Fag: ENG 4318 Postmodernism in American Fiction
Oppgavetype: Muntlig foredrag
Tidspunkt: Våren 2004
4. The juxtaposition of terror and humor has often been said to be typical of DDL’s fiction. How are these elements identifiable in this novel?
The juxtaposition of terror and humor is an important constituent of what we call black comedy. It also easily relates to one of the major parameters of postmodernism, namely the role of the absurd, which thus makes the phenomenon a part of the postmodern tradition (although this is not where the concept of black comedy was conceived).
Juxtapositions of this kind are found throughout DeLillo’s White Noise. It would not, however, be very interesting (or possible, considering the scope of this assignment) to point to every sentence or paragraph that juxtapose terror and humor. Therefore, I have focused on a few major such juxtapositions.
First, there is the treatment of the historical figures Adolf Hitler and Elvis Presley. Jack Gladney is head of the department of Hitler studies. When he lunches with visiting lecturer Murray Siskind, the latter tells him that Jack has “established a wonderful thing here with Hitler. ... It’s what I want to do with Elvis.” (chapter 3) These subjects are repeated in their conversations and discussions throughout the book. This is a juxtaposition of terror and humor because Hitler remains the most hated and terrible man of the 20th century, perhaps of all time, whereas Elvis is probably the most popular cultural persona of the 20th century, probably of all time. Hitler is associated with gruesome things, death more than anything else, which is of course the most terrible thing Jack can think of. Elvis, one the other hand, is associated with joyous musical entertainment and feel-good movies. This is what creates the contrast and tension between phrases like “wonderful thing” and Hitler, and between the two men themselves, effects which can be perceived as both terrifying and humorous at the same time. It is also funny that they are treated as having had the same impact on world history. That no one ever comments or seems to believe that Hitler has influced the world more than Elvis, is an aspect of this theme that relates to the major parameter of relativism.
Second, there is the way the family members behave in part 2. When faced with the terror of a lethal chemical cloud, they make rather absurd conversation and have strange thoughts that do not seem to be at all appropriate in the dangerous situation. For example, Jack observes that “[T]hese things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. ... I’m a college professor. Did your ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods?” This is a funny observation, but perhaps not what one might expect from a grown man faced with danger of this kind. Later, in the car, they discuss whether rats, dogs and cockroaches are members of different families in the animal kingdom. And at the evacuation camp, Babette reads to the blind and elderly from highly speculative tabloids. Here, it is the threatening context that somehow makes these situations absurdly funny.
Third, there is the way Jack and his son Heinrich respond to different accidents and tragedies. One night, they watch a news clip of policemen carrying bodies out of a backyard, and the reporter says that many more bodies will probably be found. Some days later, they watch a news clip from the same location, but no more bodies have been found. They are both, along with the TV reporter, rather quietly disappointed. This is a very grim image, but it is funny because it makes fun of something that is so true about the human nature of the society we live in today, as we generally seem to be strangely attracted to disasters of various kinds. And when the insane asylum burns down, they stand around and make sarcastic wisecracks and smart-ass comments, like when Heinrich says “[F]aulty wiring. That’s one phrase you can’t hang around for long without hearing.” Jack says: “Most people don’t burn to death. They die of smoke inhalation.” Heinrich replies: “That’s another.” This is also grimly funny, and what’s more, this is an example of what is often called gallows humor, which is often employed to ease a desperate or hopeless situation. And this phenomenon of gallows humor is probably one of the key undertones of the entire novel, because life in itself, at least to Jack and Babette, is exactly that: a hopeless situation. We are all going to die. No one survives life. So gallows humor is necessary to go on, to stay afloat, so to speak.
Finally, I will comment on a few non-related, ironic incidents that juxtapose terror and humor. Jack’s attempted murder of Willie Mink is one of these. When he goes there, he has planned what he is going to do very carefully. Nothing is going to be coincidental. And this plan is repeated in the chapter again and again. So when this attempt to commit one of the worst human actions fails, it is funny because of the irony involved. The detailed planning is contrasted to the clumsily performed shooting. And when Willie shoots back, the irony becomes total, in that the hunter becomes the hunted, as we say. Another incident, in some respects similarly ironic, involves Orest and his attempt to stay in a cage full of poisonous snakes for sixtyseven days. He has also prepared for a very long time, training his sleeping habits, eating habits and so on. But when he finally tries to go through with this stunt, he is bitten in four minutes. This, of course, is very ironic, and therefore also very funny, even though the idea of sitting in a cage full of venomous snakes and actually being bitten in itself is rather terrifying. One final ironic element that I wish to mention is that the beautiful sunsets that occure in the period after the chemical accident are actually results of this very accident. The humorous irony, of course, is that something so dangerous and unwanted can produce something so beautiful.