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This book is DeLillo’s take on the Kennedy assassination. DeLillo is the exemplar of what I think of as peak 80s male fiction. It took Hemingway and Fitzgerald and distilled that through the chaos of the sixties and Thompson and Mailer etc. and created their own brand. It is good but is kind of cold and antiseptic – I’m old enough that it was the hallmark of “serious” literature when I was young but feels dated and stilted like some sort of baby MFA student is trying to be too serious about things. You get that here.
The thing is that you know how this book is pretty much going to go if you have a sense of the details around the assignation and Oswald’s life. DeLillo does manage to make it interesting, as it becomes a psychological portrait not only of Oswalt but of his relationships with his mother and his wife. Weirdly, I feel a real kinship and sympathy for the person that DeLillo creates as Lee Harvey. He’s a bit of a patsy and he wants to make the world better but more than anything he is just a smart kid lost in his own world.
I come to DeLillo's Libra via James Ellroy's American Tabloid. Ellroy has his own take on the Kennedy assassination, but he praises DeLillo's take very highly. When Ellroy praises, I listen.
I see now why Ellroy loves the book. DeLillo's take is very persuasive and executed with high art. DeLillo's Oswald is an alienated loner, seeking to connect with something important. He's not sure what that is--a momentous event, a large historical process? He distrusts all governments--ours, the USSR's, the Mexicans'--and moves mercurially between ideologies. He serves in the military; he defects to Russia; he leaves Russia; he flees his mother though she is the only steady point in his life; he marries a Russian woman but beats her and drives her away. As those who would seek to exploit him realize, he is both vague and weak but sometimes strong and determined. He has been bullied and brutalized in the past but he has somehow survived; he could be the perfect tool.
It is an old principle in literary study that the more you get to know a character the more you like that character, even if the character is radically flawed. DeLillo is working against that principle and he does so successfully. The more we get to know Oswald . . . the more we get to know him. We do not like him; we simply begin to understand him as a figure more pathetic than malevolent, more sad than savage, more lost and doomed than the other characters in the shadows who populate his world.
The other dark forces--Castro-hating CIA agents, bitter Mafiosi, uber-weird right-wingers like David Ferrie--are beautifully realized and ultimately part of the strange stew in which Lee Harvey Oswald ultimately finds himself. In capturing the characters DeLillo is capturing the times. He does that very well. He also captures the places, particularly New Orleans and Dallas, though we get a feel for Miami as well.
DeLillo's structure is largely chronological, but he switches between characters and points of view and offers an overall impression that coheres very nicely. Much of the character depiction is phenomenological, with a summation of experiences, impressions, insights, glimpses, momentary realizations. This is very Ellroyesque and we can see DeLillo's influence in many ways.
Finally, this is a piece of historical fiction which is very plausible, very moving and very, very sad. The writing is generally exquisite. The characters and events (as Conrad would say) have been very carefully contemplated. In Heart of Darkness Conrad writes of the `brooding gloom' that hangs over London and its environs. If it's brooding gloom that you want, here, in Libra, is God's plenty.
Delillo is to be congratulated for digging deep into the life of Lee Harvey Oswald. I am of the opinion that Delillo was painstaking in his research of Oswald; that it is not fancied or concocted. However Delillo's vehicle for recounting Oswald's life is unconvincing . The concept that, at least, rogue agents of the CIA sought to stage a failed attempt at the President's life so as to spur an invasion of Cuba is more than just farfetched. This theory that pinning the attempt on JFK's life on Oswald due his pro Soviet activities does serious damage to the lucid studies which establish firm ground thaf the assassination was intended to be successful, and that high government officals were to varying degrees involved (at least with the massive cover-up). Simple put, Delillo's attempt to place his stamp on the assassination trivializes the historical record, and is a comfort to those who seek to further confuse the American public as to the manner of a cherished President's death.
The writing is sharp, intense and very gripping. The book loses focus with its silly jfk conspiracy angle. I understand that he isn't trying to answer questions but you'd think after getting a good grasp on who Oswald was beforehand he'd know that his main character would never work with ANYONE EVER. I know the book came out in 1988 but there was plenty of material to draw from like Marina and Lee by McMillan and American Grotesque by Kirkwood to get a grip on who Oswald was and who he did and did not play ball with. The real story of the firebrand loner, the classic lone gunman who got lucky that day in November is way more exciting and speaks deeply of the frayed disjointed America that is always seething in the background. The parts where he focuses just on Oswald are brilliant and perfect and I wish the entire book was just about him and his mindset. The parts concerning him getting help to take a pot shot at Walker were ridiculous and almost ruined the book for me. That and the other stupid parts about Ferry or whatever oliver stone nonsense are the only reasons why this doesn't get the five star treatment.
This is such a wonderfully written book. But in it DeLillo somehow manages to prophesize the next 20 years of JFK assassination research. This book is published a few months before Jim Garrison's "On the Trail of the Assassins" and yet mimics many of the conclusions Garrison himself came to. There is also the question of Oswald and destiny, not in Stephen King's sense, but the question of how long were forces guiding Oswald to his unavoidable fate? And who was Oswald, bother literally and figuratively, something John Armstrong takes up in "Harvey and Lee." Putting aside references to JFK Assassination research, this is a brilliant book of fiction which manages to fill in the mosaic that is the events and people that lead to the death of John Kennedy.
First thing, the larger of the two reviews (I think Publisher's Weekly?) featured by Amazon for this book is very good. Don't expect an explanation of an event disguised as a novel. In Libra, DeLillo is not trying to explain an event in history; he wants to drop us into the lap of that event in all its complexity and nuance. "If we are on the outside, we assume a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme. .. A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not. It's the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us. Or perhaps not." This is the ambiguous world of the Kennedy assasination, the subject of this jewel of a novel. Particularly vivid in these pages is Jack Ruby: explosive and insecure, cruel in one moment, caring the next. And of course, Oswald. We watch Oswald's slow loss of identity. In Libra he disappears from history -- gradually losing touch, direction, hope, meaning. He does not appear to drive himself, nor is he driven by CIA or FBI or other operatives who, try what they will, essentially find him impregnable. Yet, history it what he makes, or finds. It is the Russian character so much involved in Oswald's ersatz defection, Kirilenko, who best seems to understand Oswald as "some kind of Chaplinesque figure, skating along the edges of vast and dangerous events. Unknowing, partly knowing, knowing but not saying, the boy who 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." He is encouraged by an operative not to find a place in history -- "wrong approach Leon" -- but "to get out. Jump out. Find your place and your name on another level." Reading Libra is participating in a waking dream, a graceful juxtaposition of conspiracy and coincidence, coverging at a point in time, at a place in Dallas. Libra is evocative of the whole tragedy, a novel that puts you on edge, not because the outcome is uncertain, but because, at a deep level, one fears to follow DeLillo's exploratory threads. Not a pleasant ride, but a powerful read.