- Libra by Don DeLillo
Viking, 456 pp, £11.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 670 82317 1
John Kennedy was killed 25 years ago, on 22 November 1963. The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, known familiarly as the Warren Commission, issued its report a little less than a year later. In the report, members of the commission allowed that certain questions remained unanswered, but their conclusion left no room for doubt: ‘The commission has found no evidence that either Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby was part of any conspiracy, domestic or foreign, to assassinate President Kennedy.’ Oswald ‘acted alone’, as did his assassin, Ruby. Along with the report, the commission released 26 volumes of testimony, exhibits and scientific analysis. If the Warren Report was meant, in part, to squelch rumours of conspiracy, to diffuse a nation’s doubt and anxiety, then it failed miserably: its pat conclusions (eventually undermined by the 1979 Report of the Select Committee on Assassinations) were ignored, spurned in favour of those 26 laden volumes and the jumble of confused and contradictory evidence they contain – the playground of the conspiracy junkie.
Nicholas Branch, a pivotal character in Don DeLillo’s Libra, a retired CIA intelligence analyst hired to write the CIA’s own, secret history of the Kennedy assassination, thinks of the 26 volumes as ‘the Joycean Book of America ... the novel in which nothing is left out’. Although it is, in effect, DeLillo’s report on the Kennedy assassination (and therefore largely dependent on the Warren Commission’s findings), Libra is not especially Joycean. DeLillo recreates Oswald in minute detail, but presents him only in selected, abundantly elaborated scenes – glimpses of a short, perplexed life. He introduces the reader to a raft of conspirators: they, too, are pictured in brief, vivid flashes. DeLillo works in an economical mode: the result is a taut, thrilling novel that lends coherence to the mass of evidence compiled by those tireless investigators who, like the fictional Nicholas Branch, have gone far beyond the Warren Report in their attempt to solve the riddle of that moment in Dallas, ‘the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century’.
Libra is DeLillo’s ninth novel, his first historical novel. It may be that the discipline of fixing his imagination on a specific controlling event has been a help to him, for Libra is certainly his best book – better than White Noise, his grim, death-haunted and very funny satire on consumer society, and better than The Names, his meticulously observed account of American corporate expatriates living under the threat of terrorism. The historical aspect of Libra may represent a departure, but DeLillo has long been preoccupied by conspiracy in general, and assassination in particular. References to Kennedy’s murder crop up in several of his novels: in Running Dog, for example, the estranged wife of a powerful and corrupt Senator lies in bed at night surrounded by scattered volumes of the Warren Report, consulting notebooks filled with ‘correlative data’. CIA operatives, terrorists, ‘risk analysts’, representatives of dubious organisations, named or nameless, official or renegade, stalk through his book. DeLillo’s readers are used to encountering odd, lonely young men, like the stockbroker in Players who flirts with a group of conspirators bent on blowing up the New York Stock Exchange – men whose alienation breeds an urge to join some powerful, clandestine organisation. These were Oswald’s forebears. Indeed, much of DeLillo’s earlier fiction now seems a brilliant prelude to Libra.
The narrator of White Noise suggests that ‘all plots tend to move deathward.’ He adds that a plot ‘is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot’. This is particularly true in Libra. Win Everett, a CIA agent forced into semi-retirement, also knows that there is ‘a tendency of plots to move toward death’ and he worries about the ‘deathward logic’ of his own plot: he has set in motion a scheme that involves a fake assassination attempt on the life of the President. He is plotting, along with two other rogue agents, to revive the nation’s anti-Castro sentiment, to force a second, full-scale invasion of Cuba. The idea is to plant a trail of evidence that will lead back to the Cuban Intelligence Directorate – Americans must be convinced that Castro has tried to kill their President. Everett intends to reveal the CIA’s thwarted attempts on the life of Castro, and therefore designs ‘a plan that includes elements of both the American provocation and the Cuban reply’. The conspirators’ principal motive (‘this is what we have to do to get Cuba back’) is complicated by resentment: the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which they blame on the Administration’s cowardice, humiliated them and damaged their careers.
There is, as its author acknowledges, a ‘major sub-text and moral lesson’ inherent in this plan. The lesson clearly derives from Old Testament justice, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The fake assassination attempt will repay Kennedy’s ‘guilty yearning’ to see Castro dead. The ‘deathward-tending logic’ of the plot eventually endows it with a life of its own: one conspirator, T-Jay Mackey, decides that Everett’s plan ‘was anxious and self-absorbed. It lacked the full heat of feeling. They had to take it all the way.’ The snipers must shoot to kill. But the lesson still applies. As Mackey explains:
The barrier is down ... When Jack sent out the word to get Castro, he put himself in a world of blood and pain. Nobody told him he had to live there. He made the choice with his brother Bobby. So it’s Jack’s own idea we’re guided by.
