After publishing Libra (1988), his novelistic account of the events leading up to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Don DeLillo was accused by George Will of being "a bad citizen" for deliberately confusing fiction and history.(1) Will is frequently employed as a straw man by sympathetic readers of the novel who generally praise DeLillo for exactly what Will laments. Yet Will would no doubt agree with critics who say that Libra "refuses the satisfactions of narrative, the belief in language as a source of knowledge above historical reality," or that it communicates "an essentially unrepresentable multiplicity whose every manifestation is entangled with conflicting versions and contaminated physical evidence."(2) If Will worries that DeLillo's fiction might replace an already established true history, many of DeLillo's critics versed in the nuances of postmodern theory commend DeLillo for demonstrating the impossibility of writing a traditionally convincing narrative at all. Whether praising the novel or trying to bury it, to suggest that DeLillo denies the possibility of writing either fiction or history is to misunderstand what Libra has to say about the interrelation between the two forms. Neither separating history from fiction nor denying the efficacy of narrative, DeLillo understands that history is never a single fact or a single bullet but an ordering of reality that in its very order is inherently an act of the imagination. If DeLillo is certainly not trying to present the "true" history of the assassination in the sense that he will at last uncover what actually happened, then Libra achieves its power by creating rather than discovering history. As we shall see, the novel that DeLillo once considered naming Texas Schoolbook is not providing a history lesson by giving the lie to history, but is making truth out of fiction.
In his essay on what might be called the reception history of the assassination-as-text, "American Blood," DeLillo reflects on the difficulty of coming to any kind of agreeable truth about the events of 22 November 1963, since "every small detail and circumstance in the Dallas labyrinth is not only open to multiple interpretations but seems to invite elaborate embellishment."(3) Peter Knight argues that DeLillo's portrayal of this cultural phenomenon, an exercise in cultural paranoia, "is ultimately experienced as a loss of consciousness, a fall into a postmodern sense of epistemological--and social--fragmentation."(4) In the case of the Kennedy assassination, this fragmentation is expressed not only as skepticism about whether a true history of the event can be written, but as an occasion for constructing alternative historical narratives. To most readers, Libra is emblematic of how late-twentieth-century Americans are connected through their understanding of how all acts of history and culture have become textualized. As conspiracy theories about 22 November 1963 proliferate, the assassination becomes an occasion for inventing different stories of origin. Another way of saying this is that history becomes routinely understood as a form of fiction.(5) If for DeLillo the Kennedy assassination marks the point at which Americans began to express a postmodern refusal to believe metanarratives, then that incredulity is the shared context in which we now understand and write both history and fiction.(6)
As if to avoid any confusion about whether he has written fiction or history, in his postscript to Libra, DeLillo expressly identifies his narrative as "a work of the imagination. While drawing from the historical record, I've made no attempt to furnish factual answers to any question raised by the assassination."(7) Although this gesture seems merely to replace history with fiction, DeLillo actually calls attention to the recognition that "facts" only have meaning when put into service of a particular narrative. Hayden White has spoken of a general "reluctance to consider historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences."(8) Critics frequently point to the relevance of postmodern theorists such as White or Linda Hutcheon in connection with DeLillo's work and discuss the novel as if it were a confirmation of these theorists' arguments about history, but the truth is that Libra goes beyond theorizing about the contingent status of historical narratives by virtue of foregrounding its status as a fiction.(9) To be sure, DeLillo's work is what Hutcheon would call a "historiographic metafiction," but it takes for granted that all narratives, whether labeled truth or fiction, are partial reconstructions of a loosely agreed set of events that have no claim for truth other than the persuasiveness of their own telling.(10) As a novel, Libra betrays no reluctance to consider historical narrative as a verbal fiction and in a way shows how beside the point such arguments can seem.
What has been perhaps insufficiently emphasized in discussions about this novel is that DeLillo is interested in exploring the contingency of truth, not the contingency of narrative. Libra's power largely derives from DeLillo's recognition that all narratives are, in a sense, fiction, and are the only means we have for making truth, or, more precisely, truths. DeLillo thus describes Libra as an attempt "to drive through common memory and common history to fiction."(11) In other words, DeLillo's "historiographic metafiction" includes as a part of its aesthetic the textualized--one almost wants to say compromised--sense of history that has come to characterize postmodernity. Experiencing "truth" as contingent and therefore contradictory only reinforces our desire to find narratives sufficiently persuasive to compel our belief in them. If anything, as DeLillo's postscript suggests, Libra takes shape out of an almost old-fashioned modernist's desire to create through art a world through which we may comprehend our own. When DeLillo speaks of a "common memory and common history" it is one in which we agree that the fact of Kennedy's death is what makes these paranoid memories possible. What we share is not exactly ignorance but an inability to agree upon any determinate set of facts that can tell us the true story that results in the assassination. To DeLillo, our shared sense that history has become indeterminable points to how powerful the novelist is or can be. Rather than seeing this shared sense of indeterminacy as the cause for despair, DeLillo recognizes it as a creative opportunity: to rewrite the Kennedy assassination as if it were his own authorial invention.
