by Don DeLillo
Viking, 456 pp., $19.95
Though he is yet to write a work as prodigious as Gravity’s Rainbow or as sensational as An American Dream, Don DeLillo has, with nine novels to his credit, supplanted both Pynchon and Mailer as chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction. Beginning as a fantasist, he has moved stealthily toward realism while retaining a dark and at times prophetic vision of occult conspiracies and correspondences and technology-gone-mad. As far back as 1977 he “foretold,” in the cinematic novel Running Dog, the development of lawless outgrowths of the intelligence community—covert organizations that cancerously infiltrate the tissues of the body politic, breaking down the boundaries between governmental policy and private enterprise, amassing wealth or dealing out death with impunity. The weapons-obsessed leader of the organization called PAC-ORD in that novel will suggest the arms dealer Edwin Wilson to some readers, General Secord to others. Death becomes a cultish preoccupation in Running Dog, and in DeLillo’s subsequent novels, The Names and White Noise, it is presented as the central object of worship in a shrine festooned with the trappings of Nazism, pornography, and international terrorism, and humming with a myriad electronic devices. The ultimate cataclysm, whether toxic or nuclear, is not far off.
In Libra DeLillo turns back a quarter-century to the double event that fixed death most intimately in the collective consciousness of America: the assassination of John Kennedy and the incessant replay, on TV, of the murder of his assassin. Lee Harvey Oswald’s death was also the event that gave rise to the most feverish outburst of conspiracy speculation in American history, far exceeding that following the death of Lincoln. In this exceptionally interesting novel, which uses real names and repeatedly anchors itself in recorded fact, DeLillo imaginatively traces the lines of force converging to produce those echoing shots that “broke the back of the American century.”
In a note at the end, DeLillo insists that Libra (the title refers to the astrological sign under which Lee Harvey Oswald was born) is a work of imagination that aspires “to fill some of the blank spaces in the known record. To do this, I’ve altered and embellished reality, extended real people into imagined space and time, invented incidents, dialogues, and characters.” DeLillo has, then, written a historical novel that ideally one should be able to approach as one does Ivanhoe or I, Claudius—with a degree of aesthetic detachment and without excessive concern for historicity so long as the “feel” of the period is communicated and blatant anachronisms are avoided. But here, the events narrated are too recent, too awful, too raw. Readers over thirty-five will remember not only the major events narrated but their own reactions and thoughts concerning them. Some will want to compare DeLillo’s fictional account with the other countless published speculations, and that way madness lies, as well as contamination of the critical process.
For those who have followed different conspiracy theories of the assassination I will only say …