When urged by Mackey, or by Carmine Latta, a Mafia boss with a grudge, this ‘moral lesson’ is revealed as a self-serving rationalisation. And yet the ‘major sub-text’ should not be ignored: plots engender cycles of reciprocal violence. The plot (now Mackey’s own) rolls on, fuelled by grim logic, and also by coincidence. Coincidence, in so far as it represents the reverse of conspiracy, is another one of DeLillo’s abiding preoccupations. The conspirators want to implicate Castro; they stumble on an incarnation of the sort of gunman they would otherwise have had to create out of forged documents and planted leads. He is perfect: an ex-Marine who defected to Russia and then returned, a man who, they suspect, has already attempted an assassination. They decide to recruit him, but he disappears, and then suddenly reappears, dropped by pure chance directly into their laps. Acting on his own, Oswald takes a job at the Texas School Book Depository – later it turns out that the Presidential motorcade will pass directly beneath the building’s windows. As David Ferrie (the man in charge of persuading the reluctant Oswald to pull the trigger) would say, ‘coincidence is a science waiting to be discovered.’ Nicholas Branch, who has spent fifteen years sifting through the evidence in the hope of distinguishing between coincidence and calculated scheming, sees the plot as ‘a rambling affair that succeeded in the short term due mainly to chance’.
DeLillo has contrived a conspiracy theory that preserves, in a sense, the Warren Report’s initial judgment: this Oswald is a lone gunman, curiously detached from the machinations of the conspirators. The suspense that builds around Oswald is part of what makes Libra so exciting. His historical role, fixed from the beginning in the reader’s mind, cannot contain him: he emerges as a random element, disruptive and erratic. A scene from the opening chapter of the novel, in which Oswald skips school to ride the New York subways, sets the tone for the whole:
He jumped the turnstiles once. He rode between the cars, gripping the heavy chain. He felt the friction of the ride in his teeth. They went so fast sometimes. He liked the feeling they were on the edge. How do we know the motorman’s not insane? It gave him a funny thrill. The wheels touched off showers of blue-white sparks, tremendous hissing bursts on the edge of no-control.
Oswald’s destiny is decided: his peregrinations must eventually lead him to Dallas, but on the way he teeters on the edge of no-control.
Like Oswald, most of the characters in Libra are drawn from history; as DeLillo explains in an appended author’s note, he has ‘embellished reality, extended real people into imagined space and time’. In some cases there is little need for embellishment: history has kindly provided a bizarre and intrinsically fascinating supporting cast. There is Oswald’s mother, the irrepressible Marguerite; the freakish David Ferrie; and of course Jack Ruby, swaggering strip-joint owner and pill-popping neurotic. All are defined by the idiosyncrasies of their voices. Marguerite calls herself ‘the accused mother’, and delivers a series of monologues in the form of an extended plea entered before an absent judge, an entirely appropriate mode for a voluble paranoid. Ferrie, perfectly hairless (victim, he explains, of ‘alopecia universalis’), homosexual, obsessive, mystic, woos Oswald with inspired mumbo-jumbo, and tells him that ‘Kennedy has a little romance ... with death.’ Like Oswald, Ferrie and Ruby are erratic, disturbed men; unlike Oswald, they are grotesques. But DeLillo avoids caricature, and leaves room for pity, if not for compassion.
Libra is a meticulously researched novel. Even DeLillo’s fictional characters are loosely based on real people, or seem composites drawn from the historical record. Carmine Latta, for example, resembles Carlos Marcello, a mob boss who reportedly decided that the way to derail Bobby Kennedy’s campaign against organised crime was to kill his brother John. Latta, who hates Bobby ‘in a personal way’, comes to the same conclusion, and echoes a remark attributed to Marcello: ‘You cut off the head, the tail doesn’t wag.’ Everett and the other CIA conspirators resemble a variety of agents and contacts described in testimony before the Select Committee on Assassinations. Of the major characters, only Nicholas Branch, the man charged with the task of reconstructing the assassination, can’t be associated with a historical figure. He seems to be DeLillo’s fictional counterpart.
DeLillo and Branch perform similar tasks, but Branch remains sealed in his office, imprisoned by facts and by the history he is writing. Aware of ‘worrisome omissions’, gaps in the record, he wonders whether the CIA, unable to break the habit of secrecy, conceals facts even from itself. Still, he knows most of the answers (truths the CIA will never publish): his theories cover the crucial issues. And he is armed with a sober disregard for ‘cheap coincidence’. But he can’t finish the job, or even keep pace with the undiminished flow of relevant data: ‘It all mattered on one level or another.’ He shrinks only from the more graphic exhibits, somehow unwilling to ‘touch and smell’. He grows old, cloistered with theories, omissions, discrepancies. But although DeLillo is faithful to the historical record, he never seems overwhelmed or constrained by the facts of the case. Nor is he vexed by contradictions and omissions. Libra displays his genius for creative paranoia: he fills the gaps in the record with his imagination, spinning a brilliant web out of a heap of improbable coincidences.