Only a fool would make light of the Deepwater oil spill right now. But as Don DeLillo's 1984 novel White Noise shows us, jokes are the only way to cope with the psychological burden of environmental disaster.
The novel begins as a wry commentary on a Brady Bunch-style family cobbled together from failed marriages, as well as the academic milieu where protagonist Jack Gladney struggles to make his mark. Written in DeLillo's trademark satirical style, the book is bound to make readers laugh out loud. Yet the humor is clouded by fear and sadness.
Literally. The plot turns on what happens after Gladney's world is turned upside down by an "airborne toxic event." DeLillo goes out of his way to make the nature of this environmental calamity as ambiguous as possible.
Troops are mobilized. Portions of the city are cordoned off. People worry about their degree of exposure. But no one seems to know what the risks are or how likely they are to become reality.
And that's what troubles Jack Gladney the most. If he had a clear-cut diagnosis, an understanding of what the event means for him, he would be much happier. Indeed, it sometimes seems that he would rather know the worst than continue living in a state of ignorance.
This is where White Noise proves most prescient for what's happening in the Gulf. Some experts are making dire predictions. Others offer more cautious assessments of the oil spill's impact. But what we have heard over and over during the past two months is that we don't really know enough to make firm plans for the future.
It's as if the drill had tapped into a vast reservoir of doubt. The longer the leak goes unplugged, the more our environment is contaminated with uncertainty. There's comedy in that, but the most toxic sort.
The scope of the problem is so diffuse that we aren't even sure what to name it. A passage from the novel, right after the accident has first been reported, brilliantly captures this dilemma:
"The radio calls it a feathery plume," he said. "But it's not a plume."
"What is it?'"
"Like a shapeless growing thing. A dark black breathing thing. . ."
In the Western tradition that gave rise to modern science, the capacity to see has been regarded as the cornerstone of knowledge. From the primitive telescope to the electron microscope, resolution has had a double-meaning. If we can see the problem clearly, we can solve it too.
But Don DeLillo's airborne toxic event and its monstrous underwater descendant testify to a catastrophic rupture in the connection between sight and understanding. The more we look, the less clear it is what we are witnessing.
White Noise makes us laugh at our addiction to answers, the belief that every hole in our lives can be plugged with knowledge. We laugh because it hurts too much to cry. We laugh because our sense of humor is the only faculty we have for coping with what will never make sense.
Pick up a copy of White Noise at your local used bookstore, or grab a copy online.
Charlie Bertsch is a freelance critic and professor of English at the University of Arizona.