white_noise.largeI spent a week reading White Noise for my modern fiction class. This book was why I signed up for the class in the first place, and I was terribly excited. It’s totally different than how I remembered it.

I read White Noise the summer after my freshman year of high school. Before summer break, I asked a teacher who I idolized what books I should read over the summer, which I would be spending in the no man’s land of Minden, LA. She gave me three suggestions: Hard Times, A Handmaid’s Tale, and White Noise. I read and adored all three, but White Noise was, by far, my favorite. It also changed my life by filling my head with crazy (and reasonable) ideas.

Here’s one that occurs very early in the book. Throughout my childhood, just before I’d fall asleep, I’d jerk awake because I felt like I was falling. It was terrible. It happened almost every night. One of my very first memories was lying in my Strawberry Shortcake-themed bed at my dad’s house, trying to sleep, and being jarred awake. I couldn’t have been older than three or four. Of course, I kept it a secret, as so many kids keep secret anything they think is wrong with them. For a long time, I was convinced that I had a disease. And here’s what White Noise has to do with my problem: it explained what it was and how it happened. I’ve never bothered actually looking it up, but, according to the novel, it’s called a myoclonic jerk, and it’s a “more or less normal muscular contraction.” That’s all I’ve ever found out about it, but it’s enough for me. It hasn’t happened often since I was a kid, but every time it does, that phrase goes through my head. I’d forgotten where it came from.

Life-changing bit number two: I idolized Heinrich. I wanted to be just like him: brilliant and brooding. And I think I might have pulled it off for a while, though that’s another post.

And number three: I don’t remember, but my airplane phobia must have been exacerbated by the terrible near-crash description. This is only part of it:

The plane had lost power in all three engines, dropped from thirty-four thousand feet to twelve thousand feet. Something like four miles. When the steep glide began, people rose, fell, collided, swam in their seats. Then the serious screaming and moaning began. Almost immediately a voice from the flight deck was heard on the intercom: “We’re falling out of the sky! We’re going down! We’re a silver gleaming death machine!” This outburst struck the passengers as an all but total breakdown of authority, competence, and command presence and it brought on a round of fresh and desperate wailing.

Here’s a story: When I was little, having divorced parents, I used to fly alone a lot. A lot. I was generally okay with it until, when I was eight or nine, my dad put me on a plane from New Orleans or Baton Rouge to Shreveport. It was terrible. It was a little puddle-jumper from an airline that doesn’t exist anymore, and we were flying behind a 757. It flew through a thunderhead, and, for whatever reason, the pilot of my plane decided that it would be a good idea for us to go through it too. Once we got into it, though, we started falling. Like two hundred feet at a time, which took seconds. After each fall, we would climb back up and fall again. I, of course, was alone, and I was surrounded by adults who were screaming and crying and holding hands and praying. How could I not be traumatized? For years after that, I gripped the armrests and said rosaries through whole flights, convinced that I was about to die. When I turned eighteen, I got a car, and I SWORE I’d never fly again. And I didn’t for six years, when I was faced with a free trip to Disney World. It was a phobia: I would have nightmares not about planes crashing, but about being forced to board them. I can deal with planes now, I think, only thanks to a combination of NLP and a book called Flying without Fear.

ANYWAY, I’m sure you can see how the description in White Noise might affect my fourteen-year-old psyche (after reading Cat’s Cradle, I wanted to be a Bokononist!). I remember sitting in an airport sometime around then, watching several people exit a plane with IVs and casts and the like. I think I assumed that something terrible had happened on the plane, but now, of course, I realize that planes probably don’t carry IV or cast-making supplies.

And, finally, there’s the athiest nun at the end. I won’t explain the circumstances for the benefit of those of you who STILL NEED TO READ THIS NOVEL. This includes you, Charlotte. I know that, being fourteen, I took that part way too seriously. In fact, I didn’t think White Noise was a funny novel at all. I’m especially amused that I only remembered the first half of it – I guess I was just too young to understand what in the hell was going on.