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Jack is the top North American expert in (wait for it) a subject that he totally made up. If only we could all do that… sigh. We might declare ourselves the top North American Experts in Eating-Donuts-And-Bingewatching-Game-Of-Thrones Studies. Hitler Studies is the name of Jack's game, and he is a professor at a small American liberal arts college called The-College-On-The-Hill.
Jack is a guy who spends a lot of time crafting a certain persona for himself on the university campus. For this reason, he wears "glasses with black heavy frames and dark lenses" and calls himself J.A.K. Gladney to sound smooth and professional (4.22). But as Jack himself admits, "I am the false character that follows the name around" (4.22). He feels like a total phony. White Noise is a book about how appearances have overtaken reality in modern American culture. Jack knows this and often regrets it, but as we see from the way presents himself he totally plays along with the "clothes make the man" game.
Jack's a bit of a control freak when it comes to determining how other people look at him. For example, he tries to learn German to help establish his Hitler expertise. But for reasons he can't understand or control, no amount of practice will allow him to properly speak the language: "the basic sounds defeated (him)" (8.3). Ultimately, no one can ever be in total control of his or her image and Jack finds this out through his failed attempts to shore up his public persona.
Jack lurves his wife Babette. But that doesn't mean he's going to tell her everything he's thinking. Jack feels that the only person he can talk to about his deepest insecurities is a fellow professor named Murray Siskind. Unlike Babette, Siskind talks to Jack on a high conceptual level, linking all of Jack's personal questions with larger forces in modern American culture.
When Jack starts to wonder about why the world is constantly bombarding him with the "white noise" of TV waves and radio jingles, Murray is there to tell Jack the truth. These bombardments are there to distract people from the knowledge that they're going to die someday. Everyone wants to have control over their lives, but the thing no one has control over is the fact that they're going to die. In a busy supermarket, Murray insists that,
The simple truth is hard to fathom. But once we stop denying death, we can proceed calmly to die and then go on to experience rebirth […] (9.35)
In other words, the modern world showers us with text messages, emails, TV commercials, pop-up ads, and a ton of other sights and sounds to distract us from the fact that we are all going to die someday. Murray is able to get right to the heart of what's bothering Jack. He doesn't offer Jack any comfort beyond this point, just the cold hard truth. He also can't protect Jack from his fear of death once he's been exposed to a deadly chemical called Nyodene D.
Jack doesn't like the thought of dying because he's, y'know, human. So just imagine how he feels when he finds out he's been exposed to toxic cancer-causing gas. When Jack finds out that he's exposed himself to Nyodene D., he becomes obsessed with the fact that this chemical will eventually kill him.
The (black) humor of his situation comes from the fact that the chemical might not become deadly until after Jack has already died of old age. This knowledge leads Jack to make absurd statements like,
I've got death inside me. It's just a question of whether or not I can outlive it.(21.4)
In other words, Jack wants to die from old age before the chemical kills him, even though death is still death. The only thing that Nyodene D. has made certain is the fact that Jack will someday die, which was true before he ever got exposed to the stuff.
The certainty of death, though, completely consumes Jack's life. He lies awake at night sweating through his bedsheets. He can't pay attention to his kids or his classes. He becomes so desperate to avoid death the he's even willing to kill another human being just to feel like he's postponed his own death. He forms this idea based on the advice of Murray Siskind, who believes that to kill another person is "to gain life-credit. The more people you kill, the more credit you store up" (37.137). Now this theory might sound a little insane to readers. But Jack's fear of death has made him completely bonkers, and he's more than willing to give it a try.
In the end, Jack shoots a man named Willie Mink for two reasons: to feel powerful enough to forget about his own death, and to steal pills that are designed to completely erase his fear of death. See how the two reasons lead to the same thing? Through Jack Gladney, we see how our basic fear of death tends to underlie almost everything we do. Modern American culture has gotten very good at distracting people from the fact of death. But it can never completely make us forget that death is waiting for all of us.