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Fiction in the face of crisis: Japan and "The Airborne Toxic Event"

When Don Delillo’s seminal masterpiece White Noise came out in 1985, it not only won The National Book Award and landed a spot on TIME‘s “100 Best Novels” list, but it hit readers like a sonic boom, a tidal wave, a nuclear explosion – all apt comparisons given the ongoing events in Japan as well as the novel’s treatment of the “Airborne Toxic Event” that strikes midway through.

Even though White Noise was written over 25 years ago and is filled with references to pop culture and contemporary consumerism (DeLillo even wanted to name the book “Panasonic,” but they objected), it manages to escape the ties that bind it to a specific time period, avoiding obscurity or becoming dated over time. Instead, it not only remains relevant, but the book’s implications about modern life seem to intensify with age. It’s a supremely humanistic novel: while our world changes and trends come and go, people stay the same.

Of course, White Noise seems most relevant during times of crisis. It was heavily referenced in relation to the Gulf Oil spill, but it seems a particularly astute commentary on the current devastation in Japan. The news coverage even uses the same language as DeLillo to describe the events. In the book, a train crash results in the leak of a mysterious substance that gives birth to an ominously looming mass of toxic waste. DeLillo first calls it a “feathery plume,” then a “black, billowing cloud,” and then he gives it the official-sounding, all-caps title, “The Airborne Toxic Event.” Similarly, if you listen to or read the news you’ve probably heard the result of the over-heating reactors in Fukushima called a “nuclear plume,” or a “toxic cloud,” or a “radioactive mass.” The language of disaster remains the same now as it was nearly three decades ago.

But DeLillo is spot-on in his portrayal of humanity under fire in more ways than just language (though his use of language, from a literary perspective, is really quite spectacular), and he probably wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that if you Google “Japan nuclear meltdown,” there are already published news stories on how this disaster will affect the prices of US homes. BBC radio correspondents are playing sound clips of wailing Japanese survivors looking for the dead bodies of their neighbors, and US economists are laying out their hypotheses about the housing market. This is ripe material, to be sure, if only the book on it hadn’t already been written.

It’s an understatement to say how difficult it is to cope with the deaths of thousands and the possibility of millions more being affected by radiation poisoning, especially when there’s little you can do to help. At least White Noise provides a way of understanding these terrifyingly grandiose events on a human scale.