throwing down some more on the scales — further notes on Don Delillo’s Libra

Delillo’s writing is hard for me to get my head around. like, i dont know what precisely im making out of it, but i do know im enjoying myself a great deal. Underworld is looming in the back of my mind along with all the other tantalizing USen contemporary pomo bricks, namely Infinite Jest, The Instructions, Against the Day, and William Gaddis. They are such tempting monsters and i want to get through them someday. eventually. massive length, be it pages or running time, is really fascinating to me. I like the way one text known for its marathon length will influence people’s notions of the rest of the author’s work. Folx who know about Seven Samurai‘s epic 3.5 hours fear than any given Kurosawa flick will be a bladder-buster. Likewise, when i told a relative i was digging through some novels by Delillothey immediately imagined, because of Underworld, a pair of tomes of some 5,000 pages each. in actuality both Mao II and Libra are quite lean.

another thing im aware of with these novels: im starting to forget them already. this is an observation confirmed by other folx in the online communities in which i lurk. Bill Gray and company in Mao II is already slipping away, whereas i read Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay last summer and those characters are vividly and fondly remembered. this forget-ability is not necessarily a complaint. Libra is definitely eliding certain narrative pleasures (such as stable individuals with realistic psychology) as part of a really careful consideration of history, our reaction to it, and the processes of interpretation.

so Mao II and Libra were both really cerebral experiences. but that kind of approach doesn’t any means entail hard-to-remember characters, as A.S. Byatt would sufficiently prove. i guess what im saying is that this “forget ability” is a valid strategy for a self-reflexive project on the limits of understanding a life or historiography

As i mentioned earlier, Libra has a crosscutting structure between Lee H. Oswald’s life and the machinations of CIA officials, mob members, and other strange types planning a hit on JFK which could lead to a war with “little” Cuba, cementing the interests of private investors. The chapters dealing with Oswald are named after the location he’s in at the time (the sequence on his experiences as a marine in Atsugi Japan are harrowing), and the conspiracy chapters are titled by a month and day, leading irrevocably to November 22.

the structure is a little more interesting than this. what im calling the conspiracy chapters limit themselves to the action of one day, but not of the same year. There’s a third story line that is marginal in terms of the space it takes up, but it does a lot of thematic lifting. it concerns a dude named Nicholas Branch who, presumably some decades after 1963, is tasked with compiling an authoritative secret history on the assassination. he’s locked up in a room and provided with endless materials from “the Curator.” despite the horrors of being consumed by an endless archive and by the assassination itself, it does seem like a cushy gig.

Delillo employs a crazy-quilt style in which conceptual motifs loop through every paragraph in bite-size clauses. off the top of my head are Lee’s multiple fake names and aliases that reflect his dyslexia. “Hidell” is one such name, which harbors hide, hell, die, and others. there’s testimony from Lee’s mother, presented without quotation marks. these are peppered amongst more traditional dialog scenes; the effect is something like representing the gathering of disparate material rather than a cogent narrative line. it sustains the often overwhelming chaos of the archive — how in the hell can we make sense out of all of this? how can we refuse?

in all the time you spend with Oswald, Delillo’s narration maintains such a critical distance that i neither pity no root for nor hate the guy. he’s naive to be sure, and arrogant, and easily manipulated. maybe there is a muted version of the “male hysterial” (or perhaps histeria) narrative, so that it’s not so much a howling violent d00d who feels disenfranchised from the patriarchy’s promises, but a twerpy cis het white kid who is conscious of the cliches of manhood and wishes to embody them. the stuff that really puzzles, however, is the archive of himself that he constructs, deliberately left for the authorities to figure out. the fake IDs, order receipts, travels to Mexico; all are clues to misdirect anyone who wants to find out who the man who allegedly killed Kennedy really was. all this is to say, at the risk of repeating a cliche, that the man too is an open text.

Amy Elias’s book (i did not do justice to her work in that blurb i typed) on metahistorical romance novels quotes Lance Olsen in identifying Libra as a “postmodernist Janus text”. that is, one “face” is regarding what history is, and we can call that face postmodernist in sensibility. the other face is modernist, and looks inward, asking how a person can imagine themselves within history. (not that these theoretical labels should be taken all that seriously or anything). As real-life historical figure David Ferrie puts it to Oswald in a conversation in a car, in the typical elevated discourse of Delillo’s characters:

There’s something else that’s generating this event. A pattern outside experience. Something that JERKS you out of the spin of history. I think you’ve had it backwards all this time. You wanted to enter history. Wrong approach, Leon [another alias]. What you really want is out. Get out. Jump out. Find your place and your name on another level.

