“I tell her I want to die first. I’ve gotten so used to her that I would feel miserably incomplete.” -Jack Gladney (Don DeLillo, White Noise, p. 100)
“And if you die before I die, I’ll carve your name out of the sky. I’ll fall asleep with your memory and dream of where you lie.” -Mikel Jollett (“The Graveyard Near the House”)
Death pervades Don DeLillo’s White Noise through and through. The characters that inhabit his story are fixated upon the end of their days: Jack Gladney, who through his exposure to a mysterious Airborne Toxic Event grapples with his eventual demise (though whether it will come in 40 weeks or 40 years, no one can say); and his wife Babette, who compromises her marriage in the desperate hope that an experimental drug can ease her trepidation over her own inevitable passing.
The novel is constructed on a series of intertwining loops: threads of thought begin and are dropped just as quickly, only to resurface later for further probing; conversations start and stop, are forgotten for a hundred pages, and then find resolution.
One such recurring theme is an ongoing argument between Jack and Babette about who should or will die first, and which of them would be rendered more incapacitated by the loss of the other.
Who will die first? She says she wants me to die first because she would feel unbearably lonely and sad without me, especially if the children were grown and living elsewhere. She is adamant about this. She sincerely wants to precede me. She discusses the subject with such argumentative force that it’s obvious she thinks we have a choice in the matter… She sounds almost eager. She is afraid I will die unexpectedly, sneakily, slipping away in the night. It isn’t that she doesn’t cherish life; it’s being left alone that frightens her. The emptiness, the sense of cosmic darkness…
I tell her I want to die first. I’ve gotten so used to her that I would feel miserably incomplete. We are two views of the same person. I would spend the rest of my life turning to speak to her. No one there, a hole in space and time. She claims my death would leave a bigger hole in her life than her death would leave in mine. This is the level of our discourse. The relative size of holes, abysses and gaps. We have serious arguments on this level. She says if her death is capable of leaving a large hole in my life, my death would leave an abyss in hers, a great yawning gulf. I counter with a profound depth or void. And so it goes into the night…
The truth is, I don’t want to die first. Given a choice between loneliness and death, it would take me a fraction of a second to decide. But I don’t want to be alone either. Everything I say to Babette about holes and gaps is true. Her death would leave me scattered, talking to chairs and pillows. Don’t let us die, I want to cry out to that fifth century sky ablaze with mystery and spiral light. Let us both live forever, in sickness and health, feeble-minded, doddering, toothless, liver-spotted, dim-sighted, hallucinating. Who decides these things? What is out there? Who are you? (pp. 100-103)
These conversations expose the characters as essentially selfish. Your death will be tragic, not for what it costs you, or the world, but for what it costs me. I will be lonely. I will be incomplete. I will not know what to do with myself. Your death is about me.
But lest I judge Jack and Babette too critically, I consider my own conversations with my wife, and my own fears about what would happen if…
Consumed as we are by the demands of raising kids and paying bills, our concerns are eminently practical. How could I possibly manage four children without her? How could I ever make ends meet without him? Would she remarry? Would I? Could she? Could I?
It may be a slight step above Jack and Babette, but it’s a slight step indeed. The loss of life is just such an inconvenience to the living, isn’t it?
When Mikel Jollett set about naming his band, he found inspiration in this book. Its influence extends far beyond a mere moniker; the music of The Airborne Toxic Event is every bit as steeped in death as White Noise. “All your songs are sad songs,” it’s been said.
But are they, really? I’m not so sure.
Mikel confesses to having reveled in the futility of it all, and having been “obsessed with the darkness of infinity and all that shit.” Later, perhaps weary of wrestling that darkness, he came to accept that death is just really incredibly sad. And yet, narrated by this talented writer, death loses some of its sting. It seems somehow grander; more noble; less pointless.
And if you die before I die,
I’ll carve your name out of the sky.
I’ll fall asleep with your memory and dream of where you lie.
“The Graveyard Near the House” hearkens back to the tortured discussions of Jack and Babette. If you die before I die, I’ll… what? Feel super lonely? Need some help with the kids? Cross my fingers and hope you had enough insurance to get us through?
I will carve your name out of the freaking sky.
I will keep you forever alive in my memory.
I will dream of you every night, for the rest of my days.
We may be apart in body, but we will never be apart in spirit. And someday I will join you, and we will lie side by side in pieces, in some dark and lonely plot under a bough. And yeah, we’ll look ridiculous as our flesh and bones and clothes rot away into nothingness. But we will be together. And that’s what makes this life, and this death, worth living.
Death leaves a hole, to be sure. But in death, Mikel also sees an opportunity to fill a hole: to fill the whole expanse of an empty sky with the name of his beloved.
In one of her better moments, Babette embraces that which she fears most. “I think it’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need? Doesn’t it give a precious texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry of a final line, a border or limit.” (pp. 228-229)
I think Mikel Jollett would agree. By his pen death becomes, dare I say, romantic. His words about death give a precious texture to life. They elevate life and infuse it with meaning, even though we know the story – all our stories – will end in a grave.
Living with the knowledge that we’ve been exposed to death, that it could come knocking at any time, we’ll… what? Give in to despair? Yield to the darkness? Look out for Number One?
Because it’s better to love whether you win or lose or die.
It’s better to love whether you win or lose or die.
It’s better to love and I will love you until I die.
Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.