In re-plotting the Kennedy assassination through the form of a novel, DeLillo implicitly defines his position as an author in relationship to both Lee Harvey Oswald, the would-be author of the event, and the conspiracy theorists who have attempted retrospectively to claim authorship of the event. Thus, the novel concerns not only our suspicion that history has become a text made up of rival and often secret plots but DeLillo's own conception of himself as an author whose fiction is created as a consequence of this suspicion. When asked by Anthony DeCurtis if "he could have invented [the Kennedy assassination] if it hadn't happened," DeLillo responded that "maybe it invented me" (285). His first novel, Americana (1971), describes a cross-country ramble that ended with the narrator-protagonist, David Bell, driving through Dealey Plaza blowing his car horn as he recreates Kennedy's last ride. In novels such as Great Jones Street (1973) and Running Dog (1978), DeLillo constructs plots that revolve around the circulation and distribution of secret-bearing media materials analogous to the Zapruder film. In Underworld (1997), DeLillo stages a secret screening of the Zapruder film.(12) In Libra, DeLillo designates the Kennedy assassination as the originary moment of his conception of himself as an author when he has Nicholas Branch call the Warren Commission Report "the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he'd moved to Iowa City and lived to be hundred" (181). DeLillo intimates that telling the story of the Kennedy assassination properly would require a writer of Joyce's imagination and mastery. DeLillo's allusion to Joyce reveals the extent to which he remains attached to the traditional modernist ideal of the writer who can master the universe he writes. As significantly, he reaches for Joyce to contextualize the many theories about the assassination to suggest his sense that the complicated, involuted narratives of the great modernists have become in effect our daily narrative bread.
Libra's narrative stance, for example, contrasts sharply with Norman Mailer's historical biography Oswald's Tale (1995), a work that tries to unlock the one true secret to the assassination through an account of Oswald's life. Like Gerald Posner's Case Closed (1993), Mailer constructs a linear narrative that seeks to close the case by presenting a single individual's perspective on the event.(13) DeLillo by contrast invokes biography only to undermine its narrative plausibility. Libra's biographical chapters on Oswald alternate with ones that describe various conspiracy plots in which Oswald is an unknowing--and helpless--agent. While the reader may at times feel as helpless to understand what transpired as Oswald did after he fired the bullet, DeLillo also knows that, because of our access to these other media, we can construct versions of Oswald's history that would have been unimaginable to him. Hence, while these other narratives hold out the possibility of understanding both Oswald and the event more authoritatively, they also highlight the impossibility of being able to know the event through the eyes of a single actor. Because DeLillo invents his historical narrative through its presentation of multiple (and multiplying) narrative possibilities, it is ironically more creditable as a historical narrative than Mailer's seemingly more objective one. Again, this is not to pretend that DeLillo's novel is history but to suggest that, by foregrounding the necessary but perhaps productive contingency of history, he makes his fiction creditable.
Libra demonstrates, in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, why the kinds of histories that Mailer or Posner write no longer seem authentic or definitive. DeLillo dramatizes how traditional understandings of history and fiction have become not so much polarized as reversed. In the world of Libra, governmental agencies such as the CIA exist primarily to invent and distribute different narratives. DeLillo's CIA is in a sense only a collection of narrative possibilities. CIA operative Lawrence Parmenter says that one can "see the Agency in a way that has nothing to do with jobs or institutions or governments." The Agency views individuals in terms of their capacity to make new fictions, thus it is "always willing to consider a man in a new light" (259). Working from the assumption that "the deeper the ambiguity, the more we believe," the narratives the CIA constructs always assume "there is another level, another secret, a way in which the heart breeds a deception so mysterious and complex it can only be taken for a deeper kind of truth" (260). DeLillo and the Agency both prize intricate narratives that highlight their contingent status. The agents involved in the construction of these narratives do not expect to create an ultimate truth as much as multiply possible truths in order to achieve a particular narrative end. For the CIA, the tendency of a narrative to deconstruct or be deconstructed only means that as intentions change so can stories and even agents in them. For DeLillo, this narrative tendency becomes an end unto itself insofar as it reveals the capacity of the U.S. Government to transform the indeterminacy of historical narrative into insidious cultural and political games.(14)
When another CIA operative, Win Everett, devises a plot meant to result in the near assassination of Kennedy and the real assassination of Castro, he structures the plan so that its full ambiguity will be registered. "He would not consider the plan a success if the uncovering of its successive layers did not reveal the CIA's schemes, his own schemes in some case, to assassinate Fidel Castro. This was the little surprise he was keeping for the end. It was his personal contribution to an informed public." By the time DeLillo writes Libra, what was to be "the major subtext and moral lesson of Win Everett's plan" has become the accepted public perception of how the United States government operates (53). In retrospect, the confusion that surrounds the Kennedy assassination seems like a foreshadowing of Watergate, Iran-Contra, or the recent Branch Davidian debacle in Waco. It is tempting to say that Everett mirrors DeLillo's authorial stance in this scene, except that DeLillo usurps Everett's goal as his own. Thus, by the end of Libra we see how Everett's plot breaks down and fails of its original intention and, instead of achieving its moral lesson, it merely results in the unintended deaths of Kennedy and Oswald. DeLillo shows how dangerous making plots can be in a world of contingent truths. As a novelist rather than a mere plotter, though, DeLillo has an advantage over both conspiracy theorists and historians in search of the "true": his narrative can move backward from the conspiracy theories to the assassination itself. That is, DeLillo's narrative, Libra, ends where all the other narratives must begin.
