Don DeLillo’s Libra takes on the great rift in the American psyche; that which opened up on 22nd November 1963 when Kennedy was assasinated. Whatever the nature of the man, one thing became true form that point on – that bad things can indeed happen to and in the Home of the Free.
This is a labyrinthine book on a number of levels. It is a semi-fictional account of the life and death of Lee Harvey Oswald. The author makes no attempt to separate fact from fiction; indeed, as Oswald has entered the status of myth it would probably be nigh on impossible to do so. The book follows Oswald’s youth, his time in the US Marines, his assignment to the U2 base at Atsuga, his defection, his return, and the fateful day in November 1963 when he and history collided on Dealey plaza.
The book also follows the activities of three disaffected CIA veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and how their initial thoughts of a faked assasination attempt on JFK eventually give way to soemthing more sinister.
Parts of the story are seen through the eyes of Nicholas Branch, a retired CIA agent who is now tasked with assembling the definitive story of the assasination of JFK. He is provided with all sorts of information and meta-information about the assasination – even down to the dreams of witnesses to the event. A CIA information specialist he knows as ‘The Curator’ keeps the information coming, thickening the fog and building new paths in to an already infinitely complex maze.
Over the years it is quite possible that no other single event in human history with one exception has been examined so closely with so little agreement as to what actually happened. And the other event is the Crucifixion.
The rest of the book is almost stream of conciousness from Oswald, the CIA agents, Jack Ruby and all the other bit part players in the drama. The labyrinths I mentioned are of information, conspiracy, identity and intention.
It’s a stunning book. I am actually quite haunted by parts of it. As a Sunday Times critic wrote – “This, you feel, is America, and the bad news starts here.” CS Lewis, who wrote about the ‘Inner Ring’ of people more in the know than you are, also died on 22nd November 1963; I’ve often regarded this as ironic.
Read it – it reminds me, for some strange reason, of ‘The Name of the Rose’. I have no idea why.
A final observation…I bought this book in Leeds and started reading it on the evening train back to Sheffield. A young lady opposite asked me what I was reading, and I told her. A young man in a neighbouring seat then looked up and showed what he was reading; The Illuminatus! Trilogy – a novel about an all-encompassing conspiracy. Whether The Curator would forward notes on such a random meeting to Nicholas Branch…who knows.