Don DeLillo’s Libra turns Twenty-five

Why do we care about historic anniversaries? I think it’s the comfort they induce; instead of facing the fact that each day is unknowable, days have a history, 365 histories to provide us a weak sense of stability. November 22nd will always be a meaningless November 22nd to most people. 50 years ago, November 22nd changed America for the worse, and begat one of those “I remember where I was” days. Thankfully most of our memories are less succinct; first kiss or lay, monthly achievement or annual failure, rarely have the permanence of say, June 16, 1904.

Don DeLillo’s Libra is 25 years old this year. I maintain it is the best DeLillo, that my undergraduate admiration of White Noise was kind folly, and the recent praise of Underworld is misguided. Libra fulfills all our wishes, all our desires to know the unknowable, to see behind the curtain the men that shaped the world.

I have a fierce devotion to Libra without believing any of it. Conspiracy theorists, like homosexuals or Kubrick fans, are likely born rather than made. I can’t believe men in rooms plot in secret to carry out terror, even though it happens weekly, sometimes in Boston, more likely in Peshawar. But plots and plans don’t begin on cool weekends in April; they start well before one is aware of one’s capabilities. Perhaps they start with the sound of trains:

This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track. He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they’d been practicing for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they really were. His body fluttered in the fastest stretches. They went so fast sometimes he thought they were on the edge of no-control. The noise was pitched to a level of pain he absorbed as a personal test. Another crazy-ass curve. There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little.

DeLillo’s Lee Harvey Oswald is most often Lee–later, captured, he hears reporters mention Lee Harvey Oswald and the name sounds odd to him, foreign.  A child of a single flighty mother, in and out of the orphanage when she can’t afford to care for him, many different schools in many different early years. The motion puts his mind in motion: he starts to imagine himself as someone meaningful, historic. Others see a slighter figure:

They called him Ozzie the Rabbit for his pursed lips and dimples and for his swiftness afoot, as they saw it, when there was a scuffle in the barracks or one of the bars off-base. He was five feet nine, blue-eyed, weighed a hundred and thirty-five, would soon be eighteen years old, had conduct and proficiency ratings that climbed for a while, then fell, then climbed and fell again, and his scores on the rifle range were inconsistent.

Out of the military (dishonorably) he seeks out days in the Soviet Union, new days unlike the twenty-years past of days. He wants to study economics and politics, but he prefers believing he wants to study than do the actual work. The Soviets don’t know what to do with him:

The guard showed up. He showed up every evening before Alek left. Alek never introduced him, didn’t seem to notice he was in the flat. The guard usually sat by the washbasin in the hall, his hat balanced on his knee. There were things Oswald didn’t tell Alek, like details of the MPS-16 radar system, just integrated into the network. He wanted to see how their friendship progressed. It occurred to him that the U.S. military might have to spend jillions to change the system anyhow, now that he’d crossed to the other side. How strangely easy to have a say over men and events.

He meets a girl and marries her, has a family, and makes his way back to the states, to give the familiar days another chance. Still the urge to move events persists. But now others are aware of him; a man can move from NY to CA unnoticed, but not between Cold War foes.

Libra is a dual narration, one part Lee and the other part a hodge-podge of men who make the dark world go, men of influence and means and guns, men upset with Castro and failures and the state of the nation, guardians like Lee who believe in events and man’s ability to shape the world. But these men are old hands, practiced hands that know the tools and time required of the job:

It was Everett who’d made the leap. Everett took the once-bold idea of assassinating Castro and turned it over in his mind, finding it unworkable and crude. He struck a countermeasure that made better sense on every level. It was original, spare and clean. The man we really want is JFK. Mackey gave him every credit. Everett was a complex and passionate man who could think economically. All over Langley and Miami they were still formulating plans to hit Fidel. It was an industry like wood pulp or shoes. Everett had seen the logic in staying home. The idea had power and second sight. Of course Everett did not plan to shoot Kennedy in the strict sense. Only to lay down fire in the street. He wanted a surgical miss.

The men bent on destruction are frightening. It’s to DeLillo’s credit that he depicts them as mostly aimless charmers in their social lives. One can picture these men as friends and neighbors. Then the chills set in:

Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move toward death. He believed that the idea of death is woven into the nature of every plot. A narrative plot no less than a conspiracy of armed men. The tighter the plot of a story, the more likely it will come to death. A plot in fiction, he believed, is the way we localize the force of the death outside the book, play it off, contain it. The ancients staged mock battles to parallel the tempests in nature and reduce their fear of gods who warred across the sky. He worried about the deathward logic of his plot. He’d already made it clear that he wanted the shooters to hit a Secret Service man, wound him superficially. But it wasn’t a misdirected round, an accidental killing, that made him afraid. There was something more insidious. He had a foreboding that the plot would move to a limit, develop a logical end.

I don’t know what “deathward logic” means outside of the context of plot, but it’s a great phrase of contemplation. DeLillo’s smart characters are wise from practice, not philosophy, though a selfish philosophy streams beneath their activities. Then they all meet up on that day in Dallas. Lee sees his counterpart’s shot through a rifle scope:

Lee was about to squeeze off the third round, he was in the act, he was actually pressing the trigger.
The light was so clear it was heartbreaking.
There was a white burst in the middle of the frame. A terrible splash, a burst. Something came blazing off the President’s head. He was slammed back, surrounded all in dust and haze. Then suddenly clear again, down and still in the seat. Oh he’s dead he’s dead.
Lee raised his head from the scope, looking right. There was a white concrete wall extending from the columned structure, then a wooden fence behind it. A man on the wall with a camera. The fence deep in shadow. Freight cars sitting on the tracks above the underpass.
He got to his feet, moving away from the window. He knew he’d missed with the third shot. Went wild. Missed everything. Maggie’s drawers. He turned up the bolt handle.
Put me on. Put me on. Put me on. 
He was already talking to someone about this. He had a picture, he saw himself telling the whole story to someone, a man with a rugged Texas face, but friendly, but understanding. Pointing out the contradictions. Telling how he was tricked into the plot. What is it called, a patsy? He saw a picture of an office with a tasseled flag, dignitaries in photos on the wall.
He drew the bolt back, then drove it forward, jerking the handle down. He walked diagonally across the floor to the northwest end, where the staircase was located. Books stacked ten cartons high. That fragrance of paper and binding.

DeLillo turns the last chapter of Libra over to Lee’s mother. She makes the case for Lee in a trickle of consciousness that would please both Joyce and Molly Bloom:

They’d taken her youngest son and now they were taking the daughter-in-law and the two little girls. Marguerite felt a weakness in her legs. The wind made the canopy snap. She felt hollow in her body and heart. But even as they led her from the grave she heard the name Lee Harvey Oswald spoken by two boys standing fifty feet away, here to grab some clods of souvenir earth. Lee Harvey Oswald. Saying it like a secret they’d keep forever. She saw the first dusty car drive off, just silhouetted heads in windows. She walked with the policemen up to the second car, where the funeral director stood under a black umbrella, holding open the door. Lee Harvey Oswald. No matter what happened, how hard they schemed against her, this was the one thing they could not take away—the true and lasting power of his name. It belonged to her now, and to history.

I’ve read Libra three times and the first two times I preferred the shadowy men chapters over the Lee chapters. This completely reversed on the most recent read, and I now prefer the Lee. Libra is a historical novel, the history of events that for the most part never took place. But some of them did take place, and a generation remembers where they were on the 22nd of November. If that memory lasts deep into history, it might be because of Libra and other works of art and myth.

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