Libra by Don DeLillo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In earlier times, the bullet had been other things, because Pythagorean metempsychosis is not reserved for humankind alone.
—Borges, “In Memoriam, J.F.K.” (trans. Andrew Hurley)
Literature is the attempt to interpret, in an ingenious way, the myths we no longer understand, at the moment we no longer understand them, since we no longer know how to dream them or reproduce them. Literature is the competition of misinterpretations that consciousness naturally and necessarily produces on themes of the unconscious, and like every competition it has its prizes.
—Deleuze, “Desert Islands” (trans. Michael Taormina)
Much of the literature of the 20th century is a warning against the dream of absolute knowledge. This is less some new thing, some modernism, than a resuscitation of pre-realist narrative modes, from meta-fiction to satire, from Homer to Sterne. Conrad’s and Faulkner’s broken and partial narratives, Joyce’s linguistically constructed reality, Woolf’s and Lawrence’s insistence on the unconscious, Borges’s self-parodic idealism, Nabokov’s “game of worlds,” and more. The ethical postulate here, compatible both with belief (because God works in mysterious ways) and skepticism (because what do I know?), is that the world will always elude every abstraction. Every abstraction, therefore, should be regarded as the aesthetic production that it manifestly is, and evaluated on its usefulness or beauty. Granted sufficiently rich accounts of beauty and usefulness, accounts capable of encompassing what we think of as knowledge and morality, this ethic has to our artists seemed superior to the murderous self-assurance of the Enlightenment’s worser offsprings, legitimate and illegitimate, such as religious fundamentalism and scientific socialism.
Don DeLillo’s Libra is a bravura contribution to this tradition. A fictional hypothesis about the nature and purpose of the Kennedy assassination, the novel portrays a gallery of various intelligence operatives, right-wing extremists, Cuban exiles, and mobsters as they conspire to lure the U.S. into war against Fidel Castro. Their first plan is to simulate a communist assassination attempt against the President, but they eventually get around to plotting an actual assassination for which they will frame a young mysterious man with communist ties.
That man, of course, is Lee Harvey Oswald, and Libra gives us in alternating chapters his bidungsroman-cum-tragedy from his youth in the Bronx through his period in Japan with the Marines and his defection to Russia to his falling in with the conspirators in New Orleans and his eventual death at the hands of Jack Ruby. The Oswald chapters of Libra—named for Oswald’s astrological sign, symbolic of the suspended judgment in which he lingers—are the novel’s glory. I have read about half of DeLillo’s novels and so far Oswald is the deepest and most complicated character has has created. A man who feels himself fated to join the current of history, he is in fact subject to chance, whim, and authority. But in the course of his quest for higher meaning, he becomes a kind of roving eye, an observer of the world’s panorama, a Cold War flâneur on the cross-haired boulevards.
A frustrated writer, dyslexic and desiring to write short stories about American life, Oswald is a largely sympathetic warning about how the aesthetic imagination may go wrong by confusing its visions with the shape of history. DeLillo astoundingly reinvents Oswald as a kind of Raskolnikov or Dedalus, a brilliant young man lost in the labyrinth of his confusion and verging on violence or abandonment. In this way, Oswald mirrors the men who use him to bring their own visions into reality, though all they get of their vision is the President’s head half blown off, rather than the deposition of Castro. Likewise, the novel shows through its own elaborate mirroring structures the identity of left- and right-wing totalization.
Above or below it all, as the writer’s and reader’s surrogate, is the CIA historian Nicholas Branch, tasked with writing the history of the assassination but increasingly aware that the construction of a coherent narrative out of the factual morass will be impossible. That this impossibility is convenient to his masters does not escape him, nor should it escape us, but DeLillo takes the step Branch does not and provides an aesthetic reconstruction—literature, an interpretation—out of the event that is both too large in its mythic proportion (slain king, dying young god) and too small in its infinitude of quotidiana to understand. DeLillo’s interpretation is partial but openly fictional, and in its quiet emphasis on aesthetic perception, it invites its own critique and contestation, it summons rival visions into being.
I haven’t looked into the Kennedy assassination in many years, but DeLillo’s version seems not wholly implausible, at least in its assignment of motives to deep state agents, Cuban exiles, and mafiosi. It bears a superficial resemblance to the case laid out in Oliver Stone’s sublimely ludicrous JFK, but whereas Stone presents a paranoiacally seamless and all-but-overt conspiracy, complete with LBJ saying things like, “You’ll get your damn war,” DeLillo far more convincingly depicts a ragtag operation dogged at every turn by accidents, coincidences, cross-purposes, and mixed motives. If DeLillo’s version is not what happened—and he doesn’t claim that it is—it is probably a good approximation of how something like this might have happened. Stone’s agitprop extravaganza, like so many works of the fascistic imagination (“Remember our fallen king”), is avenged by history through camp. But DeLillo’s seriousness of purpose and eye for irony achieves something close to tragedy; he even rescues in advance David Ferrie, one of the novel’s most fascinating and sympathetic characters (“This man is strange even to himself”), from Joe Pesci’s unforgettably and unforgivably over-the-top performance. (I should note here that students of the historical record argue that Ferrie has never been justly dealt with by any theorists of conspiracy.)
