- Naming the Secret:Don DeLillo's Libra
Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered,
and nothing secret that will not become known.Luke 12:2
[F]or no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret.
If you do these things, show yourself to the world.John 7:4
In a curious, unpaginated afterword to his fictionalization of the Kennedy assassination, Libra, Don DeLillo proffers his novel as "a way of thinking" about an event that has remained persistently, often threateningly, mired within "gloom in a chronicle of unknowing." The preceding work of fiction is tendered as a counter to both the obfuscating speculation and the sinister "half-facts" that render the assassination an essential moment in the United States's recurrent confrontation with traumatic history, with the trauma that is the historical event. But as what DeLillo calls a "third line" (Libra 339) between the paranoid scenarios and the weird factualities the event has generated—or which have generated the event—in what way does this literary fiction, "only itself, apart and complete," in DeLillo's words, deal with that event in its very eventfulness? And why should literature,in this case, offer what DeLillo calls "refuge" from being "constrained" and "overwhelmed" by the simultaneous over- and [End Page 239] underdeterminations of a received history? In what way is "refuge," the world within the world about the world which is literature, an especially revealing mode or site of "thinking" about this event? The proliferation of rooms and, particularly, men in small rooms intent on making sense of history and their place in it throughout DeLillo's fiction would seem to establish some sort of alignment here that extends out to the reader's own experience. And DeLillo himself would seem to take refuge, in Libra's afterword, from the threateningly entrenched secrecy of the case in his disavowal of the factual status of his novel's "officers of intelligence agencies" and "organized crime figures." But the self-evident denial of the possibility of "factual answers" coming forth from a work of fiction may offer refuge in another sense from the threat of the secret. It may do so by doubling it; that is, by articulating and exploring it within the structure of secrecy that is constitutive of the literary "work of imagination." As DeLillo has put it in an interview, it is the "secrets within systems . . . that have informed [his] work," secrets that are "almost secrets of consciousness, or ways inwhich consciousness is replicated in the natural world" ("'Outsider'" 299). When that consciousness is a literary one, its replications within its literary artifacts take on—in the sense of both assuming and confronting—secrecy's replications within the real.
DeLillo's "Author's Note" can be seen as a paradigm of sorts for the fiction it comments on retrospectively. Walking a thin third line between "drawing from the historical record" and making "no claim to literal truth," the novel nevertheless draws on the essentially literary status of the secret to broach the "things that are truer than true" (266), to use the words of one of the novel's uncannily prophetic truth-sayers, Dallas disc jockey Weird Beard. It aspires "to fill some of the blank spaces in the known record," while making no secret of the fact that this will remain an exclusively literary endeavor. Herein, though, lies its secret, the secret of the literary as a mode of truth. The secret is both theme and form, to employ a tarnished dichotomy that the very notion of the secret undermines. The secret is the structural displacement, within the novel's formal arrangements, of the historical enigma it "draws on," and at the same time, borrowing from Frank Kermode, the secret is delineated through the literary "genesis of secrecy" that aims at converting [End Page 240] "unknowing" itself into a secret form of knowledge, a way of thinking or "knowing" the secret.1 This is the "kind of redemptive truth" DeLillo half hopefully attributes to fiction in its "providing the balance and rhythm we don't experience in our daily lives, in our real lives" ("'Outsider'" 294). But this "truth" must...