Reading DeLillo’s ‘Libra’ 50 years after the JFK assassination
Last spring I finished Libra, Don DeLillo’s novel that imagines the unfolding of the JFK assassination. I read it in disjointed chunks, covering the first half over a couple of months, the second half in one huge gulp. Consequently, the emotion it contains was held somewhat at arm’s length, as if I were growing myopic while reading.
But then, the following Thursday, I came home and followed the police chase of the Tsarnaev brothers in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. I followed the mayhem — this incident seems actually to earn the word — via Twitter: journalists on the ground, galloping after Cambridge sirens like hounds; police scanner DJs, EQing the static; and the real-time TV critics, embroidering (and eviscerating) the ongoing cable news coverage.
I’ve often thought that Twitter is the ultimate Modernist novel: an ungraspable fragmented mound of human utterance, revealing the consciousness of a culture in the crevices between tweets. And here, during this unfolding terrorist incident, was one of Twitter’s “best” moments, at least in terms of generating (spontaneously, collectively) a real-time Modernist thriller. The event was large enough on a national news-crisis level to magnetize and collate the million shards that is Twitter.
All of this unfolding meta-reality added a ghostly echo to finishing Libra. One of the key formal distinctions of the novel is the way that it unfolds in two simultaneous time frames: the slow accrual of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald and the much-faster unfolding of the plot to assassinate the president, orchestrated by former CIA operatives, disgruntled after the blundered Bay of Pigs. It’s a weird narrative tango for the first hundred pages or so, but you eventually adjust to the rhythm and by the end of the novel, you see what DeLillo is up to: how Oswald is both the agent of his own destiny and simultaneously a cog within a vast plot machinery, how the JFK assassination is an uncanny collaboration between circumstance and the will of various individuals.
And that is what the Boston Marathon and its thrilling boat-in-the-backyard finish felt like — a story of personal grievance that fits within the larger Narrative that None of Us Control.
It’s a cliche at this point to say that DeLillo has predicted what life feels like now. I haven’t read enough of him to argue about this sufficiently. However, I can say that DeLillo is a master of the List: the agglutination of seemingly disconnected, often repetitive detail. Here’s an example from the consciousness of Win Everett, a former CIA analyst forced into pseudo-retirement after the Bay of Pigs and one of the principal architects of the assassination. Here he’s imagining creating someone like Oswald:
An address book with ambiguous leads. Photographs expertly altered (or crudely altered). Letters, travel documents, counterfeit signatures, a history of false names. It would all require a massive decipherment, a conversion to plain text. He envisioned teams of linguists, photo analysts, fingerprint experts, handwriting experts, experts in hairs and fibers, smudges and blurs. Investigators building up chronologies. He would give them the makings of a deep chronos, lead them to basement rooms in windy industrial slums, to lost towns in the Tropics.
What’s fascinating, on a simply novelistic construction level, is how dense the novel feels, how fortified it is with matter, both “real” and invented. One reads the novel with a growing admiration not just for DeLillo’s vision in tackling the material but simply his relentless diligence with the detail.
There’s also a novelist figure within the novel itself — Nicholas Branch, a retired CIA analyst who has been tasked (again here the weird verbed word seems earned) with writing a history of the assassination. He sits in his home office, under daily assault of data sent by the Curator:
Branch sits in his glove-leather chair looking at the paper hills around him. Paper is beginning to slide out of the room and across the doorway to the house proper. The floor is covered with books and papers. The closet is stuffed with material he has yet to read. He has to wedge new books into the shelves, force them in, insert them sideways, squeeze everything, keep everything. There is nothing in the room he can discard as irrelevant or out-of-date. It all matters on one level or another. This is the room of lonely facts. The stuff keeps coming.
I bought Libra last January during a trip to Boston. It was one of those rare brief spans of time where I was unencumbered by work or children or the little horizonal clouds of impending obligation, just a free afternoon in a strange city covered in snow, walking until my feet got sore, ducking into shops for warmth.
When the bombings occurred, their location made immediate sense. My winter walking had unknowingly encircled the blast site. One floats into coincidence, both historical and trivial, like a kid swimming in a river, as unseen pockets of coldness envelop your legs briefly and then drift away.
There were too many ironies and coincidences. A shrewd person would one day start a religion based on coincidence, if he hasn’t already, and make a million. Yes yes yes yes.
Relevant tweets picked up speed when Boston police released the suspects’ photos after 5 p.m. ET on April 18. A time zone and several states away, I began following the tweets intently via my phone, on the way home from work, while letting the dog out to pee, while prepping my children for bed. After dinner, I checked back in, and there had been a mysterious shooting of an MIT police officer. I followed the tweets for the next few hours, giving up shortly after midnight and the climactic Watertown shootout.
Various journalists get re-tweeted from the scene and are subsequently followed, like Seth Mnookin. What gets reported is ad hoc, invaluable, flawed, riveting. You can feel the exponential unknowability of the moment, the JFK-ification of historical record.
Was it three shots or four? Was there one shooter or two? Did Oswald act alone or was he part of a larger conspiracy? The answer to each is both. And (so it seems) it will always be both, the gears grinding against one another, the friction of data generating narrative heat. A definitive event occurred, but we will never be able to define it, and the more information we accumulate about it, the more unknowable it becomes. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is this way.
He takes refuge in his notes. The notes are becoming an end in themselves. Branch has decided it is premature to make a serious effort to turn these notes into coherent history. Maybe it will always be premature. Because the data keeps coming. Because new lives enter the record all the time. The past is changing as he writes.
When people discuss — I admit few people discuss this — the future of the novel and what comes next after post-modernism (itself a highly dubious term), I think: there will be no next step; the authorship and reading of such a novel has collapsed into the same individual. We are all Nicholas Branch now, all connected to some Curator who is constantly sending us more data to process, and we are all fashioning our own disparate and repetitive novel from the data of the day. Sometimes these factoids magnetize around an event, and sometimes it’s just the ongoing flow — endless and contradictory, collected and composed by us, individually and collectively, simultaneously, every day. Each day we renew the personal conspiracy theory that is our own Twitter stream.
Sometimes he looks around him, horrified by the weight of it all, the career of paper. He sits in the data-spew of hundreds of lives. There’s no end in sight.