Libra by Don DeLillo (1988)

It was the mid-nineties, and I was in high school. I had to choose a book for a book review, so I began roaming the library, scanning the bookshelves, both of them. What can I say? It was a very small library in a very small school. The book that caught my attention was Case Closed by Gerald Posner. The book was new, a bestseller, and it argued the case that there was no conspiracy. Zip, zero, nada. Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

Over the years I keep coming back to the JFK assassination. It seems to be a pivotal moment for America, ushering in the 1960s an era of change, rebellion, and chaos, ending in disillusion.  

Who shot JFK? Quite honestly, I go back and forth. It really depends on what I’m reading or what I’m watching. If I watch Oliver Stone’s film JFK, or if I’m watching a documentary, then I tend to rather strongly believe in a conspiracy, but whenever I’ve read Case Closed, I tend to think that maybe Oswald acted alone.

But what if the question of “who shot Kennedy” isn’t relevant? After reading Don DeLillo’s Libra, I find myself less interested in solving the whodunit question and more interested in all of the forces and politics that shaped the era (and that continue to shape us).

“Facts are lonely things.” — DeLillo, Libra

DeLillo presents a disclaimer, that his novel is not meant to settle factual questions. It’s a fictional account, a work of “imagination.” DeLillo wants to explore the whole mix of things: way power works, the way powerful people shape us, the way the CIA and other covert groups operate, and the way that small, random events have impacts that outsize their triviality.

Oswald’s astrological sign was Libra. Oswald truly was a patsy. In DeLillo’s novel, there is conspiracy, yes, but the details of the conspiracy are not as important as the fact that there was something in the air, some sort of sense that this man, John F. Kennedy, was a marked man. A sense of destiny surrounds him, and it acts as a center of gravity that pulls in Oswald, the Libra, the Libra who can be tilted one way or the other, the Libra upon whose shoulders history can turn, and the suspense of the novel has to do with which way the Libra will go.

“There is a world inside the world.”

Along the way we meet Oswald. He isn’t a nut or psychopath. For DeLillo, Oswald is someone who stands apart, a loner, but an intelligent man with a strong sense of his own destiny. He’s not a complete whack job.

This is one of the subtle things that I learned on reading Libra. Talking about Oswald is beyond forensics, of course, but from my experience the man himself doesn’t get near as munch ink as JFK or the “magic bullet” or the thousands of other details. These details can bury a person. Hence, I go back and forth on the whodunit question, depending on what I’m reading/watching at the time.

“A fact is innocent until someone wants it; then it become intelligence.”

And even this is something that DeLillo brings out in the novel, by way of his character, Branch, who is writing a “secret history of JFK.” He has a special room built for him, and he is completely and absolutely submerged in the details and minutia of the case.

Buried beneath the facts of the case, Branch comes to realize that “the truth of the world is exhausting…”

Will Branch ever know what happened? Probably not. He concludes that the conspiracy was “a rambling affair that succeeded mainly due to chance.”

“History means to merge. The purpose of history is to climb out of your own skin.”

Even the CIA had lost control. Former operatives had a part in it, yes, but everyone had lost control. And then JFK was dead, and then Oswald was dead, and in the end, we were left with the facts of history.

So now here I am. It’s 20+ years later, and I’m writing another book review, and my interest in JFK has itself become a part of history, of my own personal chronicle of facts and images, but now I’m writing on a blog, within a virtual reality we call the Internet, unheard of in the mid-nineties. It’s our new labyrinth, a jungle of facts, history in a jumble and tangle that seems to be constantly rearranging itself. Yes, the truth of the world is exhausting, isn’t it?

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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