Approaching his house on foot one snowy day, Jack sees Heinrich perched on a ledge outside the attic looking east through binoculars. Going up to join him, he learns that a tank car of a passing train derailed and was punctured by something, releasing a heavy black cloud of what looks like smoke. Heinrich says that the cloud looks toxic and explosive, to which Jack says, “It won’t come this way.” When Heinrich asks how he knows this, Jack doesn’t back up his assertion with facts, merely restating that the cloud won’t reach them.
Strangely enough, Jack commits himself to confident assurance in this moment of uncertainty. By saying, “It won’t come this way,” he seems to be trying to use his language to ensure his safety—after all, he probably remembers the flight attendant on the hurtling plane using the same approach when she told everybody that they would be “crash landing.” As such, Jack seeks to manipulate the disaster by using the only thing available to him: language.
An hour later—after failing to shovel the walkway, as his father asked him to do—Heinrich is once more in the attic, this time with a radio and a map. He tells Jack that radio broadcasters have started calling the cloud a “feathery plume” and that it is comprised of a highly toxic chemical called Nyodene D., which he knows from school is harmful to rats. He is unsure how it might affect humans. He tells Jack that the radio initially said Nyodene D. would cause skin irritation and sweaty palms, but now the broadcasters are saying that it will lead to nausea, vomiting, and shortness of breath. Once again, Jack voices his belief that the toxic cloud won’t come toward the house.
The radio broadcasters’ ever-changing vocabulary yet again enforces the notion that, in times of fear and uncertainty, people will often turn to language for a sense of control. Debating semantic differences gives people something to do, giving them the impression that they are not completely helpless.
Tension continues to mount as the family gains new snippets of information about the Nyodene D. release and argues about the correct terms for the cloud of toxic chemicals. Babette hears from a neighbor that the tank car spilled 35,000 gallons. She also tells Jack and Heinrich that Steffie and Denise have been complaining about having sweaty palms. “There’s been a correction,” Heinrich says. “Tell them they ought to be throwing up.” Jack decides to go downstairs to sit in the kitchen and pay some bills.
In this moment, Denise and Steffie find themselves influenced by the power of suggestion, which is yet another example of the effect of language on one’s sense of control during a calamity. In this case, though, language further revokes control, since Steffie and Denise are so negatively affected by what others tell them they should be feeling that even their physical wellbeing reflects their fear.
While paying the bills, Jack talks to Denise, who tells him that the emergency responders are using snow blowers to cover the spill with something that will keep it from spreading. Jack wonders when they should eat dinner, and when Denise continues to worry, he tells her that the cloud won’t reach them, though again, he provides no basis for thinking this. Babette gets off the phone with their neighbors and says that experts are no longer calling the cloud a “feathery plume,” but rather a “black billowing cloud.” Jack takes comfort in this, saying, “That’s a little more accurate, which means they’re coming to grips with the thing. Good.” In response, Babette says that there is an approaching air mass that could blow the cloud toward them. Jack brushes this off, asking again when they will eat dinner.
In the same way that he belittles the threat of the toxic cloud by saying it surely won’t reach them, Jack tries to control his fear by progressing with his day as if nothing eventful has happened. Focusing on dinner allows him to continue the narrative he’s committed himself to—namely, that the cloud of toxic chemicals poses no threat to him or to his family. This is ironic, considering his praise of the new, more ominous terminology for the cloud. While Jack appreciates the experts coming to terms with the situation, he himself cannot do the same.
Jack goes back to the attic and talks to Heinrich, who tells him that the radio is no longer talking about nausea, vomiting, and shortness of breath. Instead, the broadcasters are saying that Nyodene D. causes heart palpitations and a sense of déjà vu. Heinrich also informs Jack that the terminology has changed yet again: now the cloud is being referred to as the “airborne toxic event.” Jack repeats again that the chemicals won’t reach the house, and when Heinrich presses him, he says, “I’m not just a college professor. I’m the head of a department. I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event. That’s for people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the county, where the fish hatcheries are.”
