04 September 2006

Libra, by Don DeLillo

September 04 2006 (13:29:00) ( 0 views )

I've been neglecting this project for a while -- perhaps Summer can take the blame. I finished reading Libra quite a while ago, keep meaning to write a little about it, but something always stops me.

Today, I determined to get started on this as I have other books in the pipe and before you know it I'll be seriously behind. In order to get into the mood and steal some ideas I looked the book up on Amazon.com and found some capsule reviews. The interesting observation about Libra that I gleaned from these reviews was that the book may be -- at least in part -- a study of how a novel can portray reality, or history, and at the same time be a work of fiction. One of the reviewers more or less posed the question: Why should we allow a novelist to tell us what really went on?

The essence of real mystery during my life is certainly embodied in the events of 22 November 1963. I was a bit shy of twelve years old then: not a little child but not yet quite an adolescent, either. It was very strange for me to experience the muffled drumbeats of mourning, the funeral parade for that fallen President that seemed to travel from coast to coast.

My parents were (and are) Republicans and did not like Kennedy, but they were as I recall shocked by the assassination. Little did we know that it was to be the first in an ugly string including the President's brother and Dr. Martin Luther King.

In 1963 I don't think I was at all aware of the Bay of Pigs operation. I do remember the Cuban missle crisis. Having been brought up with air-raid drills in school, and bomb shelters sporting that funny nuclear hazard symbol (it always looks like a reel of recording tape to me) my peers and I were well aware that our country's enemies had threatened to destroy us. But my understanding of all that went on in that time was very limited -- starved for information and begotten in the mind of a child.

A few years ago I read another novelistic interpretation of the Kennedy assassination in American Tabloid, by James Ellroy. Ellroy painted a picture of ruthless criinals, international spies, and politicians coming together in what was (in that story) the inevitable death of the President.

While De Lillo's characters are seldom admirable, they are not unsympathetic. His Oswald is disturbingly attractive; Jack Ruby a down-at-heel businessman in bad health, recruited to do the dirty work for the real Bad Guys.

Oswald's astrological sign was Libra, at least according to one of those reviewers I mentioned earlier. I'm no astrologer, but I do know that Libra has something to do with balance. How that works in this story is beyond me, but it's an interesting thought. Oswald as portrayed in Libra is anything but balanced. The book is a tragedy, presenting irresistible forces that move hapless characters to perform acts that they are seemingly powerless to avoid.

In Libra we follow Oswald through much of his short life. His mother is a study in dysfunction, an overbearing yet under-protective force in the young man's life. We follow him in to the Marine corps and then to the Soviet Union where he sought refuge from Capitalism and a country that rejected him as an outcast and a freak. He marries, becomes somewhat disillusioned with the People's Paradise, and returns home to the USA.

Meanwhile we are treated to an interwoven narrative about the other players in this tragedy.

"Nicholas Branch sits in the book-filled room ... the room of theories and dreams. He is in the fifteenth year of his labor ..."

Branch is researching and writing the definitive CIA analysis of the Kennedy assassination, a book that will never be read. His depressive, soundless labor makes a loom on which this story can be woven.

"American kitchens... where a man named Walter Everett, Jr., was sitting, thinking ... He was thinking about secrets."

Everett, known as Win, lives in sundrenched suburban silence with his very compliant wife Mary Frances, and his daughter. Everett is a somewhat psychologically damaged retired CIA agent. Together with other disenchanted warriors cheated of the assassination of Castro, he is lead toward the unspeakable -- but the hint grows stronger and stronger as the story progresses. These shady characters are awkward and frequently seem very stupid in their actions, but nonetheless move history forward to the demise of the President, and Oswald.

Libra is a quiet, thoughtful book about a violent obscenity. De Lillo is a student of America; he strives to capture our sanitized world, the calm surface of our culture under which pulses limitless mayhem unleashed on anyone or anything that goes against its stubborn will. His language is elegant, spare, polished to brilliance -- he wastes no words. Libra is not comforting, but it is fascinating, and not to be missed.

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