Libra by Don DeLillo

I was finally and definitively spurred to wade into Don DeLillo’s work by a post and extended discussion in the comments about DeLillo’s White Noise over at The Asylum.

The gist of the comments seemed to be that everyone had a favorite DeLillo, but few seemed to like all or even most of his work. I chose to start with Libra for the rather pedestrian reason that it was mentioned positively more often than any of his other work. I can say I liked it, though I am not bowled over.

Perhaps because I was not born until after all the key events, the JFK assassination has never held much fascination for me. The video footage is Libradisturbingly compelling, but I am not emotionally tied to those events. Having the foresight to be born in the 70s, I have no contemporaneous experience with the Red Scare, the Civil Rights confrontations, the Cuban Missile Crisis. These years are background for me. Perhaps this is why I cannot get worked up about any conspiracy theories. Of course, I do not generally go in for conspiracy theories. I assume most such efforts turn out to be somewhat ham-handed affairs like the Watergate break-in or Iran-Contra arms for hostages or, more relevantly, the Bay of Pigs.

In the author’s note following the main text, DeLillo writes:

[B]ecause this book makes no claim to literal truth, because it is only itself, apart and complete, readers may find refuge here — a way of thinking about the assassination without being constrained by half-facts or overwhelmed by possibilities, by the tide of speculation that widens with the years.

I think the book achieves that goal. This fictional work provides a sufficiently plausible interpretation of actual fact leavened by not entirely ridiculous speculation that readers wanting a coherent story about the assassination get one. Every piece of reality will not fit in a puzzle. There are strange coicidences. There is seemingly missing evidence. A single madman must be too neat an explanation for such a foundation-shaking national tragedy, mustn’t he? DeLillo provides an account that makes some sense.

This theme of piecing together scattered facts to make sense of things is explored throughout the book. DeLillo’s book is not just about the assassination but of our need to create coherent stories out of events.

DeLillo’s Oswald notices coincidences everywhere and infuses those coincidences with meaning. A date and an address include the same number, so he sees a message. He walks into the office of someone who had been looking for him. The confluence of these cross-purposes, resulting in a fortuitous meeting, reveals their shared destiny. Oswald bounces around the world, making the worst of his life while trying to make the best of it. Bad decisions are magnified because he interprets the trajectory of his life as destiny. His paranoia feeds into his need to be saved from nothingness by becoming a part of history.

Lee H. Oswald was taking shape in Kirilenko’s mind as some kind of Chaplinesque figure, skating along the edges of vast and dangerous events.

Unknowing, partly knowing, knowing but not saying, the boy had a quality of trailing chaos behind him, causing disasters without seeing them happen, making riddles of his life and possibly fools of us all.

Oswald is not alone in his psychological dependence on signs, symbols, coded messages. Oswald’s wife Marina, Jack Ruby, CIA operative Laurence Parmenter, CIA analyst Nicholas Branch, and Oswald’s mother are just some of the characters that create narratives to bridge gaps between facts to make sense of their lives, Oswald’s life, or the events bringing them all together. General Edward Walker believes in the “Real Control Apparatus”. In a nice foreshadowing of blogging, Beryl Parmenter takes up a new hobby:

Beryl was at her writing desk clipping news items to send to friends. This was a passion she’d discovered recently like someone in middle life who finds she was born to show pedigreed dogs. Nothing that happened before has any meaning compared to this. A week’s worth of newspapers sat on the desk She sent clippings to everyone. There was suddenly so much to clip.

Her efforts are, though more benign, less paranoid, than Oswald’s or Walker’s, a similar attempt to make sense of a confusing, chaotic, violent world and to communicate with those around her.

She said the news clippings she sent to friends were a perfectly reasonable way to correspond. There were a thousand things to clip and they all said something about the way she felt. He watched her read and cut. She wore half-glasses and worked the scissors grimly. She believed these were personal forms of expression. She believed no message she could send a friend was more intimate and telling than a story in the paper about a violent act, a crazed man, a bombed Negro home, a Buddhist monk who sets himself on fire. Because these are the things that tell us how to live.

Oswald, too, takes notes and clippings to try to piece together a coherent narrative of his life. General Walker has a stack of news clippings on his desk when the attempt on his life occurs. Nicholas Branch, a retired CIA senior analyst whose job in retirement is to write a secret history of the Kennedy assassination is engaged in the same effort, only on a larger, more organized scale:

Branch is stuck all right. He has abandoned his life to understanding that moment in Dallas, the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century. He has his forensic pathology rundown, his neutron activation analysis. There is also the Warren Report, of course, with its twenty-six accompanying volumes of testimony and exhibits, its millions of words. Branch thinks this is the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.

Even when the characters are not intentionally arranging facts to create a coherent picture, their actions advance this central theme in the book. DeLillo takes the time to describe Oswald’s struggles with dyslexia:

Always the pain, the chaos of composition. He could not find order in the field of little symbols. They were in the hazy distance. He could not clearly see the picture that is called a word. A word is also a picture of a word. He saw spaces, incomplete features, and tried to guess at the rest.

He made wild tries at phonetic spelling. But the language tricked him with its inconsistencies. He watched sentences deteriorate, powerless to make them right. The nature of things was to be elusive. Things lipped through his perceptions. He could not get a grip on the runaway world.

Truth, like words, is elusive. The characters are as often playing a role they have devised as being authentic. It can for even them to keep track:

“It goes round and round.”
“You seem to pretend.”
“But I’m not pretending.”
“But you are pretending.”

You get the sense that even the key players have lost track of what is real and what is not. There are facts. Oswald went to Russia. Kennedy tried to overthrow the Castro government. Oswald shot Kennedy. Jack Ruby shot Oswald. But these are little more than Beryl’s clippings. The choice of a narrative to tie the facts together, DeLillo seems to be saying, is almost necessarily arbitrary.

DeLillo’s narrative is, perhaps, as good as any. He provides intrigue and plotting, compelling characters, more than enough villains, and action. The truth, the indisputable truth, is unattainable.Libra2 He offers us one story, out of many possible stories, that allows us to package these events in a way that makes sense, that ties up loose ends, that frees us to move forward.

I have focused on one aspect of the book, though I think it is the primary theme of the book. Oswald is an interesting character. DeLillo probably wrings more out of him than was truly there. But there, again, is the beauty of the book. DeLillo has unabashedly offered a richer version of events than actually took place. His characters are more complete, make more sense, than they did in real life.

Finally, I can see the influence of this book has had. Of the books I have recently reviewed here, Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten both seem to explore themes raised here. Ball and DeLillo both seem interested in questions about the meaning of truth, the construction of alternate narratives, the role of lying, and conspiracies. Mitchell shares with DeLillo an interest in coincidence, fate, and moments in time that alter, or determine, an individual’s future. I also have to think that DeLillo’s radio personality Weird Beard played some role in the inspiration for Mitchell’s Bat Segundo.

While on the surface this book is an alternate-history spy thriller, DeLillo aims are ambitious. I suspect my appreciation for this book will likely grow over time. There is more depth than I can get to in this review. And, yet, the book is easily accessible. It is a spy thriller, even if you think you know the ending.

[I have made several grammatical edits since the original posting about one hour ago.]

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