There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman who killed President John F. Kennedy, and those who believe he is the one known name in a conspiracy of unknown size. The first point to the Warren Report in which Oswald acted alone without any support. The second have the later House Select Committee on Assassinations that determined there was a conspiracy (though it exonerated Cuba, the Soviet Union, the FBI and CIA, and essentially everyone save unnamed members of the mafia).
Although a governmental panel has concluded a conspiracy was afoot, for some people if you suggest anything or anyone other than Oswald you are a conspiracy nut. A crank. Yet most Americans when polled believe there was a conspiracy. Oliver Stone’s film JFK is put in the nut category though heavily footnoted. After seeing the film in college, I read stacks of books from the college library on the assassination and was surprised at how many lines in the movie are word-for-word quotes made by actual people.
Nevertheless, questions still remain, questions will always remain. It’s the nature of the death of someone famous. People fixate. Many believe there was a conspiracy to kill Princess Diana. It doesn’t make it true and it doesn’t make it false that many people believe in a thing or disbelieve.
But it is the biggest mystery of the twentieth century, and it is the swarming and intrigue-teeming atmosphere of the assassination that fills the pages of DeLillo’s novel, Libra. It’s a perfect fit, DeLillo’s brooding paranoiac style and the web of conspiracies surrounding the JFK assassination. An author and a subject better made for each other would be hard to find.
The story DeLillo tells is really three stories that braid themselves together. The story of the titular zodiac, Lee Harvey Oswald, moves through a wide space in time and place, following Oswald from childhood up until death, from New York to Minsk to Dallas. The second story takes place entirely in 1963 as three disgraced CIA agents plan an attempted assassination on Kennedy to provoke the nation into war against Castro, planting evidence that he ordered the hit. This story arc intersects with that of Oswald as he’s swept up in pro-Cuba feelings. The third and final story is that of Nicholas Branch, a CIA historian who’s writing a secret chronicle of the assassination. This third plot seems an almost entirely surplus inclusion, a sort of stand-in projection of the author detailing his frustrations with the sheer volume of information available.
By far some of the most moving parts of the book are the scenes of a young Oswald, lonely, dreamy, and impressionable. It’s a touching approach, reminding us that historical figures, even those considered villains, were once just children, just kids playing hooky, getting bullied by bigger kids, watching TV, eating dinner with their moms. DeLillo portrays many scenes of childhood as just an impressionistic scattershot of conversations, the setting for these only made clear after the fact. In this there is a sort of courtroom speech by Oswald’s mother that is both heartrending and self-pitying in equal measures.
Interspersed in this we are introduced to the conspirators, some fictional creations of DeLillo’s and some historical personages. We meet Walter “Win” Everett Jr. whose brainchild the plot is. Larry Palmenter, a disgraced Bay of Pigs veteran from the CIA, and T.J. Mackey, the wildest one of the bunch. It’s Mackey who shifts the plot from a planned missed assassination into a real attempt. These three set the plot into motion, dreaming that the attempt on JFK will galvanize America into a warlike mood, while the subsequent investigation will also hurt the CIA that has punished them. Mackey adjusts the plot to serve his own beliefs, not informing his co-conspirators of the change in plans.
Rounded up for the plot are former FBI agents like Guy Bannister, lunatic geniuses like David Ferrie, and an assortment of Bay of Pigs veterans and Cuban anti-Castro types. David Ferrie, a quirky oddball of a character, becomes a channel for DeLillo's almost mystical sense of conspiracy and paranoia. He often repeats that he believes everything. He talks about patterns in events, patterns that converge without assistance, serendipitous movements in the cosmos. Through him DeLillo embodies the free-floating anxiety of the time, the nuclear war tinged angst, the bunker desires.
The book's middle focuses more on the adult Oswald and brings us closer to the fatal date in November. The periods of story in each thread become longer and more developed; the plot does indeed thicken. Oswald's time in Russia is fascinating with its intersection with the U2 spy-plane and Francis Gary Powers, the pilot whose U2 plane was shot down over Russia. What’s most touching and sad in this part of the book is Oswald’s desires for fame, for recognition. In his diary, he writes speeches that he would like to one day deliver, viewing himself as a celebrity sought after for engagements, a heroic figure, though the audience remains unknown. American or Soviet?
At the same time, the longer passages when Oswald returns to America are less gratifying than the machinations of the plotters. Of these, DeLillo sums them up with this poetic line “The men at his level planned secrets that quivered like reptile eggs.” The cast of eccentrics involved in the shooting is a wonder to behold. Ferrie pastes his eyebrows and his mohair wig on, his body hairless from disease. Jack Ruby, who will later shoot Oswald, goes around his strip club fretting and questioning his dancers about whether or not he comes across as gay. Mackey disappears and reappears with spooky necessity and precision, always just in time to provide the needed assistance, the necessary infusion of funds. Everett, despite being involved in many shady works, is a devoted father and husband who goes downstairs into his shop to work on his frame up of Oswald.