By placing Oswald within a context broader than his own perception of events, DeLillo represents the inevitable contingency of historical narrative through Oswald's inability to merge with the linear history he envisions for himself. Win Everett invents a plausible conspiracy plot that might explain and even justify Oswald's "real-life" claim that he was but a "patsy." Hoping to reopen the covert war on Cuba by staging a fake assassination of Kennedy, Everett's plan depends on finding an assassin to be the "patsy" of the operation--someone on whom the fiasco can be blamed but who does not know the role he is acting out. Everett "would put someone together, build an identity, a skein of persuasion and habit, ever so subtle"; "His gunman would appear behind a strip of scenic gauze. You have to leave them with coincidence, lingering mystery. This is what makes it real" (78, 147). As if on cue, Oswald walks right into the plot. The irony is that DeLillo's Oswald will never know that he cannot kill Kennedy without Win Everett's assistance but neither can Everett construct a historical narrative that is not subject to textual intervention by others. Everett's plot is enmeshed with those of T. J. Mackey, David Ferrie, George von Mohrenschildt, Guy Bannister, Konno, the FBI, the CIA, and even the KGB. Seeking "the bodily frame [he] might use to extend [his] fiction out into the world," Everett finds that the world responds with counterfictions. He becomes the author of plots he never intended.
Everett experiences his own plot both as a thrill and a threat. His plan calls for the assassination to be staged when the President visits Miami, a hotbed of Cuban nationalism. The "scenic gauze" of Everett's faked plot intersects with other plots he did not script when Kennedy's travel plans change precisely because of leaked news of other reported assassination plots. Again, reading the assassination through the paranoia that separates the events of 22 November 1963 from our historical reconstruction of it, DeLillo portrays the time leading up to the event as already saturated with conspiracy narratives. The irony for Everett is that, as the plotted event takes on a logic independent of his original conception, the story still maintains its original trajectory. Thus, the revised travel plans will bring Kennedy to Dallas, which happens to be the area where Everett lives and from which he launched the plot.(15) As Everett himself thinks at one point, a given plot seems invariably to return to the plotter. Along with pointing to the integral relationship that exists between plot and plotter, this coincidence suggests that the plot must eventually overwhelm the plotter. While Mailer and Posner recognize this inevitability only by forcing their histories to fit their theses, DeLillo, by contrast, suggests that history in effect invents the historian. The history one tells is always a form of self-invention. Thus, concealing this relationship from one's narrative perspective is what makes one's historical narrative suspect. Everett comes to this conclusion as well when he realizes that Oswald in his own person projects a living reality that more than completes the implied identity that Everett wants to invent for him. It is not that Oswald does not fit his plot; rather, he fits it too perfectly. If one can say that Everett in some sense calls Oswald into existence, it is only because Oswald invents the hero of Everett's plot before Everett imagines him.
In ascribing to DeLillo the role of historian, critics often suggest that DeLillo represents the untenability of his own position as novelist through the figure of Nicholas Branch. Paul Civello, for instance, notes that Branch "comes to represent the impossibility of the objective observer and, by extension, of the experimental novelist."(16) Another CIA agent, Branch is assigned the task of writing a secret history of the assassination. He is unable to do so, however, because he cannot devise an authorial perspective able to negotiate the ambiguity--the proliferation of conflicting stories and facts--that the event has summoned forth. Branch is overwhelmed with narrative possibility: he cannot assimilate the various histories, films, medical examinations, and situation re-enactments into a coherent story. He cannot write "because the data keeps coming in. Because new lives enter the record all the time. The past is changing as he writes" (301). As Branch's emphasis on terms such as "data," "record," and "past" should suggest, he does not resemble the novelist so much as the historian doomed to seek closure to the assassination. If Branch is paralyzed by the sense of proliferating information the event seems to generate, DeLillo is not because, as a novelist, he is able to invent his history precisely because he is not subject to the same narrative assumptions. Ironically, DeLillo's fiction gains a purchase on the assassination precisely because it surrenders claims to historical veracity.
DeLillo puts our understanding of history and its relation to fiction under scrutiny through his presentation of characters obliged always to act in accordance with his own definition of what "history" means and therefore to question what being in history means. For instance, when Oswald considers the examples of famous historical figures such as Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, he thinks that "history was a force to these men, a presence in the room" (34). Guy Bannister suggests a similar understanding when he tells Mackey, "I deeply believe there are forces in the air that compel men to act. Call it history or necessity or anything you like" (68). The sense of being compelled to act by some greater force is what makes Oswald think that "history means to merge. The purpose of history is to climb out of your own skin" (101). Hence, Oswald decides that "the only end to isolation was to reach the point where he was no longer separated from the true struggles that went on around him. The name we give to this point is history." Contrasting with the belief that history is a force that sweeps one away is the conviction, shared by Everett's men, that "history was in their care" (127). If history is something that can be possessed, it can be carried out according to one's desire. Applied either to Oswald or the conspiracy that surrounds him, the implication is that the complexity of forces in which one acts becomes one's own invention. By whichever definition, the purpose that "history" serves is to link an actor with a plot.