Lacking sound logic with which to support his confidence, Jack grasps at the one thing that normally grounds him and soothes his fear of death and uncertainty: authority. In other words, he calls upon the powerful identity he has constructed for comfort. Of course, there is also an elitist sentiment at play in his assertion that only people in “the scrubby parts of the county” find themselves in situations that call for evacuation. Jack changes his perception of his own socioeconomic standing as it suits him: at the beginning of the novel, Jack had insisted that he isn’t actually very wealthy; now, though, he invests himself in the rather unenlightened notion that bad things don’t happen to well-off people, suddenly identifying himself as wealthy.
The family sits down to an early dinner, throughout which Denise periodically rushes to the bathroom, thinking she is about to vomit. She and Steffie ask why they’re eating so early, guessing that it is so they can “get it out of the way” in case the airborne toxic event gets worse and they need to leave. Jack and Babette refuse to confirm this logic, and the family goes on eating while a chorus of sirens swirl outside. Finally, they hear the voice of a fire captain coming from a passing car; Heinrich runs to the window to listen more carefully and learns that they are being told to evacuate the area. Jack and Babette try to frame this as a suggestion, but it becomes clear that they must follow these instructions, and within twenty minutes they are all packed into the family station wagon and heading for an abandoned Boy Scout camp where Red Cross volunteers will shelter them and provide coffee and juice.
Jack and Babette’s eagerness to frame the fire captain’s evacuation call as a suggestion once again evokes the idea that language is the only source of control left to them in times of disaster. Despite their best efforts though, the danger is real, and they are forced to recognize that the comforts provided by semantic interpretation can only go so far.
As the family drives through the snow on a crowded four-lane road, Jack tries to find a radio station that might provide some extra information. He discovers that the newest symptoms are convulsions, comas, and miscarriages. Looking out the windows, the family surveys the scene: cars driving on the road’s grassy embankments, people walking across overpasses protectively wrapped in sheets of plastic and pushing shopping carts, shoppers in strip malls unaware of what is going on, deeply confused by the sudden traffic. Heinrich, for his part, seems to have become extra animated in his attention to the situation. And despite the anxiety lurking about them, the family casually talks with one another as if they’re still sitting at the dinner table.
Although Jack and Babette seem to have perhaps come to terms with the realization that they can’t truly change their circumstances just by choosing new linguistic frames, they still show their faith in the power of language to help get them through emotionally trying times. By talking casually—as if nothing bad is happening—the family once again regains a certain amount of control over their situation, however small.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jack sees Babette put something in her mouth. When he asks her what it is, she tells him to keep his eye on the road. He presses her, but she says only that it was a lifesaver, using her tongue to push out her cheek in a lame attempt to create the illusion that she is sucking on candy. Feeling Denise’s attention train itself on their conversation, Jack drops the matter, deciding that this is not a good time to invite Denise to question her mother’s mysterious medication use.
Amidst the confusion and swirling ambiguity presented by the airborne toxic event, Jack recognizes that Babette’s mysterious medication only presents further uncertainties. As such, he retreats from his line of questioning—partly for Denise, but also for his own good; this refusal to examine yet another uncertain situation mirrors his original hesitancy to admit that the toxic cloud would come their way.
Driving by a car crash, Steffie declares that she’s seen all of this before, a statement that worries Jack because he was pretty sure she hadn’t heard the latest symptoms of Nyodene D. What’s more, he isn’t sure whether she even knows the meaning of déjà vu. This makes him wonder if she is so “open to suggestion” that she can quickly develop symptoms when they are proposed to her. He asks himself if a nine-year-old could experience a miscarriage via the power of suggestion, then turns of the radio, “not to help [him] think but to keep [him] from thinking.” Heinrich notices that the car is almost out of gas. Seeing a gas station ahead, Jack pulls over and jumps out to refuel. The snow has turned to rain, and the station’s advertising banners crack in the wind.
Yet again, Jack obsesses over the power of language. He knows, of course, that Steffie couldn’t possibly have a miscarriage via the power of suggestion, but the thought further reveals his own suggestibility and vulnerability when it comes to language. Because he himself is so easily influenced by language, he must work extra hard to create his own frameworks so that his mind doesn’t spin out of control. In keeping with this, he turns off the radio to avoid its impact on his thoughts.
In the barracks of the Boy Scout camp, where many cots are set up for the citizens of Blacksmith, crowds form around people talking about the airborne toxic event, spreading secondhand information and making guesses. Moving from one crowd to the next, Jack is surprised to find Heinrich at the center of one such crowd, talking in great detail about Nyodene D. His listeners are charmed by him and clearly respect his knowledge. Jack feels that he is witnessing his son emerge from his shell and, not wanting to interrupt the important moment, slips away before Heinrich can notice his presence.
