Michael's Reviews > Libra

Libra by Don DeLillo
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Mar 22, 11

bookshelves: 1001-books-to-read-before-you-die, 5-star-books, read-in-2011
Read from March 04 to 20, 2011

"Facts all come with points of view."
--Talking Heads

I became reasonably convinced that Libra is Don DeLillo's masterpiece about halfway through. After slogging through the first quarter of the novel -- you're introduced to dozens of characters, and they're all revealed to you in that customarily opaque way that any reader of DeLillo will instantly recognize, and the dialogue only takes you so far because DeLillo characters don't talk to each other so much as around each other, and it takes a while to get on solid footing, except you never really get on solid footing with DeLillo, because he forces you to slow down, he writes prose that you can't glide over, and even when you have a handle on what's going on, he throws in a line that comes seemingly from nowhere but feels absolutely essential to your understanding of the novel, so you have little choice but to re-read the page, and so skimming is not an option, and even after all that close reading you STILL aren't given clear portraits of his characters, especially THESE characters, these men who live in the shadows, ruminating, plotting, conspiring, and instead you get to know them only through the sheer accretion of detail, which is all a roundabout way of saying that you have to stick with it because DeLillo assumes you're a patient and knowledgeable reader, and everyone knows what singular event this complicated engine with all its moving parts is chugging toward -- it all suddenly clicked into high gear.

I've been an admirer of DeLillo's for a while, but never before have I been sucked into his world so completely as I did while reading Libra. More focused than the sprawling Underworld (though it does contain that breathtaking prologue) and less zany than White Noise (indeed, this book is as airtight and humorless as they come), this fictionalized account of the Kennedy assassination is a taut, frighteningly plausible re-imagining of the event that "broke the back of the American century." And it seems to me that it's the perfect representation of everything DeLillo is about.

One such DeLillo hallmark on display is that sense of inexorability and dread hanging over every page. The plot to kill Kennedy may have started with a handful of disgruntled agents choosing to go off the reservation, but by November 22, 1963, the event seems almost preordained. And in DeLillo's version of Oswald, a treatment so sympathetic it led George Will to call it "an act of bad citizenship," you have a terrifically complex character, someone who believed he existed to shape history, but in truth, was someone shaped entirely BY history. Consider how after the assassination, Lee Oswald instantly and irreversibly becomes Lee Harvey Oswald, a name change so jarring that his mother no longer recognizes him as her son, but as a media creation forced into action by outside, alien forces.

For a while I played the game that I'm sure most readers played (especially now that it's so easy to do), firing up the Internet and comparing what's real versus what DeLillo conjured up. But at some point I stopped, because it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter whether Win Everett and Larry Parmenter are less real than David Ferrie, or if Lee Oswald really said and thought those things while in Minsk, or if Jack Ruby really was commissioned by the Mafia to take Oswald out. To read this book and assume you've read what DeLillo believes happened is short-selling the novel. The lasting image for me is of DeLillo's stand-in Nicholas Branch, the semi-retired CIA agent being asked to write the secret history of the assassination, alone in his study with mountains upon mountains of material, all the minutiae and trivia and arcana given to him by some unknown, god-like Curator. There is no making sense of all that documentation, but because it is documented, because we have Oswald's pubic hair and Jack Ruby's mother's dental records, and every single frame of the Zapruder film noted and memorized, it assumes there should be sense to make, that if you crawl deep enough into the rabbit hole you will emerge with a coherent narrative. And the joke is that of course you won't. Libra may come off as deadly serious, but it sells that dark joke for all it's worth.
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03/08/2011 page 102
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Paul Bryant Very lovely review, which I agree with every word of.


message 2: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Pagan-Gladfly Paul wrote: "Very lovely review, which I agree with every word of."
I agree with every word of Paul's comment.
As an aside, I wonder whether your experience of DeLillo is shaped or affected by which of his novels you read first.
I started with "The Names" and I've been hooked ever since, even if sometimes I feel I have to forgive the occasional lapse.


Michael Ian,

I started with White Noise, assigned to me in college, and I remember buying into the satire completely. Every other DeLillo novel I've read (I think "Libra" is the fourth) comes after WN, though I've heard his pre-WN books are livelier and more straight-up funny.


message 4: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Pagan-Gladfly Michael wrote: "I've heard his pre-WN books are livelier and more straight-up funny."

That's probably right. They're not as highly strung or dense with meaning.
You don't have to be on your mental tippy-toes the whole time you read them.


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