in approval ratings during the early moments of the coronavirus crisis, when his daily press conferences were the equivalent of helicoptering into a bean field. During the airborne toxic event, leadership is mostly absent (at one point, the governor is rumored to have died in a helicopter crash) and it’s evident that more could’ve been done to warn citizens. Even before the chemical cloud, schoolchildren were getting headaches and eye irritations. At the time, investigators— one of whom was rumored to have collapsed and died— unhelpfully attributed this to any number of potential contaminates in the school building: it could’ve been the insulation, the cafeteria food, “or perhaps something deeper, finer-grained, more closely woven into the basic state of things.”
Jack’s son, Heinrich, suspects the government is being about as forthcoming as China was about the extent of its coronavirus infections: “If they released the true findings, there’d be billions of dollars in law suits. Not to mention demonstrations, panic, violence and social disorder.”
With leadership absent, Jack turns to medicine for solace, just as the desperate denizens of The Plague did with their doctor. But the process of getting tested is dehumanizing, demoralizing, and befuddling. Told that Nyodene D. has caused a nebulous mass in his body, Jack says, “But I thought no one knew for sure what Nyodene D. did to humans.” The doctor responds, “Knowledge changes every day.”
Yes, knowledge changes every day: Knowledge about the efficacy of masks, about the efficacy of antibody testing, about the manner in which coronavirus is spread. And then, of course, there’s the matter of a vaccine. Jack is so desperate to assuage his fear of death that he’s literally willing to kill for some Dylar.
As desperate as Jack is to live, he’s also distrustful of technology— after all, “it creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other.” When an emergency worker taps into Jack’s “history” and diagnoses him with Nyodene D. poisoning, Jack wonders: “What history was he referring to? I’d told him some basic things. Height, weight, childhood diseases. What else did he know? Did he know about my wives, my involvement with Hitler, my dreams and fears?”
It’s not a stretch to say that White Noise, in its commentary about the all-encompassing powers of advertising, anticipated the way our smartphone histories are being used and abused today— most recently by governments around the world tracking their citizens in order to combat the coronavirus. Will this surveillance continue long after the crisis, just as workers continue to scan for contaminates long after the airborne toxic event? (“The men in Mylex suits are still in the area, yellow-snouted, gathering their terrible data, aiming their infrared devices at the earth and sky.”)
The good news is this: In the end, just as they do in The Plague, things return to normal in White Noise. Or, at least, some semblance of normality. The deja vu hotline is eventually shut down. Like many of us who haven’t put on buttoning pants in recent memory, Jack’s once-bubbly wife now wears a sweatsuit at all times, and— at first, anyway— Jack finds “no reason to believe she was sinking into apathy and despair.” In a ritual not unlike the 7pm salute to frontline workers that has bolstered the spirits of New Yorkers, the townspeople of White Noise gather on an overpass every evening to observe sunsets that are “unbearably beautiful,” presumably thanks to the lingering effects of Nyodene D. in the atmosphere.
Much of White Noise occurs at the supermarket, a microcosm for American consumerism where shoppers sublimate their fear of death with bright, shiny objects. It’s interesting to reread the novel at a time when supermarkets— one of the few places where we’re allowed to publicly gather indoors— have taken on a new centrality in our lives. In the novel’s final paragraphs, there’s “agitation and panic in the aisles” when the supermarket shelves are rearranged without warning. “The scouring pads are with the hand soap now,” Jack notes— a lament that seems all the more ridiculous today. (At least there’s hand soap on the shelves.)
“There is a sense of wandering now,” DeLillo writes. “An aimless and haunted mood, sweet-tempered people taken to the edge. They scrutinize the small print on packages, wary of a second level of betrayal.”