Libra: A Pynchon-esque Ambulation of the JFK Assassination

Libra_(DeLillo_novel_-_cover)

Should I begin this post by once again admonishing myself for taking much too long to read Don Delillo? It’s tempting. When I read White Noise I was simply blown away by everything about the novel. Delillo’s prose is unique and a joy to behold, his jokes land without fail, the situations he creates are completely mesmerizing, his characters are believable and lovable… where do I stop? At this point, I stop out of pure necessity. White Noise is a novel about a married couple racing past middle age and wondering which of them will die first. It is breathtaking and everyone should read it. So what is LibraLibra is the Delillo novel I simply happened to read next, as I really wasn’t sure where to go from White Noise. I had found Underworld at a local book shop for five bucks, and bought it, but I simply wasn’t ready to undertake such a task less than a week after finishing The Brothers Karamazov (Currently,  reviews are coming up about three weeks after I finish the book itself). So as I meandered through a different local book shop, I found an old edition of Libra that was in surprisingly good shape (Another random fact about this blog: The edition of the book that is posted within the review is the same edition I read nine times out of ten). This settled the debate over which Delillo book I would be reading.

Libra Delillo’s telling of the Kennedy Assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald. Libra being the astrological sign for Oswald. Primarily the book focuses on Oswald and another group of men connected to the CIA that have a bone to pick with John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Bay of Pigs. The book alternates between the two parties, with Oswald being the protagonist who begins to be mentioned more prevalently as the book continues. The book serves an interesting purpose in humanizing the historical figure of Lee Harvey Oswald. Delillo is examining the nature of a story and who is telling it. Oswald remarks numerous times how he wants to write short stories about American and Russian life, only to be told by both the KGB and the FBI that he simply cannot do that at the moment. He wants to make his mark on history through his stories, and Delillo succeeds in a dark irony, bringing to light that Oswald did just that, only through Oswald’s own story that he wasn’t even writing.

Delillo does not attempt to absolve Oswald of the crime of killing Kennedy, nor does he attempt to make him a misunderstood man. Delillo’s Oswald is dark character who feels the real nature of his own powerlessness in changing anything. He remarks at one point, while being held at the mercy of the Cuban Embassy in Mexican, that he is a zero-sum figure. He has no pull, no weight to throw, his ideals and his sympathies are met with the cold reality of the world and shattered by the very people he supports. I read a review that called Delillo’s Oswald a “surprisingly sympathetic figure;” however I don’t think this is the case. At any moment in which a character that is at this point fully historical is approached through a non-historical lens and examined, or given new life through a movie or novel, we are confronted with the fact that this figure was once real. That the pictures we see were not created on a computer, but rather were a moment in time in the life of a man or woman who breathed the same air we do and faced the same human search for meaning the rest of us experience.

It seems so obvious that the book would turn into a deluge of postmodern paranoia, but I found myself so engrossed within the story that it began to catch me by surprise. I won’t accuse Delillo of forcing paranoia through the character of Oswald, but I will say that Delillo’s mechanism is much different from that of Thomas Pynchon’s. Pynchon is, without a doubt, the master of paranoid writing. V, Inherent Vice, The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow are soaked in a slime of batty thinking and uncomfortable coincidences. However, Pynchon makes this all take place organically. You begin to notice things here and there that perhaps even the main character does not notice. The protagonist is on high alert by the end of the novel because they are well aware that they are caught up in something that is too big for them. Delillo interrupts the stream of the narrative with hokey rhymes, and unstable pointing out of terrible coincidence. The narrative itself flows flawlessly between third person story telling and first person testimony from Oswald’s mother at a trial and Oswald’s own suspicion of those around him.

Much like Pynchon, Delillo has his protagonist, Oswald, caught up in something that is bigger than him. The streams of plots are flowing together far beyond what Oswald can comprehend. He is a pawn in a chessboard, and those above him have planned to give him up along the way to help them meet their own ends. By the end of the novel I felt bad for him, but simultaneously I really didn’t upon recollecting all the things Oswald had done up to that point. There was nothing impressive about him except his drive to be found impressive. He repeatedly made mistakes that are essentially unforgivable, none of which are even related to the Kennedy assassination. Delillo’s character that is acting outside of history, a CIA historian that is in charge of writing the secret history of the Kennedy assassination, points this out as well. Essentially saying that Oswald, even if he had not shot Kennedy, was going to be the one to take the fall for this. It was all planned out and the arrangements had been made. One November day Lee Oswald would be remembered also with his middle name.

Libra is no White Noise, but Delillo excels at this work of historical fiction. Coming up short only in spreading itself out a bit too thin in what it does when it leaves the Oswald narrative.

Recommended to: Those interested in the Kennedy Assassination, those who love a great work of historical fiction, and those looking for an in-depth, but highly readable novel.

Avoid as if it were playing Alabama with Treon Harris as your Quarterback: You know, much like White Noise it is difficult to say there is a type of person that should avoid this novel. It’s great. Pick it up.

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