The haphazard flow of information through the barracks is a small-scale representation of the media’s influence on the citizens of Blacksmith (i.e. the radio broadcasters’ control over the townspeople). Consumed by the notion of authority himself, Jack recognizes the importance of power in these huddled groups. In this moment, information is power, a principal Jack has organized his entire life around, both in terms of his role as a professor and in terms of his own existential outlook.
Jack returns to the section of cots his family has claimed. Speaking softly to Babette, he quizzes her about the thing she swallowed in the car, asking her to quickly tell him the flavor—a test she easily passes by saying, “Cherry” without hesitation. When a woman at the front of the barracks makes an announcement urging those who were possibly exposed to Nyodene D. to approach tables staffed by technicians, Denise reminds Jack that he got out of the car to refuel and that the rain could have contained the chemical. Jack waits in line and, when he reaches the technician, asks what the acronym on his armband, SIMUVAC, means. The technician explains that he is part of a program that simulates evacuations and that they are using this real-life event as practice for their simulations. He speaks scornfully about the fact that certain real-life elements are making it hard for them to execute a high-quality simulation.
The technician’s ridiculous commitment to simulation once more speaks to the idea of control in moments of chaos and disaster. Similar to how Jack wants to create his own discourse about the airborne toxic event, this technician wishes for a greater sense of control. In the end, both desires ignore the fact that, no matter what they do to conceptualize the disaster, Jack and the technician are at the mercy of reality.
Jack tells the SIMUVAC technician about his medical history, which the technician inputs into a computer. The technician tells him that he is “generating big numbers” and that the results are based not only on how long he was exposed to Nyodene D., but also on his entire medical history. He proceeds to inform Jack that the effects of the chemical are largely unknown, but that there is certainly cause for worry and that they will be able to tell him more about his condition in fifteen years—that is, if Jack is still alive. Nyodene D., apparently, has a life span of thirty years in the human body, meaning that Jack will need to make it into his eighties before he can start to feel comfortable about his health again. Whenever Jack tries to get more decisive information out of the technician, the technician defers to the computer system, telling him that he is “the sum total of [his] data.” Feeling unnerved, Jack finds himself wishing he had his academic robe and dark glasses.
In this moment, Jack is forced to relinquish whatever control he has over his health. By inputting his history into a computer, the technician renders him unable to manipulate reality via language—the computer, after all, produces definitive results. The fact that the technician speaks so vaguely only strengthens the power of the computer results over Jack. Unable once again to defer to semantics, Jack turns to his authoritative professorial identity for comfort. Unfortunately, though, this identity exists only on campus and is seemingly inaccessible to him when he needs it most.
When Jack returns to the cots, he sees that Babette is reading to Old Man Treadwell and a group of other blind people. Wanting a distraction, he listens as she reads sensational and far-fetched tabloid articles and absurd predictions of the future. The blind listeners seem unfazed by the ludicrous nature of the stories. Jack and Heinrich fall into a conversation in which Heinrich points out that, despite the advanced society they live in, most people remain totally unaware of how the things around them actually function. He asks Jack what he would tell a group of people from the Stone Age to improve their lives, a question that stumps his father. Eventually, Jack says he would tell them to boil water, a suggestion Heinrich finds very unimpressive.
Heinrich’s question forces Jack to come to terms with his own ignorance, essentially exacerbating his feelings of helplessness. Whereas history normally soothes Jack—as evidenced by his obsession with Hitler and his thoughts about Attila the Hun—now it uncovers his ineptitude and vulnerability, showing him that if he were truly on his own, he would not stand a chance at survival.
Deciding to get some air, Jack goes outside, where he finds Murray talking to a group of prostitutes. He tells his friend about what the SIMUVAC technician told him, saying, “It is now official, according to the computer. I’ve got death inside me.” Murray puts his hands on Jack’s shoulders, looks him in the eyes, and tells him that he is sorry.