Both views share the understanding that history is a living force that legitimates human actions by giving them meaning. David Ferrie, however, proposes a somewhat alternative view when he suggests to Oswald that history is fated but not plotted, agentless. Like the Greeks who looked to the heavens to name their dread, Ferrie looks to the stars to explain the various plots that have absorbed Oswald's desire. Ferrie identifies Oswald by his astrological sign, Libra, whose key symbol is that of "the Scales" (315). Ferrie's friend, Clay Shaw, explains that there is a "positive" and a "negative" Libran. The former is well-balanced, secure; the latter unstable, easily influenced and "poised to make the dangerous leap" (315). A negative Libran, poised to shoot at the President, Oswald provides the necessary balance to the various projected plots. Oswald is the host for the Libran force that, in Ferrie's words, "comes out of dreams, visions, intuitions, prayers, out of the deepest levels of the self.... It's a line that cuts across causality, cuts across time. It has no history that we can recognize or understand. But it forces a connection. It puts a man on the path of his destiny" (339). Withstanding this fate would require some kind of magic, an unnameable force that would enable Oswald to enter "a pattern outside of experience. Something that jerks you out of the spin of history" (384). As DeLillo's novel relentlessly reveals, however one interprets history, there is no escaping it. DeLillo names his novel Libra in recognition of--one could almost say obeisance to--the mysterious power that Oswald embodies and enacts. Oswald becomes emblematic of the mysterious force by which otherwise random energies and events achieve structure, a centering. For DeLillo, Oswald achieves a kind of tragic grandeur since he represents the figure we moderns have invented to naturalize our fear of the tempests that have raged about us since that fateful day in November 1963.(17)
DeLillo's Oswald, however, is of course unaware of the kind of eternity that will be bestowed upon him. He wants to merge not with the stars but with history as it is rendered in language. If he settles for entering history through a single astonishing act, then it is largely because he could not write himself into history. More than Win Everett or Nicholas Branch, Oswald is the writer in Libra who compels and ultimately best represents DeLillo's own authorial interest in this story. What makes Oswald coherent as a character is his desire to transform his self into language. "He wanted books," DeLillo writes, that "closed the world around him." "He wanted subjects and ideas of historic scope, ideas that touched his life, his true life, the whirl of time inside him" (33). As a youth, he wants to write stories about the blind in order to understand their world. As an exile in the Soviet Union, he wants "to write short stories about contemporary American life." This line runs through the novel almost like a chorus; Oswald is thinking it moments before he fires his gun at the President (408). DeLillo's fascination with Oswald's writing suggests his own desire to rewrite and reimagine from a fuller perspective the story that Oswald failed to complete as he had wanted.(18) Portrayed as a failed writer before he becomes a misplaced assassin, Oswald is for DeLillo a man who finds himself an assassin precisely because he cannot implement his vision of the world effectively through language. Oswald marks the trajectory of history's fall into fiction. He goes from being a writer of a plot he cannot complete to being an actor in a plot he did not write. Moreover, as a failed writer, Oswald, the putative author of the events of 22 November 1963, is emblematic of our inability to find a perspective that will bring the story to a conclusion, an end.
In presenting Oswald in this fashion, DeLillo creates a sympathetic character at the same time that he rubs off some of the mythic American gold dust with which Oswald is sometimes sprinkled. Oswald is not most often depicted as a writer but as the American loner who emerges from anonymity into history with one well-timed, well-aimed bullet. Despite the horror of his act, it resonates in the public imagination with the sort of romantic splendor often associated with myths of American individualism. A sense of debased romanticism permeates the presentation of the iconoclastic dreamer who wanders America dreaming of a better world--as if he were some twentieth-century Ishmael or Huckleberry Finn. Thus, DeLillo emphasizes Oswald-the-lone-drifter, moving shadily through exotic American places such as New York, New Orleans, and Texas. DeLillo associates Oswald with these stock American characters by implying that Oswald's life is stunted because "they'd taken away his American space" which, as it turns out, "had been nothing but wandering, a lie that concealed small rooms, TV, his mother's voice never-ending" (85-86). The capaciousness of Oswald's vision--which reflects the traditional American optimism for the future and its seemingly boundless spaces--is reduced to a series of small prison-like rooms. In this reading, Oswald becomes a sympathetic character, one of those familiar heroes of American fiction, who kills the avatar of the "new frontier" out of frustration with the disappearance of our own frontier.
Mailer advances this view of Oswald when he argues that Kennedy's killer "committed himself to the most heroic deed of which he was capable" (783). Thus, turning to the apostle of American individualism, Emerson, to contextualize Oswald's deed, Mailer quotes the following passage from Emerson's essay, "Heroism": "Heroism is the obedience to a secret impulse of an individual's character. Now to no other man can wisdom appear as it does to him, for every man must be supposed to see a little farther on his own proper path than anyone else [so] every heroic act measures itself by its contempt of some external good" (783). Although Mailer admits that he began his biography with the assumption that Oswald had not acted alone, his commitment to Oswald as an American archetype is finally more powerful than his belief in conspiracy narrative. Mailer writes his biography of Oswald as if trying to confirm Tony Tanner's thesis from years ago that the "abiding dream in American literature" is the hope "that an unpatterned, unconditioned life is possible, in which your movements and stillnesses, choices and repudiations are all your own"(19) Mailer adopts rather than critiques Oswald's own self-perception when he speaks of how Oswald with his famous act "could alter history" and therefore "be immortal" (782). Hence, Mailer associates the assassin with the prophet of American individualism in order to rescue Oswald from the cultural confusion that his act generated. As the title suggests, Oswald's Tale would return to Oswald possession of his act and his dream of an unconditioned life. For DeLillo, Oswald's act can only belong to the novelist. Mailer's argument can be believable only as fiction. Yet, exactly because this kind of fiction is no longer creditable in our age of suspicion, Mailer must present his version as "history" rather than "fiction" in order to mask his failure of imagination.
