Classic book review: Libra
More fiction than fact, this novel replays the JFK assassination.
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Which is not to say that the characters are indistinguishable. Although the personalities of some of the conspirators do tend to blur into one another, three characters in the novel are very memorably portrayed: Oswald's hapless, embarrassing mother, Marguerite, upstaged even at the end in her grief by her pretty Russian daughter-in-law, Marina, who wins what vestige of sympathy the public has; Oswald's nemesis, the pathetic nightclub owner Jack Ruby, whose ironic fate is to see his identity merging in people's minds with that of the killer whose life he took; and Oswald himself, the odd boy who smiles when it doesn't make sense to smile, whom a school friend describes as "a misplaced martyr'' who "let you think he was just a fool, or exactly the reverse, as long as he knew the truth and you didn't.''Skip to next paragraph
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Yet the Oswald who walks into the conspirators' plot doesn't seem to know the truth about anything; and despite the masterly strokes with which DeLillo draws his personality, it still isn't clear exactly what Oswald thinks he is doing or why he is doing it.
Oswald's story consumes about half the book. It is interspersed with stories of the various planners, operatives, and incidentals involved in the conspiracy. The weaving of this tangled web is sporadically punctuated by the reflections of one Nicholas Branch, whom the Agency has commissioned to write the inside history of the assassination.
A stand-in for reader and novelist alike, Branch sifts through mountains of evidence - far more than can be made to cohere in a single intelligible story. Outsiders - most of us - "assume a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme,'' as logical and cold as the plot of a superbly crafted mystery tale. Branch has come to doubt this. A conspiracy may well seem as confused to its participants on the inside as it is confusing to innocent observers on the outside, he suggests. And since we aren't sure what happened, is the implication, why not try DeLillo's version on for size?
The fact that DeLillo has written repeatedly of plots, secrets, and half-explained, sinister happenings in a murky, danger-charged world beyond our control makes it seem only natural that he would have a conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination. It does not necessarily invalidate his hypothesis, but it does raise a question. Is "Libra'' a meaningful account in fiction of the shattering event that not only changed history but altered our perceptions in ways we may not fully realize? Or is this merely the case of a writer, long obsessed with themes of conspiracy, coincidence, hidden meanings, hidden motives, appropriating his story from history, all but ready made?
DeLillo is deft enough at blending fact and fiction - at weaving many of the numberless known clues into a plausible narrative soaked in evocative atmosphere. Yet he cannot muster the Dostoyevskian depth and resonance that sometimes enable a writer to present a fiction more compelling than the real event that inspired it.
"Libra'' presents a vision that is less engrossing than the more purely fictional one in "White Noise,'' because of the reader's constant urge to check DeLillo's version of Nov. 22 against the known facts. The real story in all its unresolved, haunting possibilities remains stronger than the story we are offered here.