Don DeLillo (1936-)
Jack Gladney is the perfect postmodern hero. He believes truth is debatable, that true facts are whatever other people say they are, that "no one's knowledge is less secure than your own." He and his composite family often debate the relativity of truth over greasy chicken wings which they devour, animal like, grease dripping down their forearms, without making eye contact. Jack is a professor at a small college, where he has created a somewhat renowned school of Hitler studies and has slowly lost himself in the persona he's created as its chair. He adds initials to his name, wears foreboding eye glasses which distort his vision but create an imposing figure.
"The chancellor warned against what he called my tendency to make a feeble presentation of self. He strongly suggested I gain weight. He wanted me to "grow out" into Hitler. He himself was tall, paunchy, ruddy, jowly, big-footed and dull. A formidable combination. I had the advantages of substantial height, big hands, big feet, but badly needed bulk, or so he believed, an air of unhealthy excess, of padding and exaggeration, hulking massiveness. If I could become more ugly, he seemed to be suggesting, it would help my career enormously. "
As the Hitler studies give Jack something to grow into and develop towards, he doesn't speak German, a flaw he is deeply ashamed of and realizes he his little more than a false character that follows a name around...he eventually realizes that helpless and fearful people are drawn to magical figures, mythic figures, epic figures, men who intimidate and loom darkly. While some people are larger than life, Hitler is larger than death, and Jack has developed a world where the overwhelming horror would leave no room for his own death, where he would be sheltered, protected, submerged in the tragedy of another's life.
Jack lives with his fifth wife and their brood of children in an idyllic town where things happen mostly to other people and are broadcast over the air waves via the radio or television, the other members of this composite family, in a world where technology has become an extension of self or even the identifier of self. How can you know who you are and what you're worth without a commercial reminding you what you need to become the best version of yourself. All knowledge becomes filtered through some form of mass media as they create an imperial self out of tabloid aspirations.
The Gladney's take comfort in their middle class status, because truly horrific things can only happen to poor people. "Society is set up in such a way that it's the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters." And to reassure themselves of their safety they frequently shop, whether to wander around the aisles of luxurious grocery products, establishing themselves as stalwart figures in a pecuniary culture, or to binge purchase the items that will truly identify them as legitimate original individuals. While the socialists in Libra are constantly arguing against the exploitation of the masses and deriding a culture of conspicuous consumption, the Gladney's seem to thrive in a culture of manic consumerism.
Behind Jack and Babette's facade of composure, both are incapacitated by an overwhelming fear of death, although Babette does her best to hide the extent of her fear by drowning it in Dylar, an untested, unapproved black market substance in the clinical trial phase, alleged to remove the fear of death. As she stoically goes about her daily routines, she is whoring herself out to a dry and crusty, wrapper of a man in exchange for access to the drugs.
As they both live their quite lives, Jack meditating on his fear of death from an academic perspective, Babette running up stadium stairs in sweatsuits and demanding her little boy, Wilder, stay an infant forever, a looming catastrophe makes its appearance. There has been a toxic spill that now threatens anyone within its proximity. As they slowly make their way to the refugee camps stationed around the state, the fear of death becomes palpable. They realize that the people in charge of the disaster are using this event as training for the Simulated Evacuation process, using a real event to rehearse a simulation. The borders between truth and reality become hazy as the family sits in the Boy Scout cabin curling up on cots wondering if the danger is real or imagined.
When Jack finally elicits a confession from Babette about her drug use, her fear of death and the agreed system of reciprocity, Jack overlooks her unfaithfulness and slowly becomes obsessed with obtaining this miracle drug for himself. When he thinks his daughter has thrown out the bottle he paws through weeks of garbage, dissecting a palimpsest comprised of the residue of their lives, obscene cartoon characters drawn in a childish hand, a tampon hidden in a banana peel, as he picks his way through the fetid garbage searching for the remainder of a pill that has the potential to eradicate his fear of death, he wonders if we hide the parts of ourselves we wish to avoid or leave unacknowledged.
As he continues his quest for the panacea, he finds his wife's drug lord, a shell of a person wearing Budweiser shorts and living in a motel and eating Dylar like its candy, the precious drug scatter around the room and crushed into the fire-resistant carpet. The drug is obviously having a strange effect on this man, and while Jack contemplates what to do...he has a fleeting moment of compassion for his wife.
Finally he meets a cadre of nuns and priests that don't believe in God. Their faith or rather the assumption of their faith is simply for the masses. The people would be crushed if they didn't believe, so they put up a facade of belief in God, of heaven, of good and evil...all the while thinking only the truly desperate would cling to that sort of ill-founded rhetoric. There is no truth. Our acceptance of truth is only for the benefit of others.
The book ends with a final expedition to the grocery store, which has been rearranged, leaving the patrons anxious, lost and confused. As Babette and Jack stand in the check-out lane they realize that here, in line at the grocery store, surrounded by bar codes and price tags, where the holographic scanners "decode the binary secrets of every item, where the dead speak to the living" is the last truly democratic place left. They stand, regardless of age, race and status, their carts piled high with the detritus of consumption, slowly moving forward, reading the tabloids.
"Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead."
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