If Oswald wanted his self to merge with history as a figure of communal force, DeLillo suggests that Oswald's historic legacy is to represent the fragmentation of self and culture into a series of mutually conflicting yet coincident plots. In this context, DeLillo's depiction of Oswald as a failed maker of narratives takes on special resonance, since Oswald's self is absorbed into narrative. Libra's most compelling image of Oswald is not his taking aim at the President with his rifle, but his struggle to find the words that will articulate his historical vision. Oswald thus writes what he refers to as his Historic Diary:
Even as he printed the words, he imagined people reading them, people moved by his loneliness and disappointment, even by his wretched spelling, the childish mess of composition. Let them see the struggle and humiliation, the effort he had to exert to write a simple sentence.... Always the pain, the chaos of composition. He could not find order in the field of little symbols. They were in the hazy distance. He could not clearly see the picture that is called a word. A word is also the picture of a word. He saw spaces, incomplete features, and tried to guess at the rest.... He watched sentences deteriorate, powerless to make them right. The nature of things was to be elusive. Things slipped through his perceptions. He could not get a grip on the runaway world. (211)
In this passage, DeLillo, the superior constructor of narrative, strips bare Oswald's pretension to invent and control his own narrative. Ironically, though, Oswald's inability to write, his miserable failure, will legitimate the course he travels into history. Failing to make the history he imagines in his written narratives, Oswald ultimately enters history through an act he commits outside the frame of his narrative. He will commit an act so noteworthy that others will read his Historic Diary simply to know more about the mind who committed the act.
That Oswald must act outside of his writing in order to make his writing known suggests his work's ultimate failure. Oswald's act creates history at the same time it objectifies Oswald as the focal point for a variety of narrative possibilities. When DeLillo attributes to Oswald the desire to flaunt his failure as a writer, it is an almost wistful attempt to recover Oswald's narrative prior to his objectification: "Let them see the struggle and humiliation, the effort he had to exert to write a simple sentence." Oswald's inability to control his language predicts his inability to control how the meaning of the event that makes his diary truly "historic"--the assassination--will be interpreted. If the assassination gives significance to Lee Harvey Oswald's work, it also critically marks Oswald's inability to control his own self-objectification. In a brilliant depiction, DeLillo portrays Oswald's death as the moment at which he becomes objectified by history's view of him. In death he becomes, as it were, his own double. Equally important, Oswald's story shifts genres: from the realm of the word to the realm of the image. DeLillo depicts this horrible self-transformation through Oswald watching himself be murdered on television: "He could see himself shot as the camera caught it. Through the pain he watched TV.... Through the pain, through the losing of sensation except where it hurt, Lee watched himself react to the auguring heat of the bullet" (439). Instead of being the actor who killed Kennedy and changed history, Oswald becomes, like the rest of us, a viewer, passive, watching the spectacle of his own transformation from Miler to victim.
DeLillo underscores the significance of this moment by, in effect, doubling it again through the eyes of Beryl Parmenter, another viewer. As if he were some kind of television engineer, DeLillo replays the scene over and over until the original intention of Oswald's act is lost in the viewer's perception of it:
There was something in Oswald's face, a glance at the camera before he was shot, that put him here in the audience, among the rest of us, sleepless in our homes--a glance, a way of telling us that he knows who we are and how we feel, that he has brought our perceptions and interpretations into his sense of the crime. Something in the look, some sly intelligence, exceedingly brief but far-reaching, a connection all but bleached away by glare, tells us that he is outside the moment, watching with the rest of us. (447)
Oswald enters history as an image that can be detached from the event he would create. Rather than identifying with the loner who made history and achieved a moment of fame, we identify with Oswald as a self divided from his original act. Ordinarily, the phrase "being outside the moment" would suggest that Oswald had achieved a kind of transcendence. What occurs here for Oswald, though, is that he is removed from the history that he is making. He no longer belongs to himself or a version of history he can recognize; rather, he belongs to us--he is us in some deep and disturbing way.
In "American Blood" DeLillo suggests that Oswald's doubling is further reflected in the sense that he goes from being the killer transmogrified into a viewer to becoming the viewer transmogrified into historical actor. Oswald becomes representative of how the world assumed by a book is replaced by the world being made by television. Oswald portends later would-be assassins Arthur Bremer and John Hinckley as the "first of a chain of what we might call instances of higher violence--violence with its own liturgy of official grief, its own standards of newsworthiness, with its built-in set of public responses."(20) These figures are linked by their smallness, their lack of stature. In Libra, Oswald kills Kennedy because he wants to merge with History, to become its agent and embodiment. Neither Bremer nor Hinckley projects such a grandiose sense of himself. Crucially, they share with Oswald the coincidence of being writers of a sort--each keeps a journal. DeLillo points out how the logic that Bremer employs to choose his victim is cartoon Kafka. Having gone to see Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Bremer decides to kill George Wallace rather than Richard Nixon. Preparing both for his act and its critical reception (there is no distinction in his mind), Bremer writes: "The Editors will say--`Wallace dead? Who cares?' He won't get more than three minutes on network t.v. news" ("American Blood," 28). Where Oswald's attempted assassination marks a failure of aesthetic vision--a concession to circumstances--Bremer's botched attempt on Wallace's life communicates his own highly ironized sense of self-alienation that calls into question the narrative significance of his act.
