The Lesson of History: Don DeLillo's Texas Schoolbook, Libra

Article excerpt

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. …