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  • The Fable of the Ants: Myopic Interactions in DeLillo’s Libra
  • Bill Millard

“There are only two things in the world. Things that are true. And things that are truer than true.”

—Weird Beard (Russell Lee Moore, a.k.a. Russ Knight), KLIF disk jockey in Libra

I. Paranoias and paradigms: Who’s afraid of Don DeLillo?

One of the most challenging qualities that Frank Lentricchia finds in Don DeLillo is that he “offers us no myth of political virginity preserved, no ‘individuals’ who are not expressions of—and responses to—specific historical processes” (“Introducing” 241). While most mainstream fiction of the Reagan era is marked by regionalisms and privatisms that bespeak an alarming poverty of imagination, DeLillo dares to project a world in its full political complexity and to grapple with ideas that might make some sense of events observed in the public sphere. Working within a culture that was both postmodern and nostalgic, a culture that longed for the pieties of laissez- faire economics and Euro-American bourgeois individualism while its socioeconomic institutions were busily breaking down any remaining space for individuals or individuality, DeLillo recognized that the 1980s could not be understood without attention to the problem of individual behavior in a social sphere hypersaturated with the products of signifying systems. The “seven seconds that broke the back of the American century” (Libra 181) is a superb symbolic moment on which to focus such attention, since it is obviously much more than a symbol.

To publish a historical novel that posited a plausible chain of events leading to the assassination of John Kennedy was more than an act of defiant imagination or political chutzpah; it raised the stakes for the enterprise of fiction within a culture rapidly losing its allegiance to written language as a practical means of organizing experience. Libra makes the implicit claim that no matter what one might believe of the lone-gunman theory or the Warren Commission’s report—in CIA master-researcher Nicholas Branch’s view, “the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred” (181)—the assembly of explanatory narratives from the available evidence surrounding the events at Dealey Plaza is as legitimate a concern for a novelist as for any journalist, historian, or member of an investigative body. Given the evidentiary problems surrounding this assassination, the unexplained (or unsatisfyingly explained) deaths of participants in these events and witnesses to them, and the proliferation of conspiracy theories of varying degrees of credibility, the novelist may in fact be on stronger ground than members of these other fields in asserting truth claims about Kennedy’s death.

This position depends on a precise characterization of the nature of a historical truth claim. Libra achieves its disruptive force by offering a fresh paradigm by which an event like the Kennedicide may be understood. This paradigm1 is post-individualist, while accounting for individual actions and decisions within social signifying systems; it refuses both the easy gambit of universal skepticism toward the possibility of explaining such an event and the equally easy temptation of overreaching causal conjecture. It is immune to charges that might be lodged from opposite directions: the accusation of credulity, involving the sense of universal connectivity associated with conspiracy theory (regarded as paranoid in both the vernacular and the Pynchonian senses), and that of ahistorical nihilism, involving the disjunctivity of explanations that lodge sole culpability with Oswald (and thus reduce an incident with massive social causes and consequences to private motivation, mere inexplicable insanity). DeLillo’s text implies an interpretive paradigm that neither overplays nor underplays its hand, connecting events with participants’ intentions while eschewing any model of those intentions as deliberate, purposeful, or necessarily connected with their outcomes.

Libra’s reception among the guardians of a conceptual border between fiction and the presumably nonfictional discourses of history, politics, and journalism was venomous to an astonishing but hardly inexplicable degree. Like Lentricchia, journalist Hal Crowther assesses the vituperation directed at DeLillo by George F. Will and Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post as a significant barometer of the book’s power, an indication of the authoritarian paranoia that it arouses...

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