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NBCC Reads

In Retrospect: Troy Jollimore on Don DeLillo’s “Libra”


The following essay by NBCC poetry award winner Troy Jollimore, on Don DeLillo’s Libra, a finalist for the 1988 NBCC award in fiction, is part of the NBCC’s “In Retrospect” series on Critical Mass, in which critics and writers revisit NBCC award winners and finalists from previous years.

“Six point nine seconds of heat and light,” muses a character in “Libra,” Don DeLillo’s vivid and haunting 1988 novel about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. “Let’s call a meeting to analyze the blur. Let’s devote our lives to understanding this moment, separating the elements of each crowded second.” The character is Nicholas Branch, hired by the CIA to write “the secret history of the assassination”—the real version, for Agency eyes only. But the real version turns out to be impossible to write, and Branch’s pursuit a hopeless, interminable quest, as the construction of a coherent narrative gives way to the accumulation of mere facts, which in turn gives way to an agglomeration of awful and inscrutable brute physical evidence:

“The Curator sends the results of ballistics tests carried out on human skulls and goat carcasses, on blocks of gelatin mixed with horsemeat. There are photographs of skulls with the right cranial portion blown away. There are bullet-shattered goat heads in close-up. . . . He doesn’t know why they are sending him this particular grisly material after all these years. Shattered bone and horror. That’s all it means to him. There is nothing to understand, no insights to be had from these pictures and statistics, from this melancholy bullet with its nose leveled and spread like a penny left on trolley tracks. (How old he is.) The bloody goat heads seem to mock him. He begins to think this is the point. They are rubbing his face in the blood and gunk. They are mocking him. They are saying in effect, ‘Here, look, these are the true images. This is your history. Here is a blown-out skull for you to ponder. Here is lead penetrating bone.’”

Still, Branch does manage to assemble something like a theory. (As for DeLillo, his author’s note flatly denies that he is trying to “furnish factual answers to any question raised by the assassination.” Rather than saying that he advances a hypothesis, then, let us say that he entertains one.) And if Branch’s answer to “Who killed JFK?” is not the one Mick Jagger sings for us in “Sympathy for the Devil,” well, it isn’t quite the one given by the Warren Report, either.

Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone, according to “Libra”? No: because no one ever does anything alone in the crazy quilt of paranoid consciousnesses, stunted consciences, and misguided intentions that composes the world of this novel. The work of history is the work of groups: loose, shady, poorly organized groups, half of whose members do not know the identities of the other half, or, when they do, know enough not to call them by their real names. And yes: because in the final analysis each consciousness is its own solipsistic world, its own “inward-spinning self.” In DeLillo’s universe each of us is, in the deepest sense, alone. And the gunman and perennial misfit Lee Harvey Oswald may well be the lonest of the lone.

But behind him, yes, there stands a conspiracy, trailing into the mists of unknown and unknowable history. A conspiracy that almost willfully defies the expectations fostered by decades of spy thrillers, one composed largely of bureaucrats, bored desk jockeys and former field agents past their prime. Flawed and finite human beings who don’t always like or even trust each other, who sometimes disappear for long periods, leaving the others to think the whole project has been called off. The conspirators may have conflicting agendas. Some of them, indeed, seem rather badly informed about what the agenda is, or what means are to be taken to advance it. In its early stages, though, there is fairly widespread agreement on the motive and the plan. The goal is to motivate a second and more wholehearted invasion of Cuba, following the Bay of Pigs debacle; the strategy is that someone should shoot at Kennedy, and miss, with the trail of evidence leading back to Castro. At least one of the planners is afflicted with forebodings:

“Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move toward death. . . . 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.”

Even if it correctly predicts the final result, this kind of thinking may give the plot more credit than is due. As DeLillo imagines it, Kennedy’s death is largely a matter of chance and coincidence; the outcome is in doubt right up to the final moments. His Oswald, in particular, is a bundle of mutually inconsistent desires and intentions, a man whose anti-social nature and commitment to radical leftist ideology make it impossible for him to fit into any society, and who cannot translate the purity of that commitment into an intelligible course of action. He has a vague idea of becoming politically important, a public figure, and predicts that his life following the assassination will be his time of glory—much as Jack Ruby, who also approaches his fatal moment in an indecisive, halfhearted way, is convinced that having shot Oswald he will be feted by the people of Dallas as a hero.

To call DeLillo a “paranoid” writer, as some have, is somewhat misleading. The paranoid projects meaning onto chaos, believing that beneath its unintelligible surface the world makes sense. In his imaginative and sympathetic portrait of Oswald, of Jack Ruby, of Win Everett and Larry Parmenter and the other conspirators, DeLillo displays a deep understanding of how history really works, how much of it is accidental, unintended. Indeed it is impossible, today, to read many of the passages in “Libra” without thinking about our own situation, and in particular, the terrible mix of dishonesty, willful ignorance, and supreme confidence that seems to have driven many of our own leaders and planners all through the invasion of Iraq and its grim aftermath:

“The invasion failed because high officials didn’t examine the basic assumptions. They got caught up in a spirit of compelling action. They were eager to accept other men’s perceptions. There was safety in this. The plan was never clear. No one was ever responsible. Some of them knew a disaster was in the works. They let it ride. They put themselves out of reach. They wanted it over and done.”

