Libra: Fiction in a World of Ficton
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 13 July 2012
At a question and answer session a few years ago the somewhat overrated actor Gary Oldman was asked: throughout his long and winding career, what was the most enjoyable role he has had the pleasure of playing? Oldman did not ponder, instead instantly blurting out
"Oswald. He didn't do it, by the way."
This seven word statement was followed by cheers and a round of applause from a now rowdy, clearly conspiracy oriented, audience. Oliver Stone in the years following JFK had been a quite staunch conspiracy theorist - on one occasion forcing the late JFK Jr. to leave a dinner by consistently turning the conversation with lines like "you can't seriously believe the Warren Commission?" - but Oldman's quote and the subsequent response showed that the events of November 22, 1963 still have an effect on Americans as the fiftieth anniversary looms, and possibly the wrong effect.
I start with this grim reminder as I could not help but feel that DeLillo's book must have, at some point, been considered as a Hollywood project. Published in 1988, long before Stone picked up a copy of On the Trail of the Assassins, DeLillo's writing plays upon the reader's images of Oswald and Ruby in such a way that its translation to screen would have been seamless. A further positive would be that DeLillo, unlike Stone, Garrison or Marrs, readily admits that his piece is fiction - a positive step in story telling which neither of the other two acknowledged about their own. It would not be hard to imagine this book with fifty pages of footnotes and placed on the `Alternate History' shelves of your local bookstore. But it is this which DeLillo has done so well, he has taken an existing subject, gone down the "what if?" line, and written a wonderful story which smacks of reality in all the right places. Take the portrayal of Marguerite Oswald for example, the paranoid bizarre little lady that hired Mark Lane to "defend" Oswald in front of the Warren Commission. In Libra, Marguerite lives in her own world, consistently having to justify herself to a judge in her own fictional world. For example:
Now, about Marina as Russian or French. It is amazing how her English improved right after Lee is killed. It is amazing how she suddenly has a cigarette in her hand, which I never witnessed when Lee was alive. I will research the picture of Marina to learn if it is true. (p. 452)
DeLillo frames her as a control freak that could control nothing and he does it beautifully. As he did with the fictional Nicholas Branch, a character which all researchers on the assassination (myself included) can relate to in one way or another. Branch, a retired employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, lives in his study which houses everything one could possibly need to write a history of the assassination and more. It would be easy to exchange the name Branch for `McAdams' or, more poignantly, `Bugliosi' - ignoring the conspiracy/lone-gunman element, of course.
Closing in on 2013, the National Archives have recently released a statement saying that they will use their full mandate and release the remaining hundred-thousand documents in 2017, despite Michael Kurtz previously saying otherwise. Some still believe that these classified documents hold the key to the assassination, and there is no doubt that when they are released there will be swathes of people rushing in to look them over, as in the 1990s following the JFK Act (the one positive achieved by Stone's motion picture). It is difficult to imagine that any document will be uncovered that will lead to headlines the next day, however it is very likely that more disgraceful incidents of ignoring CIA, FBI and Secret Service protocol will be found. Initially these came to the fore because of groundbreaking work by John Newman, an ex-Army intelligence officer turned lecturer. Newman found that the Agency had deliberately withheld information on Oswald from the FBI and Secret Service, even going as far as to move it into different files so that others within their organisation would not stumble upon and disseminate it. Newman worked tirelessly, interviewing all those he could that appeared in the files, some of whom were nonagenarians. When Newman released his book, Oswald and the CIA, in 1995 it was an extremely embarrassing episode for a lot of people. Yet, the reasons for this game of hide-the-file are still unknown. My hope is that the 2017 release will highlight concrete reasons for doing so, however one thing is almost certain - there will be no one to interview this time. You would be hard pressed to find an Agency apologist who would say that this was not the reason for the coy status - time is a healer.
Ultimately, the legacy of the assassination will be the innumerable fantasies created to understand the gaps in the official record, gaps that those responsible for the official record do not acknowledge. Every book has to make a "leap of faith" to join the first dot and the hundredth, but unlike DeLillo who readily accepts that he has written a fictional account of an alternate reality, the conspiracy theorists sell theirs as authentic works of history. This is damaging to reason and logical thinking. Is it unsurprising that many of those that believe a huge conspiracy killed Kennedy also believe that a cruise missile hit the Pentagon? Their books belong in the fictional section, but not on the same shelf as Libra, and not even in the same breath as DeLillo.
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