Few events in modern history capture our attention like the assassination of JFK.
Ugh. I look at that sentence, and it seems so obviously tedious, so tediously obvious. The tediousness of it is part of its truth. We've never really been able to look away from the Zapruder film, from the central mystery of it. The truth of it is probably very banal: a Communist sympathizer with means and opportunity. And yet we can't stop ourselves from spinning conspiracies about it, from making conjectures about grassy knolls and phantom bullets, not only because we want to make sense of it but because want a certain kind of sense from it. We want it to be a conspiracy because it will make the murder meaningful, rather than pathetic. As one character in Don DeLillo's Libra says, "Destiny is larger than facts or events. It is something to believe in outside the ordinary borders of the senses, with God so distant from our lives." We want JFK's death to be destiny.
Libra is about that search for destiny as it is about the assassination itself. The same impulses that drove Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot Kennedy are the same ones that keep our attention on the act. DeLillo's version of the killing, which traces "the bullet trajectories backwards" to Oswald's childhood, is both scrupulously faithful and entirely fantastical. All the fringe figures are here, including guys I've never heard of like George de Mohrenschildt and David Ferrie, plus Oswald's Russian wife Marina and his mother Marguerite. But DeLillo speculates that it was elements in the CIA that spurred Oswald to do it, embarrassed by the fiasco at Bay of Pigs and wanting to push public opinion toward a more forceful confrontation with Castro and Cuba. They plan a near miss of Kennedy, but there are factions within factions and control over Oswald and the other shooters (yes, on the grassy knoll) is quickly lost.
Libra is, before anything else, a convincing biographical portrait of Oswald. DeLillo, who I don't think is a particularly strong character writer, really does a great job of humanizing Oswald, from his childhood in Brooklyn and New Orleans to his military service in Japan and his defection to the USSR. Oswald is a man on the margins, a poor white kid who never quite catches a break, and who turns to Marxism as a way of finding his own place in the world. He is obsessed with secret names: Trotsky's name was Bronstein, Lenin's was Ulyanov; he too, expects a new name when he becomes a Marxist hero. In this way he's not unlike the CIA ops, who have secret names for their projects that conceal even more secret, truer names. This similarity is one of the book's fundamental ironies, and the reason why the fervently pro-Castro Oswald ends up enlisted in an anti-Castro project.
He obsesses also over his place in history, which he feels forever outside of. Marxism is a way of understanding history, of course, with its certitude about the progression from late capitalism to worker's revolution. "He was a man in history now," he thinks when he's at last able to defect, but the Soviets can't provide him a sense of historical significance any more than America can. Oswald's not alone in that, of course; that feeling of being outside history is really what Libra is about. It's why we focus on the assassination, which seems like a moment of such great importance that it gathers history into a critical point, and if only we can understand it thoroughly we might find ourselves in history also.
White Noise is about this, too, but more satirically. It's why Jack Gladney specializes in "Hitler Studies," hoping to pin down a certain moment, or man, of history, but that novel argues that the balkanization of academia moves us farther away from an understanding of history at large. Here it's the CIA that experiences that balkanization, with its various factions moving within and apart from each other. The bureaucrats who want to control history, forcing the U.S. into action in Cuba, find that it slips easily out of their grasp. One thread follows a CIA bureaucrat named Branch, who's tasked with analyzing every scrap of information about the JFK assassination. That knowledge, we understand, will be locked away in a box somewhere, even if the task were not an impossible one. No, DeLillo says, history is impossible to track, and perhaps doesn't really describe the forces that work on human events:
"Think of two parallel lines," he said. "One is the life of Lee H. Oswald. One is the conspiracy to kill the President. What bridges the space between them? What make a connection inevitable? There is a third line. It comes out of dreams, visions, intuitions, prayers, out of the deepest levels of the self. It's not generated by cause and effect like the other two lines. It's a line that cuts across causality, cuts across time. It has no history that we can recognize or understand. But it forces a connection. It puts a man on the path of his destiny."
I know that reading books close to each other can force all sorts of connections, but I was really amazed by how similar Libra is to Tree of Smoke. The factions within the CIA in the former are directly analogous to the factions within the military that Colonel Sands exploits in the latter; both see history as an intractable problem about the flow of information; both want to dramatize what it's like to be a figure at the mercy of that problem. Even the language is similar, lurching toward abstraction, though Johnson's vocabulary seems to be borrowed from the mystic while DeLillo's is borrowed from the bureaucrat, or the systems analyst. DeLillo is finely attuned to the deadness of American language, and it's ability to stultify and cripple. I was surprised by how fluidly he captures the idiom of folks like Oswald's mom or Jack Ruby, both of whom are comic and sad.
What do we know in the end? Well, we know that it's not really Oswald that killed Kennedy; it's one of the shooters on the grassy knoll. But after 450 pages it's not really any easier to say why Oswald did it. Somehow it remains overdetermined: He was manipulated; he was a true believer; it was his destiny. Libra settles nothing, but it does tell us that nothing will ever be settled.