Playing the Historical Record: DeLillo's Libra and the Kennedy Archive

By Herbert, Shannon | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Playing the Historical Record: DeLillo's Libra and the Kennedy Archive


Herbert, Shannon, Twentieth Century Literature


  The detective novel is the only novel truly invented in the
  twentieth century. In the detective novel the hero is dead at the
  very beginning, so you don't have to deal with human nature at all,
  only the slow accumulation of facts.
--Laurie Anderson

  the underpart is, though stemmed, uncertain is, as sex is, as moneys
  are, facts! facts, to he dealt with, as the sea is, the demand that
  they be played by, that they only can be, that they must be played
  by, said he, coldly, the
--Charles Olson (6)

When Libra was published in 1988, the normally private Don DeLillo granted several interviews. Perhaps because of the book's subject matter--Lee Harvey Oswald's role in the assassination of John F. Kennedy--the interviews tended to focus on what really happened on 22 November 1963 in both the fictional and the real world. (1) The novel presents possible answers to well-known questions about Oswald's role in the event and the existence of possible conspirators, but it raises as many questions as it answers: Oswald may be a patsy, the novel suggests, but he also has his own curious and complicated motivations. DeLillo's comments ascribed the tension in the novel between "conspiracy" and "contingency" ("Outsider" 56) to the ambiguity in the assassination between actions that were plotted and those that happened by coincidence. Critics have been quick to follow DeLillo's lead by considering the work in relation to conspiracy and coincidence, design and chance. (2) Such criticism treats the assassination as the determining factor of the plot and structure of the novel, asking: Does the novel perpetuate or confound conspiratorial explanations of the event? What does it tell us about who really killed Kennedy? DeLillo does not offer a new interpretation of accepted facts or locate a smoking gun. Instead, Libra dramatizes the uncertainty at the heart of the event and the growing evidentiary glut that has collected over the years in response to that uncertainty. In the novel the assassination is not an event to be known but an evidentiary landscape to be mastered. With Libra DeLillo thus registers a cultural anxiety about and fixation on how our society produces truth. Another way of putting this is that the event of the novel is the event of the archive's ascendance.

By focusing on DeLillo's portrayal of the events, criticism of Libra tends to collapse the novel's plot with the theoretical assassination plots, assuming that the epistemological uncertainty of the novel derives from uncertainties about the assassination. Michael Rizza argues:

  when a plot takes on a momentum of its own, when an event arises out
  of a multiplicity of causes that extend beyond the limits of
  knowledge and slip off into the realm of chance, when agency gets
  dispersed through a system, when actions become performative and the
  audience complicit in the act--then the question "Who shot Kennedy?"
  evades a simple answer. (183)

He asserts that it is "chance, coincidence, and randomness" that "mark the edge of knowledge" (178). Here the novel's uncertainty reflects the shadowy nature of the event. Similarly, Timothy Parrish suggests that the contingency of truth and the necessary fictions in Libra's account of the assassination are two symptoms of "our age of suspicion" (14). In both cases the suspicion of conspiracy, either in the act of the assassination or the subsequent investigations, makes it impossible to produce the truth of the event. However, in Libra the continuing indeterminacy is not merely the result of suspicion, skepticism about metanarratives, or the explosion of alternative and conspiratorial histories. Indeterminacy is the government's own conclusion. The Warren commission had blamed Oswald unequivocally (President's Commission 19) even though it heard CIA officer Richard Helms testify: "I would assume the case will never be closed" (Select Committee, Investigation 77).

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Playing the Historical Record: DeLillo's Libra and the Kennedy Archive
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.