we get it by now: history is chaos, the Enlightenment imposition of order and mastery is a ruse. yet in all of the novel’s scatter-shot presentation there’s still JFK’s motorcade barreling down Dealey Plaza; there’s still a certain sense of inevitable tragedy. Mao II also has a looming threat of termination, even without explicit historical knowledge of what is to come. in that case, the reader is aware of the argument put forward by Bill that terrorists and the mass media they exploit are doing more to shape public consciousness and policy than writers could ever hope to do. so you know the characters that represent the old regime are in for it. Libra shows us the events leading up to what remains an unresolved moment of violence; the arguable domestic climax of the cold war, and does so in such a skillful way. and yet the truth of history, the mastery of the facts that we want so badly, slips through our fingers. quite an achievement of writing!

One more discrete bit before i move on to the excerpt. Bobby Dupard is friends with Lee from their time in the army, specifically the Marine brig in Atsugi. He is a black man and he’s working at the coin laundromat in Dallas when they reunite, and together the two talk about race. Some great lines from Bobby:

I believe the whole system works to make the black man humble down. Follow the penny hustle, drink the cheap wine. This is what they got planned out for us. I’ll tell you where I’m at, Ozzie. When I read crime news in the paper, I look at the names to figure out was the perpetrator black or white. Some names just black. I check them ever close. I say, Go brother. Say, Do it to them. Because what edge do we have asides hating?

This short scene that im excerpting happens really late in the novel, where Lee is hanging out at the house of some bourgeois friends of Marina, a woman Lee married while defecting in Russia. it showcases some stuff Delillo likes to do, namely loads of paranoia and having characters encounter other texts (movies, art works, Mao II is named after the Warhol piece). The process of interpretation is foregrounded, which probably contributes to the distance between the reader and the story. but where else can you find this kind of investigation, and in such well-crafted and accessible language?


Libra by Don Delillo

Lee sat in the dining room at the Paine house, wondering where the women had sneaked off to. Then Marina and Ruth walked in carrying a cake and singing “Happy Birthday.” He was taken by surprise. It was a shock. He laughed and cried. Twenty-four.

He stayed over that night, a Friday, and the next evening he sat on the floor watching a double feature on TV, with marina curled up next to him, her head in his lap.

The first movie was Suddenly. Frank Sinatra is a combat veteran who comes to a small town and takes over a house that overlooks the railroad depot. He is here to assassinate the President. Lee felt a stillness around him. He had an eerie sense he was being watched for his reaction. The President is scheduled to arrive by train later in the day. He is going fishing in a river in the mountains. Lee could tell the movie was made in the fifties from the cars and hairstyles, which meant the President was Eisenhower, although no one said his name. He felt connected to the evens on the screen. It was like secret instructions entering the network of signals and broadcast bands, the whole busy air of transmission. Marina was asleep. They were running a message through the night into his skin. Frank Sinatra sets up a high-powered rifle in the window and waits for the train to arrive. Lee knew he would fail. It was, in the end, a movie. They had to fix it so he failed and died.

Then he watched We Were Strangers. John Garfield is an American revolution in Cuba in the 1930s. He plots to assassinate the dictator and blow up his entire Cabinet. Lee knew this was the period of the iron rule of Machado, known as the President of a Thousand Murders. The streets were dark. The house was dark except for the flickering screen. An old scratchy film that carried his dreams. Perfection of rage, perfection of control, the fantasy of night. John Garfield and his recruits dig a tunnel under a cemetery. Lee felt he was in the middle of his own movie. They were running this thing just for him. He didn’t have to make the picture come and go. IT happened on its own in the shaky light, with a strand of hair trembling in a corner of the frame. John Garfield dies a hero. He has to die. This is what feeds a revolution.

Lee sat there after the movie ended, with loud late-night commercials coming one after another, fast-talking men demonstrating blenders, demonstrating miracle shampoo, and Marina next to him, asleep, softly breathing.

It wasn’t only movies that made him feel a strangeness in the air. It was the time of year. October was his birthday. It was the month he enlisted in the Marines. He shot himself in the arm, in Japan, in October. October and November were times of decision and grave event. He arrived in Russia in October. It was the month he tried to kill himself. He’d last seen his mother one year ago October. October was the missile crisis. Marina left him and returned last November. November was the month he’d decided with Dupard to take a shot at General Walker. He’d last seen his brother Robert in November.

Brothers named Robert.

He got Marina settled in bed, then sat next to her and murmured serious baby talk to help her fall asleep again. He felt the power of her stillness, a woman’s ardor and trust, and of the child she carried. He would start saving right away for a washing machine and car. They’d get an apartment with a balcony, their own furniture for a change, modern pieces, sleek and clean. These are standard ways to stop being lonely.

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