Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Review: Libra, by Don DeLillo

Pick a broad canvas and let your exuberance fly. This seems to be the overarching philosophy of Don DeLillo, author of nearly 20 books and doyen of what we might label the postmodern American novel. The canvas, in his case, is the United States of America itself, its vast and various contradictions. In Libra, DeLillo’s 1988 masterpiece, he tackles one of the watershed moments in the history of his country: the assassination of US president John F. Kennedy, told to a great degree through the perspective of the accused killer, Lee Harvey Oswald.

If the highly public murder of JFK was, as it has been said, the very birth of 20th-century sensationalism, then Libra looks to cut through our macro response to November 22, 1963 and get at the underlying motivations behind the day. Indeed, the fictionalization of motive is one of Libra’s chief concerns, and one of its greatest strengths. We will never know for sure what compelled the actions of Oswald, who most likely was the sole sniper shooting at Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository as the president’s open-car motorcade passed through Dallas’ Dealey Plaza below. Nor will we know the exact motives of nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who killed Oswald on national TV two days later. Nor will know the precise driving force behind the broader conspiracy, if there indeed was one, for Kennedy’s killing.

DeLillo takes great pains over 450-plus pages to use the liberties and artifices of fiction to fill in these blanks, and does so with tremendous literary acumen. For the record, in Libra’s version of events, a pair of disgruntled CIA agents plan to orchestrate an attempted assassination—and only attempted; the shooter(s) were meant to miss—of Kennedy in order to blame it on Fidel Castro and get a second US-led invasion of Cuba back on the geopolitical table. This premise is no more or less implausible than anything else you might hear from the crop of JFK conspiracy theorists who have been around since the sixties (and many of whom were heartened by the 1991 Oliver Stone film). Yet DeLillo treats his own (fictionalized) theories as mere guy-wires to support the novel’s true preoccupation: that of character.

And what a tour de force of characterization Libra is. DeLillo works us through the various milestones of Oswald’s life—his time in the US marine corps, his deep immersion into Marxist theory and subsequent defection to the Soviet Union, his return to the States with his Russian wife Marina, his struggles to find work, his attempted assassination of General Edwin Walker—in order to put him within a meaningful context when he aims that notorious rifle out that notorious window at Kennedy. While our historic perception of Oswald is one of an immature and naïve patsy in a bigger world event, DeLillo’s picture reveals a complex man with deeply complicated values and motivations.

And Oswald isn’t even Libra’s sole protagonist. What astounds me about this book is the way DeLillo can shift gears so effectively in between chapters and really inhabit the minds and hearts of his other main and secondary characters. We get breathtaking portraits of Win Everett, one of the disgruntled CIA agents behind the plot; of Jack Ruby, depicted here as a feckless businessman who still maintains a façade of unshakeable integrity; of FBI agent Guy Banister and supporting characters George de Mohrenschildt and David Ferrie. Even General Walker, a racist and jingoistic Texan, is given his own brief but insightful moment in the spotlight. The novel ends, gut wrenchingly, in the perspective of Oswald’s mother after Oswald has been killed as she tries to piece together the death of and the multiple meanings behind her son’s existence.

Libra is not without its missteps, of course. I never quite bought into the narrative’s contemporary-period frame of Nicholas Branch, a CIA man trying to piece together a definitive story of JFK’s assassination. There are a few times when DeLillo’s dialogue becomes wooden and more expository than it needs to be. And the actual killing of Kennedy seems, at least to my knowledge of events and understanding of DeLillo’s take on the scene, a bit inaccurate. Specifically, Libra appears to contend that Oswald managed to squeeze off two shots in the span of less than two seconds (an impossibility, based on the rifle’s make and how it fired): one that hits Kennedy in the upper back and exits his throat, and a second that hits and wounds Texas Governor John Connally, who was seated in front of Kennedy.

But no theorist, as far as I know, contends this. Either you believe that a single shot caused all the wounds to Kennedy’s back and throat as well as all the wounds to Connally, or you believe that the bullet that struck Connally was a different bullet fired from a different gun a split second after Kennedy was hit in the back/throat—hence the conspiracy of two shooters. (Those who believe this latter premise often cite what has been called the “magic bullet” theory to dismiss the former premise. But recent computerized forensics, discussed in this documentary, show how likely it actually is that one bullet did manage to cause all that damage. Those who hitch their conspiracy beliefs to the magic bullet theory do so with an incorrect presumption on the position of Connally vis a vis Kennedy in the car, and when Connally was hit versus when he thinks he was hit.)

These are, ultimately, minor flaws to Libra’s narrative. DeLillo has written a fierce and highly engaging page turner that is also one of the best structured works of literary fiction I’ve ever read. It was an absolute joy living in this novel’s world and immersing myself in its thoroughly designed characters. Libra is, in the end, a work of fiction, but its effects on the reader are very real.

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