For that matter, try reading the following passage without calling Abu Ghraib to mind:

“Knowledge was a danger, ignorance a cherished asset. In many cases the DCI, the Director of Central Intelligence, was not to know important things. The less he knew, the more decisively he could function. . . . The Attorney General wasn’t to know the queasy details. Just get results.. . . The members of the committee would allow only generalities to carry upward. It was the President, of course, who was the final object of their protective instincts. They all knew that JFK wanted Castro cooling on a slab but they weren’t allowed to let on to him that his guilty yearning was the business they’d charged themselves to carry out. The White House was to be the summit of unknowing. It was as if an unsullied leader redeemed some ancient truth which the others were forced to admire in the abstract, owing to their mission in the convoluted world.”

So the President remains pure, in his “summit of unknowing,” while those beneath him are corrupted by knowledge. “Details,” as DeLillo writes, “were a form of contamination.” And yet nearly everyone in “Libra” yearns to be contaminated by knowledge: from Nicholas Branch—the reader’s stand-in, and DeLillo’s—with his longing to know the truth of what happened, to Oswald’s fellow darkroom trainee Dale Fitzke, with his endearingly boyish gee-whiz enthusiasm for exchanging classified information (“Isn’t that a neat thing to know?”), to Oswald himself, who prides himself on knowing what nobody around him knows, that the real name of Josef Stalin is Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili.

The thought that “real names” possess a deep significance recurs, and is characteristic of DeLillo, who titled an earlier novel “The Names” and once said, “I think naming things helps us hold the world together.” Indeed almost every denizen of the universe of “Libra” is multiply named. About three quarters of the way through the book Branch pauses for a roll call of the dead and their alternative identities:

“Jack Ruby was born Jacob Rubenstein. He adopted the middle name Leon to honor the memory of a friend, Leon Cooke, shot to death in a labor dispute.

There are several versions of George de Mohrenschildt’s name. He sometimes used the alias Philip Harbin.

Carmine Latta was born Carmelo Rosario Lattanzi.

Walter Everett used the cover name Thomas R. Stainback during his years in clandestine work.

Lee Oswald used about a dozen names including the backward-running O.H. Lee and the peculiar D.F. Drictal.. . .

The Dallas disc jockey known as Weird Beard was Russell Lee Moore, who also used the name Russ Knight.

The man calling himself Aleksei Kirilenko, a KGB cover name, was in fact Sergei Broda, according to records supplied by the Curator.

After repeated requests, Branch has learned from the Curator that Theodore J. Mackey, known as T-Jay, was born Joseph Michael Horniak and was last seen in Norfolk Virginia, January 1964, in the company of a suspected prostitute, possibly of Asian extraction, name unknown.”

And so it goes. And what of the Curator himself, that mysterious, almost godlike figure whose true name also remains unspoken? And what are we to make of the fact that Oswald spends part of the book going by “Leon,” the middle name adopted by his killer? Or the fact that when he was laid to rest, it was “for security reasons under another name, the last alias of Lee Harvey Oswald . . . William Bobo”? In DeLillo’s imagining, Oswald’s full name—the name history has given him, the name by which we know him—seemed alien in his own ears:

“Lee Harvey Oswald. It sounded extremely strange. He didn’t recognize himself in the full intonation of the name. The only time he used his middle name was to write it on a form that had a space for that purpose. No one called him by that name. Now it was everywhere. He heard it coming from the walls. Reporters called it out. Lee Harvey Oswald. Lee Harvey Oswald. It sounded odd and dumb and made up. They were talking about somebody else.”

To think that a name—a sound, a pattern of ink on paper—can capture the reality of an individual person is as absurd as to think that a theory, or a story, can capture a historical event. There is, as always in DeLillo, the fear that language will fail us by falling short of reality, as well as the concomitant fear that we will be entrapped in language, separated from the real world by our language. And, as always in DeLillo, it is the singular moment of violence that represents the real, the unconditioned, the thing-in-itself immune to interpretation. Here, look, these are the true images. This is your history. Here is a blown-out skull for you to ponder. Here is lead penetrating bone.

So Branch’s early theory, the paranoid view that history is “the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us,” gives way to the idea that history cannot be told by anyone to anyone, that it is not merely hidden but essentially inexpressible, that it transcends language and rational thought. In which case the endeavor of the historian, or the historical novelist, inevitably falsifies, is indeed a kind of neurosis, another instance of the paranoid’s projecting meaning onto chaos. “He wants a thing to be what it is. Can’t a man die without the ensuing ritual of a search for patterns and links?” Perhaps, indeed, the idea that there could be a meaning beyond the brute physical reality of violence is precisely what allows us to justify brutality and violence, to regard them as legitimate means to ends. Perhaps the idea that an explanation can be given that will render the events of the world rationally intelligible is precisely the root of the problem.

My favorite sentence in “Libra” happens right after Jack Ruby fires his gun. DeLillo writes of Oswald, standing in the center of yet another scene of panic and confusion: “He is alone, already far away, the only one not wondering what has happened.” Here again is death, the event that cannot be re-interpreted, the hard factual reality that cannot be doubted. This is your history. Surrounded by seekers after knowledge, those desperate to understand, Oswald alone understands. He has at last been granted his knowledge, his secret. Here is lead penetrating bone. And so he passes, leaving the rest of us to carry on analyzing the blur. Leaving us only his name.—Troy Jollimore

Anne Tyler reviews “Libra” in the New York Times Book Review, July 23 1988.

DeLillo reviews, interviews, audio, in New York Times archives.