Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Books 'n Books: Don DeLillo's Libra

Libra is a take on the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, a gratuitous weaving of fact and fiction, of characters imagined and real. As a whole, the work is seamless, creating out of Oswald an intricate tapestry of a man, episodic in its treatment of his life as the penultimate example of coincidence colliding with cause-and-effect, the divine intervention of fate into the nature-vs.-nurture argument.

Reputedly, DeLillo consumed the entire Warren Report as part of the process of the novel's creation, a massive tome that aided his construction of Oswald's literary character, which is as diverse as any real-life man's should be; alternatively pensive, kind, abusive, loquacious, silent, fatherly, asexual, and so on forever. Particularly effective in the novel is DeLillo's portrayal of Oswald's time in Russia, which, in the book, seems to be the true turning point for his character, the paranoia which plagues him from childhood on finally grasping onto true holds upon his return to America.

Once in America, Oswald's perceptions of Russia bend, and after constant surveillance and interference in his life by the FBI and CIA, he seems to forget why he left (the boring routine of work and life, a stability which he has never known), and begins to contemplate a return to Russia, or, at the very least, a return to Marxism by way of Cuba. Despite his efforts (letters written on behalf of his Russian wife and child; attempts to gain entry to Cuba through Mexico), he fails miserably, not even seeming to scratch the vast wall of bureaucracy that stands in both the USSR and USA.

During this extended sequence of alienization from all he knows (losing jobs, breaking contact with his mother, living alone in boarding houses), he becomes enveloped in a web of conspiracy that, unbeknownst to him, has already created his place in history: the one who would take the fall for the Kennedy assassination attempt. His attempts to deny this place are half-hearted at best (in the vein of most of his actions directed towards anything; job-keeping, deciding which system he wants to live in, even his own muted acceptance of clownish-father-figure David Ferrie's lazed sexual assault); and indeed, are softened by his increasing desire to have a name, and be known for it.

After a breakneck, episodic vision of the assassination sequence, DeLillo places you in the cell with Oswald, who has more peace of mind here than anywhere else throughout his life. Even after he is shot by Ruby (again; a club-owner, in serious debt, caught up in a sequence of events over his head) his mind is clear as Russia seen from a U-2, which is his final vision. In the closing scene we see his mother, mourning, her only solace that her son will be known by name, a strangely morbid fascination that hearkens back to the creation of Oswald the man.

Overall, a compelling blend of fiction and reality, far different in the singular, crushing eventuality of its vision than its closest cultural counterpart, Oliver Stone's louder, multi-conspiratorial JFK.

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