Because elementary school students start experiencing headaches and eye irritations and begin tasting metal in their mouths, and because a teacher falls to the ground, writhing and speaking in tongues, the school is evacuated. Experts guess at what’s causing these unexpected medical problems, conjecturing that something is wrong with the ventilation system or the foam insulation or the chlorinated pool or perhaps “something deeper, finer-grained, more closely woven into the basic state of things.” As Denise and Steffie stay home during the week, men in Mylex suits go throughout the building with special equipment—unfortunately, though, because Mylex itself is a “suspect material,” their results prove inconclusive and they are forced to begin again.
The idea that the harmful elements in the grade school might be “woven into the basic state of things” presents the idea that dangerous and life-threatening forces are omnipresent in the contemporary world. This, in turn, gives rise yet again to the unavoidable nature of death. When even the Mylex (a synthetic material of DeLillo’s own imagining) used to protect workers from dangerous exposure proves possibly harmful, it becomes clear that nothing can be relied upon to ensure safety.
Jack and Babette go with Denise, Steffie, and Wilder to the supermarket. Again, they bump into Murray, who predictably latches onto Babette and sings the praises of the grocery store. Meanwhile, Steffie takes Jack aside and tells him that Denise is worried about Babette’s consumption of a certain medication that she can’t find in her copy of the Physicians’ Desk Reference. Jack tells her he knows nothing about Babette taking any kind of medication.
In this moment, mystery and uncertainty creep into the family sphere, confronting Jack in more immediate ways: even Babette, who he is supposedly so close to, begins to stand for something he doesn’t fully know or understand.
When Jack and Steffie rejoin Babette and Murray, Murray is excitedly extolling the symbolic virtue of the products surrounding them in the grocery store, using the term “psychic data” to talk about the messages transmitted from the various packaging labels and advertisements. This leads him to speak extensively about death and the Tibetan belief that it is “the end of attachment to things.” In America, he argues, people don’t die in this way. Instead, they shop. “But the difference is less marked than you think,” he says. In the parking lot on their way to the car, they learn that one of the men in Mylex died while working in the elementary school, simply collapsing in one of the classrooms.
By saying that Americans don’t die like Tibetans, Murray backhandedly suggests that shopping and engaging in consumer culture is a way of avoiding death. If Tibetan death is an “end of attachment to things,” then American shopping prolongs this attachment of the human to the material world. This, of course, is a highly philosophical way of looking at death, a mindset that, in the end, would do nothing to actually affect the bounds of mortality.