Dept. of Speculation

Libra (Contemporary American Fiction) BY Don DeLillo. Penguin (Non-Classics). Paperback, 480 pages. $16.

The cover of Libra (Contemporary American Fiction)

OFFICIAL FINDINGS ARE REACHED, then superseded; history is placed at odds with physics, forensics with eyewitness testimony, facts with the interpretation of their significance; 486 frames of 8-millimeter film are both the keyhole through which we peer and confirmation of the door barring any comprehensive view into the event; all of it is washed down with a dose of America’s unique blend of reverence for its institutions and imaginative doubtfulness about government probity: Under such circumstances, the official story about Lee Harvey Oswald’s sole responsibility for the death of John F. Kennedy becomes irrelevant. What is relevant is that there is an official story, and that to deviate from it is therefore to take a fringe position.

For decades, Don DeLillo has consistently asserted that the writer’s imagination should work against the prevailing ideas of order that exist in a state of natural opposition to the fringe; that the writer should be waiting at the margins for those with the unacceptable and disorderly ideas to arrive. That these ideas are frequently unformed, skeletal, without substance or heft, is a given: In DeLillo’s formulation, it’s the writer’s job to explore the archipelago of known things, and the uncharted waters separating them, to question that prevailing story and lend credence to unacknowledged possibilities.

A novel is a slippery representation of the actual, however, never more so than when a novelist appropriates actual events and inevitably takes liberties with them. Consequently, Libra (1988), DeLillo’s novel of Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination, though risky enough as an instance of historical speculation, is even riskier in its ambiguity. Although the book posits a theory of the assassination disturbing enough to have prompted George F. Will to denounce DeLillo for “literary vandalism and bad citizenship” in the Washington Post, Libra’s abiding power to unnerve lies in its eerie portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald as a pure product of America: peripatetic resident of the Bronx, New Orleans, Atsugi, Minsk, and Dallas–Fort Worth and at home nowhere, gung-ho Marine recruit and defector to the USSR, evangelical Communist and FBI informant, deferential and confrontational, disaffected with and solicitous of authority.

DeLillo’s depiction of Oswald as an existential drifter, waiting to be carried off by the tide of history, desiring control but always alert to the thrilling moment “on the edge of no-control,” joins perfectly with the book’s beautifully executed structure—chapters alternate between an account of the evolving CIA conspiracy as it purposefully moves beyond the scope initially envisioned by its architects and a portrayal of Oswald as he meanders from his adolescence in the Bronx toward the day of his burial, two narrative lines traveling at different rates of speed toward their point of convergence, accompanied by a dread sense of inevitability. If the assassination plot is a consummate piece of perfected literary overdetermination, fitting neatly into the gaps of a history that seems to yearn for verification of its meaning, the man who meets his own place in history at the center of the act itself remains the indeterminate cipher, Everyman and Nowhere Man held in perfect balance, an embodiment of the conflict in the national psyche that, as DeLillo put it, “broke the back of the American century.”

Christopher Sorrentino is the author of the novel The Fugitives (Simon & Schuster, 2016).