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9 february 2009

Even though I had read and liked White Noise when it was first published in 1985, and later read and very much liked Underworld; even though I admire Americana and the quirky Great Jones Street and have read and frequently "taught" End Zone, and even though I am fascinated by Presidents and the Kennedy assassination; even though I was living in Dallas in 1988 when Libra hit the bookstores: it has taken me 21 years actually to read Don DeLillo's fantasia on the convergence of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald in Dealey Plaza.

I initially avoided Libra, I think, because it seemed to me rather low-hanging fruit for DeLillo's talents. He is the great novelist of conspiracies and quasi-conspiracies, of nets of association and coincidence that span the American experience. The most gigantic field for such speculation is Oswald's assassination of Kennedy. It seemed overdetermined, even facile, for DeLillo to attempt a big Oswald novel, and I couldn't imagine it would live up to its overdetermination. More than almost any other item in the canon of contemporary American fiction, Libra is something that a fan of its author could imagine without reading it.

That said, Libra lives up to one's expectations almost precisely, and is worth reading all the same. Not exactly slender at 456 pages, the novel gives the effect of spareness. One of DeLillo's characters, intelligence analyst Nicholas Branch, looks at the Warren Report's 26 volumes of appendices and thinks "this is the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he'd moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred" (181). Vincent Bugliosi's nonfiction distillation of JFK-assassination theories, Reclaiming History, runs to 2,776 massive pages of small print. Libra, by comparison, is mighty restrained.

As the 21st century winds along, the Kennedy assassination will inexorably fade from living memory. (It's the earliest public event that I remember, and I'm pushing fifty.) As it does, I imagine that Libra will detach itself from other tomes about the assassination, and come to be seen as its most important evocation in prose. Given the near-lunatic way Libra imagines the events of 1963, this eventuality will dismay and bedevil historians. But imagination trumps documentation. Nobody would remember Agincourt at all if Shakespeare hadn't populated a play with characters who talk about it in Shakespearian verse.

And that's exactly what DeLillo has done with Dealey Plaza: populated it with folks who talk like characters in Don DeLillo novels. Only in DeLillo would two shady assassination conspirators have this conversation as they drive toward Dallas:

"There's something cross my mind."
"I'm thinking I ought to put him down."
"What? Your dog?"
"He lost all coordination. He tries to get up, he can't keep his paws from sliding out."
"When the nervous system goes." (380)
Bizarre ever-morphing hermeneutics of paranoia are de rigueur in assassination fiction. They are present in Libra, but don't by themselves distinguish the text from, say, Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK. What distinguishes Libra is the verbal invention of the characters (or rather, the way in which they participate communally in a sort of DeLillo house style, one that runs through all of the novelist's work). Obsessive speech is a feature of all JFK-conspiracy discourse. Obsessive non sequitur is the hallmark of DeLillo.

I haven't read all of DeLillo's novels, and what I've read is uneven; Ratner's Star and Cosmopolis in particular I didn't find much worth picking up. But Libra is on the good side of the DeLillo ledger, and I am glad to find it as fresh in 2009 as when I passed it by in 1988.

DeLillo, Don. Libra. 1988. New York: Penguin, 1991.