- Superlinear Fiction or Historical Diagram?:Don DeLillo's Libra
The lesson of Lee H. Oswald was that easy cases are never easy. It made him think of the classical axioms of his early training in geometry and arithmetic. Sad to learn that those self-evident truths, necessary truths, faltered so badly when subjected to rigorous examination. No plane surfaces here. We are living in curved space.—Don DeLillo, Libra
Delillo's Recent Novel Libra brings his entire fictional oeuvre full circle, gathering many of its themes and recurrent concerns, while also resituating them more explicitly in relation to both a nationally traumatic event and a curiously imagistic, mass-media defined realm the effects of which appear to exceed the parameters of historical thinking. But more important here, the novel confirms the crucial significance of genre to DeLillo's fiction by focusing attention on the way genre delimits and governs the boundaries between fiction and history, above all through such regulative notions as character and plot.1 At first view Libra appears to offer a fictionalized portrait [End Page 319] of Lee Harvey Oswald by way of a Maileresque "true life novel" about the Kennedy assassination.2 But this "true documentary fiction" is complicated by Oswald's depicted entanglement in a CIA-inspired conspiracy, which in turn connects Libra both to the subgenre of the espionage-conspiracy thriller and to the increasing "nonfictional" efforts of investigative journalists to bring to light, finally, the "truth" about the Kennedy assassination. This generic complexity allows DeLillo not only to deploy the fictional as a way of exploring the historical, but also the inverse: to deploy history as a way of exploring the nature of fiction and fictionality.
From the outset the Kennedy assassination has led a sort of underground existence in DeLillo's fiction. In DeLillo's first novel, Americana, David Bell's camera-picaresque wandering across America ends with a drive past the Texas Schoolbook Depository in Dealey Plaza, inaugurating a series of covert references to the assassination that silently reverberate throughout subsequent novels. However, in "American Blood: A Journey Through the Labyrinth of Dallas and JFK," a nonfictional piece DeLillo published in 1983 in Rolling Stone Magazine, the event surfaces directly, where it is characterized as an explosion of social and epistemological certainties. Indeed, DeLillo attributes to the assassination an epochal importance: what came unraveled on that Dallas afternoon, he says, was "the sense of a coherent reality most of us shared" (23). At that moment, he continues, we seem to have entered "a world of randomness and ambiguity," a world so "totally modern" that it "shades into" the "literature of estrangement and silence." Not only did the violence of that day put "a warp in the texture of things," but its prolongation in time and space has rendered suspect both perception and memory, and thus all the methods we have at hand for verifying the physical evidence of the event:
There are jump cuts, blank spaces, an instant in which information leaps from one energy level to another. Dallas is a panorama of such things, a natural disaster in the heartland of the real, the comprehensible, the plausible. The lines that extend from the compressed event have shown such elaborate twists and convolutions that we are almost forced to question the basic suppositions we make about our world of light and shadow, solid objects and ordinary sounds, and to wonder further about our ability to measure such things, to determine weight, mass and direction, to see things as they are, recall them clearly, explain to waiting faces what happened.(23)
But while such statements may tempt us to seek in the Kennedy assassination both the Stimmung and basic delineations of the contemporary [End Page 320] world explored in DeLillo's fiction, a more specific kind of relationship is suggested by DeLillo's reply to the first question of an interview given in 1988, shortly after Libra's publication:
DeCurtis: The Kennedy assassination seems perfectly in line with the concerns of your fiction. Do you feel you could have invented it if it hadn't happened.
DeLillo: Maybe it invented me. Certainly, when it happened, I was not...