I've mentioned the reader Michael Prichard in another review and his deficiencies there are the same as here. His voice gravels down at the end of one recording session, then comes in all smooth at the beginning of the next. The directors of the books should give him shorter takes. He also makes no effort to vocally distinguish the differing characters. This is especially bad with DeLillo's work, as there are long dialogues without attribution. Older writers were less likely to write in this fashion, so the newer the writer, the worse Prichard's style becomes. One long conversation between Jack Ruby and another character named Jack Karlinsky is especially confusing.
And because DeLillo’s style is idiosyncratic enough, Prichard’s monotone delivery renders the emotion in the work flat and dull. Going back to look at passages in my print copy of the book, I was struck by how much more empathetic the book reads than Prichard gives it. But Prichard’s reading did highlight one of DeLillo’s more subtle weaknesses.
DeLillo’s dialogue has an overlapping similarity from character from character and from book to book. It’s DeLillo's biggest defects, his rather cold and intellectual portrayal of every character more like a reflection of himself rather than as differentiated individuals. His prose is heady and filled with foreboding and portents, but his dialogue tries to do the same without success. Every character talks like every other character whether they are in the same book or any other of DeLillo's books. People talk in a DeLillo book in a telegraphic style that sounds less natural than the referential shorthand you hear in real life. This is especially true of his husband and wife characters who read from book to book as the same two people. In this passage, Everett and his wife Mary Francis discuss their daughter Suzanne.
“She listens to a Dallas disc jockey named the Weird Beard.”
“What does he play.”
“It’s not what he plays. He plays top forty. It's what he says between records.” “Example?”
“Impossible to duplicate. He just like, here I am, on and on. It’s a completely other language. But she is fixed to the radio.”
“Inka dinka dink.”
Compare to this dialogue between husband and wife in White Noise:
“I don’t know what I told him,” she said. “I’m never in control of what I say to doctors, much less what they say to me. There’s some kind of disturbance in the air.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
“It’s like having a conversation during a spacewalk, dangling in those heavy suits.”
“Everything drifts and floats.”
“I lie to doctors all the time.”
“So do I.”
Add to this DeLillo’s penchant for putting curious statements into his characters’ mouths and Prichard’s reading adding its second, distracting layer of unnaturalness to the language that saps it of its quirky nature. Instead, it comes across faked, as though written by a writer of less ability. On two occasions, Oswald’s mother Marguerite says things like “”I admit this which I shouldn't say a word, but your brothers were a burden on my back” and “There are some women who ignore history.” Prichard’s flatness drains these comments of meaning and sentiment.
It’s a testament to the strength of DeLillo’s writing that the mounting unease can continue to be effective despite the reading. Libra’s style, slow, jumping from one faction among the plot to Lee, as the year 1963 parades on, makes the tension increase with palpitating nervousness. Everything is present tense, happening at this time, the history of Lee Harvey Oswald and all the plotting and counterplotting has come to this moment. You know how it ends. You know how this conspiracy ends and yet you cringe as it eases ever closer, in no hurry, death inching along to punctuated violence.
And it’s one of the quirks of conspiracies that once you begin to accept their possibility, everything becomes significant. Like David Ferrie, you come to believe in everything. Connections become meaningful even coincidental ones; lack of correlation becomes suggestive of hidden affiliations; mistakes become subliminal messages; typos and misprints become secret signs; jibberish holds coded signals; stray comments are clues. The historian character of Nicholas Branch pops up as the plot compresses, showing us incidences after the fact, their importance seemingly obvious. Deaths multiply, violent deaths. Various plotters are shot in the streets, shot in their homes, killed in their cars in the immediate years following the assassination.
It is a difficult book to write, I imagine, and it is a difficult book to sit through. If you spend any time reading books on Kennedy's assassination, your own mind will latch on to certain coincidences or anomalies. No story will adequately address this. No story can be long enough to handle every twist, every question, every problematic narrative thrust. As I listened, I thought of Oswald supposedly rushing down the stairs of the Texas School Book Depository after the shooting, passing by two women who didn't see him; the rifle pulled reclaimed from the site that looked nothing like his Mannlicher-Carcano; Oswald shooting a police officer who detained him, thought at least one witness describes a completely different man. I thought of all the inconsistencies that I knew
In the end, the mystery stays. No book answers what you want to see answered. The answers provided miss their target, the answers are a patsy. As a result, as fascinating an account as Libra is, it leaves you vaguely with a shifty unease of dissatisfaction.