Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

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

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

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

Article excerpt

  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). …

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