Wandering the aisles of my neighborhood supermarket, the kind of place Don DeLillo once wrote evoked “a sense of replenishment … and fullness of being,” I tread cautiously out of suspicion and respect for the potential “airborne toxic event” that is the coronavirus pandemic. As the world continues to pass milestones of Covid infections, I have gradually come to realize that, like The Clash’s Joe Strummer, I am feeling “all lost in the supermarket; I can longer shop happily.” Now, more than two years since the pandemic was declared, as society cautiously emerges from quarantine cocoons while also facing a return to some restrictions amidst fears of the delta and omicron variants, I’m still wearing a mask in crowded places like our nearby grocery store, despite being vaccinated and boosted. And, in a socially distant world where the supermarket was the last bastion of a semi-normal suburban existence, I’m thinking of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise.
From Allen Ginsburg’s ‘Supermarket in California’ and John Updike’s ‘A & P’ to The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket” and Kevin Smith’s movie Clerks, contemporary portrayals of the marketplace or grocery store have long served as powerful metaphors for our lives in contemporary art and literature. The supermarket is a unique representation of all that is good and bad about modern culture. These places serve as dependable and consistent sources for daily necessities to the point of being an afterthought. Yet they have also become sacred ground for the commercialism and mass marketing which is so pervasive in contemporary culture that it defines the era. In White Noise, the postmodern American writer Don DeLillo (born in 1936) cleverly weaves the setting of the supermarket into the plot of a 1970s disaster scenario stemming from a vague, nameless “airborne toxic event” that disrupts and threatens a small suburban town, and in doing so spotlights the influence of consumerism in the contemporary world. Now in a consumerist world far more extensive, if not oppressive, than anything the ‘70s offered, and set against a new and very real public health crisis, DeLillo’s story of consumer culture enmeshed in disaster planning is again poignantly relevant and strangely inviting.
In its 1985 review of the novel, the New York Times wrote “In light of the recent Union Carbide disaster in India that killed over 2,000 and injured thousands more, White Noise seems all the more timely and frightening – precisely because of its totally American concerns, its rendering of a particularly American numbness.” That description and insight are both incredibly prescient as well as almost strangely quaint against the superficial consumerist world of the Internet era and the early twenty-first century. And, now here we are thirty-five years later amidst a once-in-a-century global pandemic that is a true airborne toxic event, and the novel again seems equally “timely and frightening.” So many eerie parallels arise when reading the novel in 2021, connections that go beyond the health crisis to issues of socio-political conflict. Narrator Jack Gladney’s role as a professor of Hitler Studies at the small liberal arts College on the Hill aligns uncomfortably in a contemporary world where Gladney’s intellectual inquiry into the cult of personality around the world’s archetypal fascist dictator feels uncomfortably authentic when read against an attempted coup following the January 6 assault on the Capitol. The role of media and the pervasive influence of TV is prescient as well, as when Jack’s quirky fourteen-year-old son Heinrich puts his all-consuming faith in television, not even trusting his own experience with the weather if the TV says differently. He believes whatever he hears on the radio, a characteristic quite familiar in the conspiracy era of QAnon. Finally, there is ubiquitous consumer culture portrayed through DeLillo’s take on the supermarket where the “specter of death” is ironically closing in on the characters in the place they go for basic necessities. Likewise in the Covid era, the life-sustaining role of the supermarket is also one of the places where we are most vulnerable as a society.
Nowhere did the impact of the pandemic hit the average person harder than the seemingly innocuous grocery store. From mad runs on a random cross section of daily necessities and simple luxuries to extended shortages of toilet paper and hand sanitizer amidst increasing anxiety about lines and proximity, the place we go for substance and staples of our daily life became just one more precarious location in a world shutting down. Americans quickly came to appreciate delivery drivers and stock boys and cashiers. Quite suddenly, some of the lowest paid people in the country became “essential workers,” as everyone quickly realized these hourly employees supplied the essentials of daily life. Yet, even in these vital communal spaces amidst a public health crisis, some people still couldn’t bring themselves to simply wear a mask and respect the workers stocking the shelves. It’s in the supermarkets that we have seen our society at its most inappropriately manic, whether that’s anti-mask shoppers who scream, fight, and cough on people, or racist confrontations of shoppers belittling and threatening minorities and immigrants. At the place where we all need to come together, we find the clearest evidence of ways we are coming apart.