The kind of historical narrative that Bremer and later Hinckley enact is one that depends on immediate narrative transmission: history and its rendering in an instant. For Oswald, it is both accident and coincidence that, first, his murder of Kennedy gets captured, however shakily, on film and, second, that his own murder is broadcast live on television. "Why do they keep running it, over and over?" Beryl Parmenter wonders while watching Oswald's death, transfixed, over and over (446). Speaking of Hinckley's attempted assassination of Reagan, DeLillo notes that "this is a self-referring event" ("American Blood," 24). As post-Oswald assassins, Bremer and Hinckley recognize that their acts matter not in and of themselves but as representations. They advance the logic of Oswald's Historic Diary through their understanding that their acts have no content or context except as simulations. For DeLillo, Hinckley seizes upon the "self-referring" nature of the moment as an aesthetic opportunity and, as a result, extends the logic of self-consumption implicit in Oswald's diary written for himself, so that others may see. Hence, as if in anticipation of future assassinations, Beryl Parmenter cries and wants "to crawl out of the room" while watching Oswald being murdered not only because "he had made us a part of his dying," but because we have retroactively made ourselves a part of his killing (447).(21)
Noting that Hinckley's "communications with the more respectable journals have a hopeful and touching quality, like a novice writer sending stories to The New Yorker," DeLillo describes Hinckley as "a fellow reader who one day walked through the page into nowhere land."(22) Hinckley rewrites Oswald's experience so that the historical narrative he envisions will be shot on camera. Moreover, as DeLillo notes, just as Hinckley prepares himself to shoot Reagan, so does the Life photographer who captured the stunning pictures of the assassination position himself to shoot Hinckley. Having been present at previous assassination attempts, the photographer is experienced in the art of assassination: when Hinckley starts shooting, the photographer shoots back. If Hinckley's narrative use of the camera form is usurped by the mastery of the photographer, then together they create a kind of historical narrative that achieves a unity of form and content that almost certainly excites the envy of the novelist DeLillo.
DeLillo, of course, constructs his narrative of Oswald through the media-fragmented perspective that Bremer's narrative provides. DeLillo suggests that we understand him as the writer who, unlike Oswald or Bremer, knowingly transforms his written narratives into visual ones. DeLillo projects this sense of history by portraying the assassination as one that is poised before a waiting camera. When Kennedy enters Dallas, people "came running from the terminal building, handbags and cameras bouncing." There were "cameras everywhere, held aloft, a rustling of bladed shutters" (391-92). Minutes before he would be killed, Kennedy "looked like himself, like photographs" (392). Earlier, Oswald's wife, Marina, thinks that Kennedy "floats over the landscape at night, entering dreams and fantasies, entering the act of love between husband and wives. He floats through television screens into bedrooms at night" (324). Throughout DeLillo depicts Kennedy's Camelot mystique as part of an innate photogenic possibility, as if the shooting of the cameras presaged the shooting by Oswald. In the aftermath of the assassination, amid the blood and spray of Kennedy's very real decomposition, "a woman with a camera turned and saw that she was being photographed" by "a woman in a dark coat." This momentary sense of estrangement causes her to realize that "she'd just seen someone shot in her own viewfinder" and "that the woman in the coat was her and she was the person who was shot" (401). Through the medium of the camera, the assassination moves outward and inward simultaneously. Anticipating Hinckley, this woman replicates the assassination as if she were both murderer and murdered. As with Oswald, the moment does not belong to her: a few moments later a man from the Dallas Times Herald takes hold of her camera and drags her away (405). The scene predicts what is almost the novel's concluding moment when, in the absence of pallbearers, members of the media volunteer to carry Oswald's body--if not his story--to the grave (449).
If DeLillo presents Oswald's death as a made-for-television event, then the assassination itself is a home movie that becomes a film. DeLillo therefore scripts Kennedy's death in terms of the medium through which our historical narratives have subsequently recreated this event: "Someone with a movie camera stood on an abutment over there, aiming this way, and the man in the white sweater, hands suspended now at belt level, was thinking he ought to go to the ground, he ought to fall right now. A misty light around the President's head. Two pink-white jets of tissue rising from the mist. The movie camera running" (400, my emphasis). By placing Zapruder into the narrative, DeLillo intimates that the representation of the assassination belongs not to Oswald but to the running movie camera. DeLillo includes the camera in his account as an act of historical documentation that functions also as a sly tribute from one maker of narratives to another. In this instance, the rival narrative form accrues its power from being seemingly agentless. As DeLillo's refusal to name Zapruder as the camera holder on the abutment suggests, the camera shooting the assassination exists as if independent of the shooter. Moreover, by appropriating the decentering power of the Zapruder film to authorize his narrative, DeLillo also indicates how the medium of film becomes the mechanism by which Oswald's act is cut up and recirculated into so many competing and conflicting versions.
At times Libra's reader may even wonder if DeLillo is not trying to turn the book into a movie. Early in the novel, Oswald is described as he walks "home through the Quarter past hundreds of tourists and conventioneers who thronged in the light rain like people in a newsreel" (40, my emphasis). DeLillo has said that he relied not only on the Warren Report to write this novel, but on "film consisting of amateur footage shot in Dallas on the day of the assassination."(23) For Nicholas Branch, the man who has been hired to write a secret history of the assassination, the film is both the key to the event and proof of its ultimate indecipherability. He knows that "experts have scrutinized every murky nuance of the Zapruder film. It is the basic timing device of the assassination and a major emblem of uncertainty and chaos" (441). He looks forward to studying "the computer-enhanced version of Zapruder" in the doubtful hope that some definitive conclusion will be reached (441). In Underworld, another of DeLillo's characters, also skilled in the art of techno-historical recreation, makes this crucial observation: "Reality doesn't happen until you analyze the dots" (182). Translated into a reflection on the possibilities of historical narrative in the postmodern age, this means that our histories cannot bring us any closer to the genuine moment of the assassination. This is not to say that there is no reality or history, but that events cannot acquire the status of history until they are, as it were, moved into the past through narratives that provide intellectual coherence through temporal order.
