By Don DeLillo

Original  and Current Publisher: Penguin

Charles Yu writes: 

“People like us,” he said to Mackey, “we have this dilemma we have to face. Serious men deprived of an outlet. Once we’re pushed out, how do we retire to a chair on the lawn?”

Do we make history, or does history make us? Libra is full of men in small rooms plotting, planning, acting in accordance with a fervent belief in the former, even as those very plots, plans, and actions depend on the mechanics of institutions and ideologies that seem to necessitate the latter. These are surplus men, created by the system, deep within the gears and mechanisms of the military-industrial complex and then extruded from the apparatus. These men may be leftovers but they are definitely not scraps. They are designed products, “the dark scary side of John Glenn,” the shadow to the public myth of the hero.

At the center of these peripheral men is Lee Harvey Oswald (a fictional character here whose life is re-imagined in DeLillo’s novel as a kind of speculative secret history); at the center, but Oswald did not start there. How did he come to find himself in the middle, the spotlight, the focal point of one of the defining events of 20th century American history? Was Oswald, fatherless, raised by his mother Marguerite, defector to the Soviet Union, later repatriated, was he, had he always been on a path, however peripatetic? A path reflecting his will and his character, the manifestation of an individual mind and life, impressing its outline, its unique shape against the substrate of events? Or instead, was Oswald an interchangeable part, a cog molded to fit into someone else’s machine:

Win Everett was at work devising a general shape, a life. He would script a gunman out of ordinary dog-eared paper, the contents of a wallet…Mackey would find a model for the character Everett was in the process of creating. They wanted a name, a face, a bodily frame they might use to extend their fiction into the world. Everett had decided he wanted one figure to be slightly more visible than the others, a man the investigation might center on, someone who would be trailed and possibly apprehended.

The names: Ferrie, Parmenter, Everett, Mackey, and of course Oswald, these men at the edges, pulling tiny threads that somehow tug at the very center of the web. Men who find themselves in a position where they are “being crushed by the pressure exerted from opposite directions,” men who are “all linked in a vast and rhythmic coincidence, a daisy chain of rumor, suspicion and secret wish."

Libra is an examination of history on two levels, and this is the first one, the events themselves, the networks, the systems, the surplus men.

The second level is how we later put it together, make history, looking for truth through the lens of hindsight, with the equipment of narrative. For this, DeLillo gives us “Nicholas Branch in his glove-leather armchair” who “is a retired senior analyst of the Central Intelligence Agency, hired on contract to write the secret history of the assassination of President Kennedy.” Branch who knows the nature of the task, which is “analyze the blur…devote our lives to understanding this moment, separating the elements of each crowded second,” to “build theories that gleam like jade idols, intriguing systems of assumption…follow the bullet trajectories backwards to the lives that occupy the shadows, actual men who moan in their dreams.” 

Branch the historian is looking, just like the conspiracy theorist, or the student, or the reader, or the citizen, looking for a pattern, for form and structure, cause and effect, connections and relationships, looking at the background to see a figure, a lone actor or part of some larger scheme.

But to separate the two levels, to even attempt to draw a sharp distinction between the two, is to miss something essential about both. In Libra, both endeavors are built upon secrets upon secrets, a “hierarchy of deniability.” As Win Everett says, “Secrets are an exalted state, almost a dream state.” In this shadow history, Oswald is both protagonist and bit player, both subject and object, maker of history and history’s prop. He is “the future inside the present, the little cartoon at the heart of events,” whose “struggle is to merge [his] life with the greater tide of history.”

Charles Yu was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 selection for his short story collection, Third Class Superhero. His first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, was a New York Times Notable Book and named by Time magazine as one of the Best Books of 2010. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, The New York Times, Playboy, and Slate, among other places. He lives in Santa Monica with his wife and their two children. (Photo: Michelle Jue)

Fiction Finalists That Year:

Fiction Winner That Year: Pete Dexter for Paris Trout

Fiction Judges That Year: Not available

The Year in Literature:

  • Beloved by Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for literature.

More Information: DeLillo won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1985 for White Noise. He was also a Fiction Finalist in 1997 for Underworld.


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