White Noise prophesizes East Palestine disaster

By Charlie Gstalder, Opinions & Editorials Editor

Life imitates art.

Perhaps my perception is clouded by recency bias, like  the black smog floating over the river. But the comparisons between Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise and the East Palestine, Ohio train disaster are too clear to ignore.

You’ve likely heard of the train derailment and fire that occurred in East Palestine. If not, Newswire staff writer Julia Lankisch did an excellent write up on it last week.

A brief recap: On Feb. 3, a train carrying chemicals including vinyl chloride and butyl acetate derailed in East Palestine, spilling the chemicals and subsequently causing a fire that has leaked contaminants into the surrounding air and water.

It is much less likely though that you’re familiar with DeLillo’s White Noise.

White Noise follows the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies at a Midwestern liberal arts college, and his family.

Photo courtesy of flickr.com

In Part II of the novel, “The Airborne Toxic Event,” a train carrying the fictitious chemical Nyodene-D derails and crashes, spilling the chemicals and causing a fire that leaks contaminants into the surrounding air and water.

In both East Palestine and the college on the hill, residents were told to evacuate. Some did, some stayed behind and some questioned the advice of authorities.

A cleanup ensued and eventually people were told they could return home. In White Noise and East Palestine, some questioned whether it truly was safe to return, whether the authorities were trustworthy  or whether they’ve incurred new risks of cancer since the spill.

In May 2022, Netflix released an adaptation of White Noise, directed by Noah Baumbach, to little fanfare. Understandably, the film has received significant increased attention following the disaster. The movie was filmed in Ohio, meaning that in another shocking crossover, some families affected by the East Palestine disaster had acted as extras in the film’s disaster scenes.

One of the extras told CNN that he was unable to re-watch the film following the crash, describing it as too close to home, while also noting that his town has largely embraced the humor of the coincidence.

So what does it all mean, and what are we to take from it? Well, everything and nothing, really.

White Noise satirizes themes of industrialization, the overwhelming flow of information and the allure of authority.

White Noise is fiction. It isn’t real. There is no Nyodene D, no college on the hill and no Jack Gladney.

But there is vinyl chloride and butyl acetate, there is East Palestine, there is Xavier University and there is you.

You can pursue the themes, ask the questions and prod authority. Petition against the chemicals being transported, push for updates to hazardous material transportation or rail safety, be cautious of where you get your information and support the people affected by the crash.  Or, if nothing else, there’s always White Noise — read the novel, watch the movie and embrace the art that life imitates.