These questions of history and politics are all somewhat beside the point, though, due to the novel’s own all-but-overt fictionality, its recursive reflections on what it means to be in or to understand history. No arid philosophical exercise, this is a fully inhabited novel. In the famous preface to an infamously ill-named book, Conrad wrote, “A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line.” That a novel could aspire to the condition of art in this sense was a new idea in Conrad’s time, and he helped set the standard. The standard involves a richness of thought and sensation—what Nabokov called “sensuous thought”—on every page. James said the novelist is a person on whom nothing is lost. A novel is an invention, sentence by sentence; in a potboiler, each sentence must advance the plot, but in an art-novel, each sentence must advance the vision. Libra is so inventive, so surprising on an almost paragraph by paragraph basis, that DeLillo seems never to lose anything. You watch him as if he were a live performer. I can quote almost at random. How a secretary laughs with Ferrie in the homophobic Cold War years:
“Why are homosexuals addicted to soap opera?” Ferrie said absently. “Because our lives are a vivid situation.”
Delphine fell forward in bawdy laughter. Her upper body shot toward the desk, hands gripping the edges to steady her. She sat there rocking, a great and spacious amusement. David Ferrie was surprised. He didn’t know he’d said something funny. He thought the remark was melancholy, sadly philosophical, a throwaway line for an aimless afternoon. Not that this was the first time Delphine had reacted so broadly to something he said. She considered his mildest comic remarks automatically outrageous. She had two kinds of laughter. Lewd and bawdy and abandoned, the required worldly response to Ferrie’s sexual status, her sense of a kind of anal lore that informed the sources of his humor. Softer laughter for Banister, throaty, knowing, wanting to be led, rustling with complicities, little whispery places in her voice, a laughter you could not hear without knowing they were lovers.
How a garage looks, how money looks, how a conspiratorial Sunday feels in New Orleans:
Sundays the street was empty and the garage was closed and looked like an abandoned Spanish church inside the lowered grille, with light falling through the high dusty windows. This was where he met Agent Bateman, who had a key to the office. They went through the office and sat in one of the cars set aside for the Secret Service and FBI. He told Bateman what he’d learned at 544 Camp, which wasn’t a hell of a lot. He wanted to use the Minox but Bateman said no, no, no, no. He gave Lee a white envelope containing a number of well-wrinkled bills, like money saved by children.
“Like money saved by children”—and these are incidental moments, near throwaways. But as Woolf also argued, the basic unit of a novel is not the sentence but the chapter. Quoting can’t give a sense of the novel’s long rhythms, a staccato swell, the tap-tap-tap of DeLillo’s little imagist/cubist typewriter paragraphs gathering to a crescendo through a series of advances and retreats. Libra also works by this measure, though aided by history, to be sure. Given the subject matter, this book perhaps has more in common with classical tragedy—the fated hero, the slain leader, the hidden knowledge, the chorus authoritative and aghast—than most modern novels, but by its last 60 or so pages it is positively roaring with the noise of everything coming together, even the things not planned for, with a mystique that only fictional narrative can treat with anything like dignity because all fiction, unlike all conspiracies and conspiracy theorizing, comes under the saving sign of irony, the sign of true-and-not-true, the sign of it-feels-like-this-and-it-seems-like-that, the highest freedom, as Lukács said before making his own entrance into history and into Russia, in a world abandoned by God:
That’s how it went, that’s the kind of summer it was. One day he was going after roaches with a pancake flipper, mashing them flat—one of those soft plastic flippers that are always on sale. He’d lost his job. They fired him because he didn’t do the work, which seemed reasonable enough. Storms shaking the city. They shot Medgar Evers dead in Jackson, Miss., a field secretary of the NAACP. Later they would dynamite the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, four Negro girls killed, twenty-three injured. One day he was hunting down roaches in his kitchen, unshaved, wearing clothes he hadn’t changed in a week. The next day found him in a gawky Russian suit and narrow tie, with his looseleaf notebook at his side, engaging in radio debate on Conversation Carte Blanche, another public-affairs show on WDSU. This time they’d checked up beforehand and had questions ready about Russia and his defection, catching him by surprise. Working the bolt on the Mannlicher. Cleaning the Mannlicher. They had plans for him, whoever they were. Heat lightning at night. It was easy to believe they’d been watching him for years, working things around him, knowing the time would come.
I could criticize elements of Libra, certainly. There are a few conspirators too many, I think, and by the end even DeLillo seems to have lost interest in firmly differentiating between Parmenter and Everett, among Frank, Raymo, and Wayne. I suspect, though obviously cannot prove, that the novel began with an Underworld-like ambition to canvass the America of the Kennedy years, but the tragedy of Oswald became grander and more compelling than anatomizing the country; at times, I thought the conspiracy material might be usefully relegated to a bookending prologue and epilogue around Oswald’s story, however much hard-won research DeLillo would sacrifice and however much stunning prose we would miss.
But it it seems ungrateful even to complain about a novel this good written in my lifetime, its characters rescued from the real world and made to live in art, Jack Ruby and Marguerite Oswald, its vision of roiling outcast America, far from New York and Washington, far left and far right, black and Cuban and Catholic and Jewish, a true diversity traduced in today’s paeans to “diversity” as dreamed by grim and anesthetic bureaucracies. I would put Libra without hesitation among the great works of assassination and apocalypse and irony and skepticism and national or sub-national epic, with Macbeth and Demons and The Secret Agent and Under the Volcano and Invisible Man, and with all the great warnings not to confuse the map for the territory. Metempsychosis (“met him pike hoses”) is a real intuition—DeLillo can make us feel that we are Oswald, and Borges’s bullet now seems to be incarnate everywhere—but proper material for the artist, the only responsible truth-teller, the one who admits it is all a lie. I would give up this novel for Oswald to have forgotten about history and written those short stories, but I needed this novel to know that.
[…] my review of DeLillo’s Libra, I noted the 20th-century tendency among novelists and poets to “[warn] against the dream of […]
[…] it eschews the kind of conspiratorial narrative readers might have expected from the author of Libra. There is no paranoid tracing of hidden networks, not even a hint of a suggestion—from the man […]
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