While the alternatives of film and television are incorporated into Libra, the form of the novel demands a kind of sustained and measured historical reflection unavailable to these other media. DeLillo's fictional history invokes the paranoia that the Kennedy assassination represents in order to stress that were we able to state definitively that Oswald understood himself to have been part of a plot, then, paradoxically, the conspiracy narratives about the assassination would have less appeal. The assassination would then be understood simply as a successful action engineered by a particular group of people with Oswald as the trigger figure instead of a historic moment emblematic of our recognition that there is no way for us to understand this event except through narrative. This recognition lies behind what is perhaps the most frequently quoted passage in the novel. Everett thinks that
Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move toward death. He believed that the idea of death is woven into the nature of every plot. A narrative plot no less than a conspiracy of armed men. The tighter the plot of a story, the more likely it will come to death. A plot in fiction, he believed, is the way we localize the force of death outside the book, play it off, contain it.... He worried about the deathward logic of his plot. ... He had a foreboding that the plot would move to a limit, develop a logical end. (221)
The passage defines the boundaries of DeLillo's narrative project. It is not that history cannot be told but that each historical narrative derives from a particular event and hence has a particular narrative end. If this inherent truth of narrative is often lost when we talk about history--especially when we forget that all histories are narratives--then DeLillo cannot forget it as a novelist. Outside the book, that is, in the history of the culture since Kennedy's assassination, there has been no way to contain the implications of his death. Having already occurred, Kennedy's death leaves us free to invent as many possible explanations as circumstance and imagination can come up with. Inside the book, which in this case is Libra, Kennedy's death is the point to which all narratives lead. Despite the crisscrossing theories and conspiracies about how Kennedy either will be or was killed, there is finally an air of fated inevitability about that day. DeLillo therefore does not indulge in the familiar conceit of the historical novel: the possibility that events could have happened otherwise. Returning us to this fact constitutes perhaps the central fictional achievement of Libra: it negotiates the history of the past thirty years to recreate the original explosive power of Kennedy's death.
Through the art of his novel, DeLillo manages to bring that moment out of its celluloid shadows and return it to our consideration as a material fact. After being sent a bullet that has been test-fired through the wrist of a human cadaver, the paralyzed historian Branch wonders if the corporeal remains of that day is not the only version of the story that can be truly told. Branch speculates, almost facetiously, that "this is your history. Here is a blown-out skull for you to ponder. Here is lead penetrating bone" (299). In his frustration, Branch would reduce all potential narratives to an elemental material artifact. Branch's frustrated outburst keys the story that DeLillo's narrative ultimately sanctions. That is, after tantalizing the reader with the variations on known history that might explain November 22nd, he returns to the one elemental fact of the event: the crushed and dispersed matter of Kennedy's skull and brains. DeLillo's swirling, deep-textured narrative seems as if to stop at this single, still point: the "tissue, bone fragments, tissue in pale wads, watery mess, tissue, blood, brain matter [that is] all over them." Jackie Kennedy says, "I have his brains in my hand" (399). Agent Hill arrives too late to save the President, but he does have "this thought, this recognition" about Jackie: "She was trying to retrieve part of her husband's skull" (402). Bobby W. Hargis, riding escort, "turned his body right" to see "blood and matter, the unforgettable thing, the sleet of bone and blood and tissue struck him in the face" (399). DeLillo adds, also unforgettably: "He kept his mouth closed tight so the fluid would not ooze in." As we have seen, the anonymous man with the movie camera sees "two pink-white jets of tissue rising from the mist," while "a woman with the camera" feels "bloodspray on her face and arms" (400-1). Watching Oswald die on television, Beryl Parmenter moves from grieving for Kennedy to identifying with Oswald. Reading Kennedy's death in Libra, we move back to the experience that Oswald himself escaped and to which Oswald's story inevitably returns us. For a brief moment, Kennedy's death is once again fresh, horrible, and, if it were possible, unsimulated. Without surrendering to Branch's reductive materialist narrative, DeLillo returns us to the one point from which all of our conflicting historical narratives emerge.
Libra reminds us that too often fiction is defined as a form in opposition to either history or reality. One consequence of walling history off from fiction is that it becomes difficult to recognize how fiction is the only form we have for producing history. Without that recognition, one risks becoming a passive object in others' historical narratives. DeLillo concedes the probability of conspiracy theories as a way of imagining a more complete history than conventional narratives with their emphasis on a single thesis can allow. His novel does not, however, endorse Branch's conclusion that the story of November 22nd cannot be written because our view of it is always changing. To be sure, DeLillo's Oswald is a historical remainder that keeps dividing. His legacy is the lost individual, a fragment, the representative instance of how we have come to see ourselves only through our own representations. Libra, however, is perhaps most powerful of those representations--not for being final, but for inserting itself into the history that made it and then claiming that history as its own invention. On the facing page to DeLillo's Paris Review interview there is a photograph of one of the manuscript pages from Libra. It is the first draft of what becomes in the published version of the novel page 211 (Begley, 274). The paragraphs pictured describe Oswald's inability to construct a sentence. By allowing this photograph to represent his novel, DeLillo invites the reader to think of Oswald as DeLillo's authorial double--a doubling that ultimately points to DeLillo's usurpation of both Oswald and the historical narrative the alleged assassin dreamed of writing. For in writing a novel about this seemingly never-ending historical moment, DeLillo takes possession of the historical narrative that escaped Oswald's control. In the fictional world of Libra, Don DeLillo, not Lee Harvey Oswald or the conspiracy theories, is the author of 22 November 1963 and its subsequent narrative possibilities.
(1.) For a discussion of Will and DeLillo, see Frank Lentricchia, ed. and intro., New Essays on White Noise (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991), 3-5.
