"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes
impossible to see the barn." (3.19)
When Murray Siskind
takes Jack on a day trip to see "The Most Photographed Barn in
America," he shows Jack something more than just a famous barn. He shows
Jack how little of a grasp on reality people have. For Murray, it's impossible
to see the barn objectively as a barn because you can't get anywhere near the
thing without passing a half-dozen signs that advertise it as the most
photographed barn in America. The point is that once you know this, you can
never just see a barn. You can only see a barn that you know thousands of other
people have seen a certain way, and you can't help but join them in seeing it
from a specific mental angle.
"We're not here to capture an image, we're here to
maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An
accumulation of nameless energies." (3.21)
It's not just any one
camera that makes the most photographed barn in America what it is. Every
person who stops and takes a picture contributes to the "aura" of the
barn. In this way, the "aura" is like an invisible residue that
builds up on the barn more and more as each person comes to snap a picture.
Each photo, says Murray, turns the barn into something more than just a barn.
Each photo turns it into something that only exists for the sake of being
"I am the false character that follows the name
Jack doesn't feel all
that secure as a professor. After all, the guy became one of the best pros in
his field by… <em>inventing his own
field</em>. That's kind of a sneaky way to become the best at
something, and another example of how people tend to invent their own reality
rather than see the world objectively. Jack's so concerned with keeping up a
certain image that he wears hipster glasses and uses his initials J.A.K.
instead of Jack in academic settings. As he says in this line, though, he never
for a moment thinks of himself as genuine. He's just a character that he made
up, not the real Jack Gladney.
"It's going to rain tonight."
"It's raining now," I said.
"The radio said tonight." (6.3-6.5)
So much for
"Father Knows Best." Jack can't even get his son Heinrich to agree
with him that it's raining outside. That's because Heinrich totally refuses to
accept commonsense answers to simple questions. To be fair, Heinrich is being a
little bit difficult here. But if you take what he's saying seriously, he makes
a good point about how much the media (like TV and radio) conditions the way we
look at reality. Let's not forget that later in the book, Jack won't evacuate
their home after a toxic disaster because TV has taught him that disasters only
happen to poor people in trailer homes.
"Just because it's on the radio doesn't mean we have to
suspend belief in the evidence of our senses." (6.9)
Jack gets right down
to it here. When it comes to reality, we should trust what our eyes and ears
tell us, not the radio. But this is more easily said than done. Throughout this
book, the radio is always there, jabbering away. It's like there's no getting
away from it in Jack's household. It's always inserting itself in
conversations, and always warping what people see when they look outside.
Only a little later
in the book, Steffie starts having fits of déjà vu after the radio told her
that déjà vu is a possible symptom of toxic gas exposure. The funny thing is
that the radio later says that déjà vu <em>isn't</em>
a symptom, leaving us to wonder if the radio itself tricked Steffie into having
déjà vu. The media can plays tricks on the mind in this book.
"Is there such a thing as now? "Now" comes
and goes as soon as you say it. How can I say it's raining now if your
so-called "now" becomes "then" as soon as I say it?"
Heinrich's a crafty
kid, and he's good at dancing away from his father's hardline reasoning. For
example, he shows his father that it's totally bogus to ever say that a certain
thing is happening "now," because the present moment is over before
you've even finished saying it.
"You see the sun moving across the sky. But is the sun
moving across the sky or is the earth turning?" (6.32)
noodle-scratcher: does it even make sense to say the sun goes down when we know
it's just an illusion caused by the spinning of the globe? In this case,
Heinrich shows us a really good example of how our personal point of view is
always coloring our reality, and how we can never really know an objective
reality because we're always coming at the world from a certain angle.
"But this evacuation isn't simulated. It's real."
"We know that. But we thought we could use it as a
"A form of practice? Are you saying you saw a chance to
use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?" (21.396)
Wait a second, these
SIMUVAC guys are only supposed to run simulated evacuations, right? But what
happens when they use an actual disaster so they can practice to make their
simulations better? In a passage like this, DeLillo shows us that in the modern
world, simulations or fake realities can sometimes completely replace reality.
It's kind of like the way a commercial paints a really fake version of reality,
except that in this case, the SIMUVAC guys have the power to turn real life
itself into a simulation.
"To begin your project sweater," he said,
"first ask yourself what type sleeve will meet your needs." (39.29)
When Jack meets the
pill fiend named Willie Mink, it doesn't take Jack long to realize that Willie
has totally destroyed his brain with pills. The damage has gotten so bad that
Willie can't really tell the difference between his own thoughts and the lines
that his TV is feeding him. Willie's obviously been watching some sort of
knitting show, but he can't tell where the show ends and "real" life
begins. DeLillo uses this kind of scene, and others like it, to show how TV can
get into our heads and totally take the place of the "real" world in
"There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those
who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender
our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure you are right but you
don't want everyone to think as you do." (40.150)
When Jack goes to a
hospital, he's shocked to find out that the nuns working there don't actually
believe in God or an afterlife. When he asks why they go on pretending, a nun
tells him that normal, cynical people <em>need</em>
religious people to make them feel smart for not believing in God. If everyone
were an atheist, atheists wouldn't feel special. Basically, the message here is
that no matter how cynical or non-believing a person is, that person will
always take comfort in the thought that somewhere out there, there are actual