The supermarket has long been an integral part of a community, and in White Noise DeLillo portrays its function as almost spiritual, serving as a meeting place and community center. Jack and his wife Babette often shop together, albeit with different carts, encountering Jack’s eccentric colleague Murray nearly every time they go. The characters philosophize in the aisles, with the pop culture professor Murray explaining how “This place recharges us spiritually, it prepares us, it’s a gateway or a pathway.” That’s giving a lot of credit to a sterile environment used as a distribution place for canned foods, chemical cleaners, and tabloid newspapers. However, in a postmodern world, people do give places like supermarkets more significance than their obvious purpose would imply. In some neighborhoods the gas station convenience store is a local hangout which sells everything from a morning cup of gourmet coffee to fresh vegetables and fine wines. In other communities the local Walmart may be the only store for hundreds of square miles, providing everything a family could need. And amidst those varied landscapes, niche supermarkets like Trader Joes and Whole Foods have carved out a business model based on an ethical, green-minded shopping narrative. Thus, it’s no surprise that during a pandemic which has taken so many places away, the desire and reverence for them became greater, especially as people depended upon consumer goods to fill the great emptiness exacerbated by quarantines, when people found themselves alone at home. The “white noise” of 1985 was the ever present and encroaching existence of contemporary consumer culture, and in 2020 the act of buying goods became a necessary distraction and anesthetic. Ironically, when the Clash sing “I empty a bottle, I feel a bit free,” the nihilistic angst of punk rock aptly reflects the ennui of so many who are not healed or moderated by the purchase of consumer goods and instead see the consumerist focus as the cause of our despair. The materialist, mass-produced, commercial sense of self that lines the grocery shelves is pervasive in DeLillo’s story and in contemporary Covid-society.
In White Noise, Jack is clearly aware of the order the supermarket brings to his universe, and that sense of order is as relevant if not more in the current era. As Jack drives home from the supermarket one day, he notices that while many houses and buildings in town showed signs of decay, “… the supermarket did not change, except for the better.” Regardless of other problems in society, people depend on the supermarket to remain stocked with the items they need to make their lives complete. The religious nature of the supermarket is clear when Jack decides, “Everything was fine, would continue to be fine, would eventually get even better as long as the supermarket did not slip.” In a rather inspired scene later in the novel, Jack walks through town and fills in the blanks for conversations he observes. In one house he observes a young boy explain to his grandparents how he wants to leave school for his job at the supermarket. Just as the store serves society, the job as a bagger gives him all he needs in life. He explains, “It’s like Zen, grampa. I like it, gramma, it’s totally unthreatening, it’s how I want to spend my life.” Amidst the current pandemic, when supermarket workers were elevated to the status of essential workers but constantly faced the danger of Covid, not to mention the aggressive anger of customers who refuse to wear masks and vent their frustration with the minimum wage employees, the supermarket has ceased to be “totally unthreatening.” In fact, fewer workers would want to spend their lives there, leaving the job in large numbers, a situation which exacerbates the struggles of remaining workers and increasing both the anxiety and intolerance of the consumer.
In DeLillo’s novel the supermarket is viewed by the characters as a magical land of plenty. Yet, in the Covid era it has now become a battleground for any number of things, from freedom to toilet paper. When Jack enters the store he is amazed by the sense of completeness he feels, whereas contemporary shoppers often want to get in and out as quickly as possible. As Jack observes the displays, with their many vivid colors, he thinks, “Everything seemed to be in season.” By contrast in the current era, disruptions and delays in the global supply chain have led to a shortage of goods, a condition that began with the absurd run on toilet paper. The supermarket displays give Jack the feeling all is well with the world, and in DeLillo’s world a supermarket is a well-ordered environment that exudes confidence and inspires comfort. The wide variety of products available for any personal need provide a sense of abundance and consistency which is pleasing to the eye of the consumer. This sense of order appeals to people like Murray who are pleased that some force beneath the surface is creating and guiding the system. He finds comfort that “Everything is concealed in symbolism, hidden by veils of mystery and layers of cultural material.” An obviously religious tone underscores his comments, as the supermarket offers order and answers in an uncertain world. In the novel, characters shop to create their identity, and some critics have noted how the supermarket and the act of shopping is how the characters seek to avoid death. That concept of escape is turned sideways when reading the novel during a pandemic where the act of shopping, of being out in the public space, could be the source of death. While in White Noise, Jack and the other consumers shop almost as a distraction to avoid their fear of death, the act of shopping in a pandemic exacerbates that fear that shopping, at least physically in the supermarket, could in fact cause death. Thus, the supermarket increases anxiety if not actually fear of death.
The symbol of the supermarket takes on its greatest significance in the final paragraph of the novel; in that scene is a relevant metaphor for the current world which often seems like it’s been turned sideways and upside down. The narrator begins by saying, “The supermarket shelves have been rearranged.” Given Jack’s earlier foreboding statement which linked consistency in the supermarket with a sense of calm in the world, this sentence sets an ominous tone for the end of the novel. It seems outrageous that such a change could happen “without warning.” The shoppers, especially the older ones, are clearly agitated and panicked by the disruption of one thing they counted on for consistency. Jack observes the chaos and sense of urgency, but he is ultimately calmed by the realization, after observing the checkout lines with their scanners, that someone or something is still in charge. Regardless of the movement of items on the shelves, there is still a machine that will make sense of the products in the end. Just like those supermarket shelves at the end of White Noise, our contemporary lives have now been rearranged by a global pandemic, and we need to find a way to again shop happily.
Michael P. Mazenko is a writer and an AP English teacher in suburban Colorado. He has been writing about contemporary American culture for many years, serving as a Colorado Voices columnist for the Denver Post. Currently he writes a column called “Unpacking the Backpack” for The Villager, a small weekly newspaper. He has also published pieces with the CS Monitor, Salon, Merion West, Fatherly, and Pop Matters, as well as maintaining a blog and a Medium page with content and commentary on “education, parenting, politics, pop culture, and contemporary American life.”