(2.) Joseph Kronick, "Libra and the Assassination of JFK: A Textbook Operation," Arizona Quarterly 50.1 (1994): 115; John Johnston, "Supralinear Fiction or Historical Diagram?: Don DeLillo's Libra," Modern Fiction Studies 40.2 (1994): 321. Glen Thomas likewise notes that in Libra "information refuses to coalesce and remains stubbornly fragmentary" (Glen Thomas, "History, Biography, and Narrative in Don DeLillo's Libra," Twentieth Century Literature 43.1 : 109).
(3.) Don DeLillo, "American Blood: A Journey Through the Labyrinth of Dallas and JFK," Rolling Stone 8 December 1983, 28.
(4.) Peter Knight, "Everything is Connected: Underworld's Secret History of Paranoia," Modern Fiction Studies 45.3 (1999): 813-14.
(5.) For instance, the Kennedy Assassination is one of the staple "programs" on cable television's History Channel. A form of entertainment that competes with movies, sitcoms, police dramas, or sporting events for its audience's attention, the History ChAnnel's authority derives from its ability to spin compelling narratives about past events. Implicit within the form is the recognition that the stories, or histories, must be re-told and re-experienced in order to compel an audience. A medium such as the History Channel justifies the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination even as the conspiracy theories justify the History Channel.
(6.) See, for instance, Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1986).
(7.) Don DeLillo, Author's Note to Libra (New York: Viking, 1988), n.p. All further references are given parenthetically in the text.
(8.) Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978), 82.
(9.) See, for instance, Thomas Carmichael, "Lee Harvey Oswald and the Postmodern Subject: History and Intertextuality in Don DeLillo's Libra, The Names, and Mao II," Contemporary Literature 34.2 (1993): 204-18, as well as Thomas, "History, Biography, and NarrativeS: 107-24.
(10.) John N. Duvall draws on Hutcheon to nicely summarize the general critical approach to DeLillo's use of history when he remarks that DeLillo's work combines "the reflexivity of metafiction with an ironized sense of historical production, a mix that foregrounds a distinction `between brute events of the past and the historical facts we construct out of them.'" ("Introduction from Valparaiso to Jerusalem: DeLillo and the Moment of Canonization," Modern Fiction Studies 45.3 : 562.) See also Linda Hutcheon, The Poetics of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 1989).
(11.) Anthony DeCurtis, "`An Outsider in This Society': An Interview with Don DeLillo," South Atlantic Quarterly 89.2 (1990): 288.
(12.) Don DeLillo,Americana (Boston: Houghton, 1971), Great Jones Street (New York: Vintage, 1973), Running Dog (New York: Knopf, 1978), Underworld (New York: Scribner, 1997).
(13.) Norman Mailer, Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery (New York: Random House, 1995). All further references are given parenthetically in the text. Gerald Posner, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (New York: Random House, 1993).
(14.) Skip Willman notes that DeLillo emphasizes "the illusion of control and mastery that supports the social effectiveness of the CIA" and suggests that, in the face of failures such as the Bay of Pigs, "the CIA must preserve the illusion of control" ("Traversing the Fantasies of the JFK Assassination: Conspiracy and Contingency in Don DeLillo's Libra," Contemporary Literature 39.3 : 414, 415). While of course true, the more disturbing point that DeLillo raises is how effectively even the seeming loss of control and authority can be recuperated by a narrative strategy that cherishes potential revelations of ambiguity and uncertainty.
(15.) More precisely, Everett launched the plot from the basement of Texas Woman's University in Denton, Texas.
(16.) Paul Civello "Undoing the Naturalistic Novel: Don DeLillo's Libra f Arizona Quarterly 48.2 (1992): 51.
(17.) On this point, DeLillo has stated that he came up with the title for the book "when I hit upon this notion of coincidence and dream and intuition and the possible impact of astrology on the way men act. I thought that Libra, being Oswald's sign, would be the one title that summarized what's inside the books (DeCurtis, "An Outsider: 293-94).
(18.) Of course we do not know if Oswald truly felt the assassination failed his intentions. The important point is that this is the perspective that DeLillo attributes to him.
(19.) Tony Tanner, City of Words: American Fiction 1950-70 (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 15.
(20.) DeLillo, "American Blood," 24.
(21.) The scene becomes an instance of the postmodern aestheticization of technology that Jameson has argued merely reflects "the whole world system of present-day multi-national capitalism," Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke UP, 1991), 37. DeLillo seems to agree. Elsewhere he has discussed how easily such televised acts of violence are transformed into images for visual consumption. "We consume these acts of violence," he told the New Yorker's David Remnick. "It's like buying products that in fact are images and they are produced in a mass-market kind of fashion" (David Remnick, "Exile on Main Street: Don DeLillo's Undisclosed Underworld," New Yorker 15 Sept. 1997, 49). For a discussion of DeLillo's exploration of the interconnectedness among technology, murder, and material consumption in Underworld (1997) through the character of the Texas Highway Killer, see Timothy L. Parrish, "From Hoover's F.B.I. to Eisenstein's Unterwelt: Don DeLillo Directs the Postmodern Novel," Modern Fiction Studies 45.3 (1999): 709-13.
(22.) DeLillo, "American Blood," 27.
(23.) Adam Begley, "The Art of Fiction Interview 35.128: Don DeLillo," Paris Review (1993): 291.
Timothy L. Parrish's essays have appeared in Contemporary Literature, Modern Fiction Studies, Prospects, Arizona Quarterly, and Studies in American Fiction, among others. His book, Walking Blues: Making Americans from Emerson to Elvis, is forthcoming. He presently teaches at the University of North Texas.…