Study Guide

White Noise Drugs & Alcohol

By Don DeLillo

Drugs & Alcohol

She seemed to think that if kids watched television one night a week with parents or stepparents, the effect would be to de-glamorize the medium in their eyes, make it wholesome domestic sport. [TV's] narcotic undertow and eerie diseased brain-sucking power would be gradually reduced. (4.18)

The fact that this passage refers to the effect of TV as "narcotic" is no accident. Babette wants her children to dislike TV, so she plays the ol' reverse psychology on them and forces them to watch as part of Family Fridays. She hopes that by doing this, she'll take away the glamor of watching TV and her kids won't end up watching so much that they rot their proverbial brains out. In the modern world, almost all distractions can be viewed as drugs, and it's necessary to try to make kids consume them in moderation. 

It was the following night that I discovered the Dylar. An amber bottle of lightweight plastic. It was taped to the underside of the radiator cover in the bathroom. (24.1)

Throughout <em>White Noise, </em>Jack has had reason to suspect that Babette is secretly taking some sort of medication. He finds it by accident when he checks out the radiator in the bathroom and finds the pill bottle. He doesn't really know what to do, so he goes to the person who knows about this sort of thing: Babette's eleven-year-old daughter Denise. This scene gives us our first real proof that Babette might need something stronger than TV or sex to get her through the average day. 

"We were to be the test subjects in the development of a super experimental and top secret drug, code-name Dylar, that he'd been working on for years." (26.36)

 Eventually, Babette has no choice but to confess to Jack that she volunteered as a test subject for a secret drug named Dylar. No one knew what the drug's side effects would be, but the fact that she volunteered anyway suggests that Babette is desperate to get over her fear of death. 

"But he also told me there were dangers in running tests on a human. I could die. I could live but my brain could die. The left side of my brain could die but the right side could live." (26.36)

What would happen if one half of your brain lived and the other died? Your guess is as good as ours… but it probably wouldn't be pretty. As the possible side effects of Dylar get grimmer and grimmer, though, Babette doesn't flinch. She just wants to stop being so afraid, and is willing to do anything to get to that point.

"This was the only way I could get Mr. Gray to let me use the drug. It was my last resort, my last hope. First I'd offered him my mind. Now I offered my body." (26.42)

Babette loves her husband, but she might fear death even more. She's even willing to cheat on Jack for the sake of getting her pills. In a way, we might think that her behavior is extreme. But then we have to ask whether we're being honest with ourselves. How comfortable <em>are</em> we with the fact that we're going to die? What would we do to never have to worry about it again?

"At some level everyone fears death. I fear it right up front. I don't know how or why it happened. But I can't be the only one or why would Gray Research spend millions on a pill?" (26.88)

Babette believes that deep down, everyone fears death just as much as she does. It's a human universal. The only thing that makes her different is the fact that she's consciously aware of her fear, while others seem to be better at hiding this fear from themselves. 

"They isolated the fear-of-death part of the brain. Dylar speeds relief to that sector." (26.132)

Apparently, there's a specific part of our brain that makes us afraid of death, and we're totally capable of creating a pill that takes away our fear. But is it really possible to take something as primal as our fear of death and just turn off that part of our brain? According to <em>White Noise</em>, maybe yes or maybe no. It's up to us to decide what we think. 

"It's not just a powerful tranquilizer. The drug specifically interacts with neurotransmitters in the brain that are related to the fear of death." (26.134)

Again, we hear that there are specific parts of the brain that make us afraid of death. We're working on the level of chemical molecules here, but the book keeps begging the question: has the modern world really gone that far? Can we take away any bad feelings we want by isolating a certain part of the brain and sending a chemical rushing to offer a quick fix?

He gobbled more pills, flung others down the front of his Budweiser shorts. I advanced one step. There were cracked Dylar tablets all over the fire-retardant carpet. Trod upon, stomped. He tossed some tablets at the screen. (39.55)

At this point, we've discovered that Willie Mink has totally destroyed his brain with all the Dylar he's been taking. After all, how could you ever take a drug that did something as massive as stopping your fear of death without causing some collateral damage to other parts of your brain? As we can see here, Willie Mink has no ability to take Dylar in moderation. He's an addict, plain and simple. Jack and Babette might be addicts too if they had more access to the pills. Willie wolfs the stuff down like candy. If there were any of us who thought at first that Dylar was a great idea, this might be the part where we start reconsidering. 

"Plunging aircraft," I said, pronouncing the words crisply, authoritatively.

He kicked off his sandals, folded himself over into the recommended crash position […] (39.59)

One weird side-effect of taking Dylar is the way that it numbs the part of our brains that distinguishes words from reality. Creepy. But in other parts of this book, DeLillo suggests that this sort of thing has already happened in the modern world, where kids like Heinrich only believe it's raining if the radio says so, and not if their eyes and ears say so. Media, in this case, is acting much like Dylar in that it's fusing images and reality <em>and</em> alleviating a fear of death.

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