It’s worth noting that Jack has seemingly embarked on a downward spiral. Whereas he once seemed capable of using semantic reasoning to remain positive, now he exaggerates the direness of his situation. Although the technician he spoke to was certainly foreboding in his approximate diagnosis, he was also incredibly vague and never actually said that Jack has death “inside” him, a notion Jack seems to have extrapolated himself. It’s also of interest that Jack calls this news “official,” as if by hearing it from somebody wearing a SIMUVAC armband, the information is irreversible and inescapable.
Jack comes back inside and watches Steffie sleeping, an act that makes him feel reassured and calm. At a certain point, she speaks in her sleep, muttering Toyota Celica, a phrase that Jack registers as deeply beautiful, even though he knows it is just the name of a car. In fact, “the truth only amaze[s] [him] more,” as if those two banal words have lofted into something mysterious and ancient, indicating a shining moment of “splendid transcendence.”
Bereft of his ability to linguistically manipulate reality, Jack finds himself amazed by the simplicity of his sleeping children. When Steffie utters the name of a car, consumer culture comes rushing into an otherwise tender scene. The fact that Jack delights in this reinforces Murray’s idea that consumerism carries secret messages that humans need to tap into, a sentiment DeLillo seems to be playfully endorsing in this moment in order to show Jack’s utter desperation.
Suddenly, the barracks is full of noise as the displaced citizens of Blacksmith are informed that they must evacuate yet again because the cloud of Nyodene D. is headed directly for the Boy Scout camp due to a change in the wind. The Gladneys pile into the car and once more drive through the commotion of people trying to run from the cloud. Jack spots a truck with a bumper sticker that reads GUN CONTROL IS MIND CONTROL and decides to follow it, figuring that people in “right-wing fringe groups” have “practiced staying alive” and are well equipped to do so. Through the trees, Jack sees the wicked cloud of chemicals as it roars within itself, “generating its own inner storms.” Working ever harder to escape, Jack remembers his conversation with the SIMUVAC technician, recalling suddenly that he is “technically dead.” Meanwhile, his family yet again carries on the steady conversation of people at ease over dinner plates in the safety of their home.
In calling himself “technically dead,” Jack continues to exaggerate his condition. As such, it seems as if he has two modes of linguistic manipulation: either he tries to talk himself into ignoring that which is uncertain or awful, or he finds himself overplaying his own situation with frightful self-pity. In a way, he seeks to comfort himself by thinking that he is “technically dead,” for if this were the case, it would carry with it a certainty he yearns for in this otherwise muddled situation.
Driving through a small creek and into a field, Jack notices his family’s lack of interest in the entire situation. He wants them to focus on the airborne toxic event and the dire situation at hand. He considers telling them about the death lurking in his body, about the large numbers he generated on the computer, but instead he resigns himself to self-pity, allowing it to “ooze” through his soul and trying “to relax and enjoy it.”
Jack’s frustration with his family is ironic, since he originally set an example for them when he insisted on focusing on dinner preparation instead of paying attention to the toxic cloud. Now, though, he comes around to the idea of his own death, seeming to revel in it as if it is yet another form of authority or power he can attach to his identity. At this point, he uses self-pity as a means of gaining respect, though this is only a personal sense of respect, since he doesn’t voice his thoughts.
The Galdneys arrive in Iron City at dawn and are ushered into an empty karate studio along with other refugees of the airborne toxic event. It is here, where they stay for nine days before returning home, that they catch word that technicians are being lowered by helicopters into the cloud to release microorganisms that will eat the toxic agents of Nyodene D. Jack finds this as confounding and amazing as the absurd articles Babette read the previous night from the tabloids. One day, a man walks through the studio, ranting about the lacking news coverage of the airborne toxic event. Indignant, he asks, “Don’t we deserve some attention for our suffering, our human worry, our terror? Isn’t fear news?” After his listeners clap, he looks at Jack as if stricken, telling him that he’s seen him before, has seen Jack’s exact look before. When Jack asks, “What look?” he replies: “Haunted, ashen, lost.”
Jack’s negative reaction to the idea of these microorganisms denotes an inexplicit distrust of scientific ingenuity. This is natural, considering that he has just recently been informed by a man with a computer—in the vaguest possible terms—that he has a deadly chemical in his body. Technology and innovation, then, are cast as suspicious. This relates to Heinrich’s critique of his father’s ignorance regarding the inventions and science surrounding him; the microorganisms represent yet another thing Jack doesn’t understand, something vast and out of his control.