Classic book review: Libra

More fiction than fact, this novel replays the JFK assassination.

Libra By Don DeLillo Viking 456 pp. $19.95

[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Sept. 12, 1988.] The plot of Libra, Don DeLillo's ninth novel, is the plot that led to the assassination of John F. Kennedy that Friday in November almost 25 years ago. Not that DeLillo claims to have unearthed the "real'' plot, if indeed there was such a thing.

But clearly he believes there was a plot and has used this novel as a kind of space station - free from the constraints of earthbound historical veracity, yet still bound by ties of gravity (and gravitas) to many of the known facts of the case - from which to launch his experimental speculation.

Roughly summarized, DeLillo's thesis is that a handful of semiretired CIA agents who were involved in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion come up with a plan they hope will galvanize America into some sort of strong and decisive action against Castro's Cuba. The plot is to have someone who can be tied to Cuba attempt to shoot the President. The attempt must look convincing, but the gunman is to miss. Lee Harvey Oswald with his record as a Marine sharpshooter, his confused leftist sympathies, his sojourn in the Soviet Union, and his Fair Play for Cuba committee fits the profile. Somewhere along the way - deliberately, it seems - the instruction to miss the President gets left out. It becomes a plot to kill the President.

"All plots tend to move deathward,'' notes a character in DeLillo's previous novel, "White Noise,'' in which a toxic cloud threatens a small Midwestern community. The theme is repeated in "Libra'': "Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move toward death.''

Even the man who originally plots to have the gunman miss the President is found musing in this vein: "He believed that the idea of death is woven into the nature of every plot. A narrative plot no less than a conspiracy of armed men. The tighter the plot of a story, the more likely it will come to death. A plot in fiction, he believed, is the way we localize the force of the death outside the book, play it off, contain it.'' At this point (and elsewhere in the course of the narrative) the broodings of DeLillo and his characters intermingle so closely as to become indistinguishable.

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.''

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.

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