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Art after Dealey Plaza: DeLillo's Libra

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 45, Number 3, Fall 1999
pp. 621-640 | 10.1353/mfs.1999.0058

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Modern Fiction Studies 45.3 (1999) 621-640

I. Postmodern Knowledge

According to Don DeLillo, the assassination of John F. Kennedy represents an "aberration in the heartland of the real" (Libra 15), a traumatic event which has altered our perception of social reality and produced a troubling contradiction in our notions of historical causality. On the one hand, he asserts that the assassination has unleashed a new awareness of contingency: "what's been missing over these past twenty-five years is a sense of a manageable reality. Much of that feeling can be traced to that one moment in Dallas. We seem much more aware of elements like randomness and ambiguity and chaos since then" (qtd. in DeCurtis 48). On the other hand, he argues that the assassination has given rise to a contradictory response in the form of conspiracy theories: "Beyond this confusion of data, people have developed a sense that history has been secretly manipulated. [. . .] So from the initial impact of the visceral shock, I think we've developed a much more deeply unsettled feeling about our grip on reality" (48). DeLillo's assertion that our vision of social reality has become unhinged by the JFK assassination brings into focus, then, an antinomy: "our grip on reality" is threatened either by randomness or secret manipulation, chaos or order (albeit a hidden one). We must choose, or so it would seem: is it contingency or conspiracy that shapes our ends?

Libra presents an implicit critique of the contradictory notions of historical causality marshaled in narrative form to contain the traumatic impact of the JFK assassination by blending the conspiratorial with the contingent. As Frank Lentricchia notes, those critics who see only paranoia in the novel's conspiratorial plot are clearly missing the boat. Chance and randomness largely determine how the "plot" comes together and subsequently unravels. While Libra challenges the conclusions of the Warren Commission, the novel retains much of the Warren Commission's work. DeLillo acknowledges that the Warren Commission's Report is "too valuable a document of human heartbreak and muddle to be scorned or dismissed" (Libra 182). Libra preserves the historical texture of everyday life the Report offers in its countless interviews and empirical facts and details: "Everything is here [. . .] an incredible haul of human utterance" (Libra 181). However, in his effort to "do justice to historical likelihood," DeLillo constructs a conspiratorial narrative on the premise that the assassination was "the work of anti-Castro elements" (qtd. in DeCurtis 50). He remains minimally invested in this conspiracy theory, preferring to focus on the formal and aesthetic inventions of the novel instead of the political concerns raised by this traumatic event.

The question is where precisely Libra's extended gloss on these rival versions of historical causality leads. DeLillo indicates that Libra was not intended as another attempt to imagine "what really happened in Dallas in November of 1963 and in the months before and in the years that have followed" ("'Outsider'" 57). However, in the same interview with Anthony DeCurtis, DeLillo ascribes a cognitive function to the work of art. He contends that "fiction rescues history from its confusions":

It can do this in the somewhat superficial way of filling in blank spaces. But it also can operate in a deeper way: providing the balance and rhythm we don't experience in our daily lives, in our real lives. So the novel which is within history can also operate outside it -- correcting, clearing up and, perhaps most important of all, finding rhythms and symmetries that we simply don't encounter elsewhere. If Ratner's Star is, in part, a way to embody what it is all about, that is, if it's a book of harmonies and symmetries, because mathematics is a search for a sense of order in our lives, then I think Libra is, in a curious way, related to Ratner's Star, because it attempts to provide a hint of order in the midst of all the randomness. (56)

DeLillo's remarks remain tantalizingly vague, leaving the question of what it means to rescue history largely unanswered. His aspiration "to fill some of the blank spaces in the known record" (Libra 458) raises...

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