LIBRA BY DON DELILLO

I’ve always thought the idea of political paranoia [or conspiracy-theory, if you prefer] absurd, which is not to say that I don’t think it exists.Your government* is out to get you! Will do anything [aaaaanything] it considers in its own interests! Will stop at nothing [naaaathing] to cover up the mess they make! Yeah, and? Paranoia is a word that suggests a lack of reason, a looking over your shoulder, a constant vigilance or ultra-awareness; a paranoiac is someone prey to visions, ghouls, and monsters in the closet and under the bed; and, well, all that, the suggestion that to your government you are at best little more than currency and at worst an easily expendable nuisance, that your government would quite happily throw you or anyone else off a cliff to further their own projects, seems self-evident to me, natural almost, certainly undeniable. Paranoia? Whatever, dude. It’s not paranoia when the evidence is so compelling.

Recently there has been a high-profile case in the UK involving  an ex-undercover agent. This man claims that he was asked, by the government, to dig for dirt on the family of an entirely innocent murdered black teenager who had been the victim of a racist attack. To what end, you might ask? Well, to discredit them [the family] of course, to turn public opinion against them if necessary, to sow seeds of doubt if such seeds are needed at any time. While they may not need it, this potential dirt-information is worth having in reserve if one should want to quell public passions, because, y’know, the death or murder of an innocent person, or the reputation and grief of their family, pales in comparison with the interests and standing of your democratically elected leaders and the faceless people behind them and working for them. Was I shocked by these revelations? Outraged? No. I’d expect nothing less. So the idea that a government, or shadowy forces within a government, might participate in, or arrange the assassination of a president, or that it/they would allow a plot to proceed, sanction it almost, and then help to cover it up are not things I have trouble believing. My hard-earned cynicism is at such a pitch that I would be surprised if this hadn’t happened at some point or other; indeed, I consider governmental forces to be capable of much much worse.

6.9 seconds of heat and light is how Don Delillo describes it. The murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th president of the United States of America. A man whose life and death is so fabled, so subject to mystery and conjecture that it’s easy to forget that he was flesh and blood and bones [it slips one’s mind even while one watches grainy footage of this flesh and blood and bone seemingly spontaneously explode; yes, I have, shamefully, seen the Zapruder film too, a film that I consider, by the way, to be the birth of the 21st century]. But this book, Libra, isn’t really about John Kennedy, nor, really, is it about Lee Harvey Oswald. Is it about the end of innocence, the moment the world, or America at least, woke up? You could say that; It’s certainly a convenient, albeit arbitrary, event to point to as some kind of watershed moment in the collective human consciousness, a moment when the scales fell from the eyes, when shit got real. Yet, while it’s true that a high percentage of Americans at the time thought there was more than one gunman, that there had been some kind of cover-up, the problem with being awake is that it is, ironically, tiring, that eventually you’ll need a rest, want to go back to sleep; and so I would say our awareness, and understanding, of what goes on, the workings of the political machine, the state, in our own countries and in others, is as bad as it has ever been. So, what, really, is the book about for me? It’s about the darkness at the centre of the human heart, about power and greed and manipulation; it is about dislocation, alienation, despair and fear.

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You’ll have your own ideas, I’m sure, your own favourite theories, about what happened in Dallas Texas at 12:30pm on Friday November 22nd 1963. The most popular theories appear to centre around organised crime, Teamsters, or the CIA. Delillo takes all of those and cooks up a complex noirish thriller with two dominant strands, the life of Lee Harvey Oswald and a plot by disgruntled CIA agents [and associates] to wound the president in order to justify and bring about the forceful reclaiming of Cuba. The structure of the novel resembles a V, with Oswald and the CIA men etc starting at two opposing points only to slowly converge, to close on each other until the fateful, fatal, finale. If you’ve seen the TV show 24 then you’ll pretty much know what to expect of this novel, which ramps up the tension in a similar way [only this time there is no Keifer, no hero, no one to foil the plot]. Delillo often uses dates as his chapter titles, and so readers will find themselves counting down to kick-off, in full knowledge that the awful, inevitable moment is getting closer as you turn each page. It’s a neat trick.

While the plotting, structure, and detail is almost faultless, the real selling point is Delillo’s pugnacious prose. I’d read one of his novels prior to this, White Noise, which I thought was fun enough but a bit of a mess [the final third of that book spoiling my impressions of the whole thing by being just too silly]. But even at its best I never got the impression from that novel that Delillo was/is a great writer, or capable of great writing. His writing is great here; it’s heartfelt and atmospheric, hard and yet dreamy, and never resorts to cliche or melodrama [there was one moment, a paragraph, where I cringed, which was, predictably enough, a sex scene]. I could pick out stacks of lines or passages in order to illustrate how impressive the writing is, something from every page even, but, as I’m obviously not going to do that, here are three chosen at random:

There’s always more to it. This is what history consists of. It is the sum total of the things they aren’t telling us.

The truth of the world is exhausting.

If the world is where we hide from ourselves, what do we do when the world is no longer accessible? We invent a false name, invent a destiny, purchase a firearm through the mail.

There are, however, a few minor issues, or missteps [not quite boom moments], that it would be remiss of me not to mention. Firstly, a small part of the novel is given over to Branch, a man writing a report, or conducting an investigation, into the assassination; he is a man over-burdened by data, swamped by documents, unable to tease out the important information, wondering how all of the evidence and information he has to hand is relevant or how it fits in [Oswald’s pubic hair is one piece of evidence]. As a point about unravelling history, about how the truth is a cloud of blue smoke on a windy day, it is well done and interesting. Branch sees in all this data America itself, it is, he claims, the Joycean book of America, and that is very nice idea too. But this strand of the book feels unnecessary, tacked on. Delillo needed to develop it, make it a larger, more important, part of the story for it to work. You completely forget about Branch’s existence for the most part; indeed, 300 pages in and he had reared his head only three times, on each occasion with no more than a page dedicated to him.

What else? I praised Delillo’s prose earlier, and stand by that wholeheartedly. Yet, it is also undeniable that it has its flaws, mainly in relation to character. I’ve read a few times that the characterisation in Libra is excellent, especially Oswald. I don’t quite get that, because Delillo’s characters all pretty much think and speak in the same way. The most passionate politically motivated books tend to be like that, it’s almost as though the author takes over or dominates, is always a recognisable and strong presence; it is their vision, their need to get this stuff out of themselves. American Pastoral by Philip Roth is like that too; it is Roth’s book more than it is Zuckerman’s or Swede Levov’s, just like this is Deilllo’s not Branch’s or Oswald’s. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with that, not here and not in American Pastoral, because the passion and the momentum is hypnotic, exhilarating.

*I should point out that I use the term government in the broadest sense. Maybe everyone reading this intuitively knows what I mean, but, at least here in the UK, for many people it seems to put them in mind of a supreme leader and a handful of their most trusted and important minions. I don’t mean that, I mean all government employees; the machine is possibly a better phrase, but it’s ambiguous to say the least.

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