Libra

ISBN: 0140156046
ISBN 13: 9780140156041
By: Don DeLillo

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About this book

In this powerful, eerily convincing fictional speculation on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Don DeLillo chronicles Lee Harvey Oswald's odyssey from troubled teenager to a man of precarious stability who imagines himself an agent of history. When "history" presents itself in the form of two disgruntled CIA operatives who decide that an unsuccessful attempt on the life of the president will galvanize the nation against communism, the scales are irrevocably tipped. A gripping, masterful blend of fact and fiction, alive with meticulously portrayed characters both real and created, Libra is a grave, haunting, and brilliant examination of an event that has become an indelible part of the American psyche.

Reader's Thoughts

Megan Carter

More fiction than fact, this novel replays the JFK assassination.Libra is a fictionalized biography, both of Lee Harvey Oswald and of the JFK assassination. In addition to following Oswald through his shifts of loyalty, it also jumps around to a variety of fictional ex-CIA agents, FBI agents, Cuban sympathizers, Oswald’s mother, a historian of the assassination, and of course Jack Ruby. The plot is both as simple and as complex as all the conspiracy theories you’ve ever heard: everybody wants to kill the President. The thing I usually dislike about conspiracy theories is they tend to belittle the importance of individual people. All it does is feature a CIA plot to assassinate JFK. Sure, the conspiracy convinces both Oswald to shoot Kennedy and Ruby to shoot Oswald, but you get the impression that neither of them needed much convincing. You get the impression that things might not have been any different if there hadn’t been a conspiracy. That said, I didn’t really like it all that much. One of those books you read and think, "This was excellently done," just not for me. I think it’s the literary-fiction style of the dialogue: very choppy. For a book that was all about people and how they think, I found the dialogue unconvincing. But the whole thing seemed a little removed, as though you’re watching the characters through glass. I like to be able to have a certain picture of the characters.All together, I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I liked it very much and I have no particular desire to seek out more of DeLillo’s work. Still, that’s one more book checked off The List.

Phil

My understanding of the general consensus is that Don DeLillo peaked with the four-book run of White Noise, Libra, Mao II, and Underworld. Having enjoyed Mao II and been downright floored by White Noise and Underworld, I intentionally put off reading Libra. I wanted to keep it in reserve as a special treat. A few days ago I looked at the nice hardcover copy I've had sitting on a shelf for several years and finally broke down, tearing into it with greedy relish. Don did not let me down. I think Libra is his masterpiece.The book moves along at an even clip. DeLillo's rhythm never falters. His artful prose and the plot's gripping momentum flow together in perfect concord. In Underworld, great as it is, the shifts in setting are sometimes a little jarring. This is fine. It helps give that book its tremendous sweep. But in Libra, all the details are woven together from the very beginning. Part of the fascination for me came from the the way DeLillo traces the web of relationships between the numerous characters, setting in motion this swarm of clandestine actors, and at the same time humanizing them, drawing them out of the shadows by mixing together descriptions of their political ideologies, professional activities, and domestic lives. When it contributes to setting the scene, advances the plot, or fills out a character, he piles detail on top of detail, but when it's time to move along he pares it back before things can become bogged down.It's a testament to DeLillo's creative powers that he was able to take a historical event around which so many conspiracy theories have been built up and craft a fictional conspiracy that feels fresh. Wacky though they may often be, conspiracy theorists have always fascinated me with their willingness to devote time to exploring the lives, in minute detail, of even the most peripheral figures of an alleged conspiracy. DeLillo captures some of that obsessiveness, both in describing the work of the story's CIA historian, who's trying to piece together an official Agency history of the Kennedy assassinaton, and in the characters involved in the events themselves—some of the most fully-fleshed and believable characters in any of his novels.Above all, Libra is one of the best combinations of absorbing story and stylistically beautiful prose I've read in a while.

Andrew

I come rather late and uninformed to DeLillo, having read Mao II years ago before I knew the extent of DeLillo's reputation. I once gave away a first edition hardback Underworld because I stupidly distrusted a book that opened with a baseball game. In Buenos Aires I read the middle third of White Noise on a day it was sleeting. Otherwise, Delillo has come into my life during the past year or so -- seeping in, a flitting influence like some maleficent electric signal from one of his novels. Long a conspiracy theorist of the JFK assassination I couldn't resist snatching up Libra when I discovered it on a friend's shelf.Libra is DeLillo's JFK book, or better yet, his Oswald book. Detractors might compare it to Oliver Stone's JFK and like it, Libra is an amalgamation of history and fiction, or in the case of the JFK assassination, an amalgamation of a historical record that has become through contradictory investigations and testimonies a work of post-modern fiction and a fiction that seeks out, through the empathy of a novelist, a true history behind the libels and legends that increasingly make up the material fabric of the assassination's history. Like Stone's film, Libra posits the Kennedy assassination as a seminal event in modern American consciousness -- the perfect trope for the darker reality of the Baby Boomer generation.Libra is structured in two parallel and converging parts. In intersecting chapters it tracks Oswald's life, from his truant adolescence in New York (the book's opening, with young Lee riding the New York subway, mimics in its rhythms the skat of subway rhythm so masterfully I read it three times) to his death at the hands of Jack Ruby, and the organization of the assassination by disgruntled members of Group 40, the covert CIA task force disgraced by the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. A mysterious and contemporary researcher, locked in a Borgesian study of infinite minutia (at one point saying the Warren Commission Report was what Joyce would have written if he had moved to Iowa and lived to be 100), serves as a sort of narrator, but the book leaps outside the bounds of a single narrative voice. Oswald, who is rendered compassionately as a victim of Allen Ginsberg's America, thinks in fragments of voices -- partially schizoid as his childhood psychologist diagnoses him. True to a man whose photographs are pronounced forgeries and who appears in the historical record simultaneously in multiple locations employed as both a pro-Castro agitator and CIA pawn, Oswald in Libra is a sequence of aliases. In the Marines he adopts the name Hidell -- the name with which he bought the rifle used in the assassination. In Russia he goes by Alek. Back in the States he moves through a series of variations of his birth name until the afternoon of November 22 when the press, and history, pin on him the eternal moniker Lee Harvey Oswald. To his co-conspirators he is simply Leon.The play on names reaches deeper. Much of the narrative drama of JFK conspiracy theory lies in fitting together, and keeping together, a web of shadowy mob and CIA figures who went by nicknames, official code names and pseudonyms. In Libra, DeLillo clearly has put together his own web, based largely on real figures, but has given them other names. Part of the pleasure, or tension, of reading the book is in wondering who DeLillo is referring to. Is this David Atlee Phillips, aka Maurice Bishop? I kept wondering. Is this Howard Hunt? Is this Frank Sturgis, who legally renamed himself after a character in Hunt's 1949 Bimini Run? Libra propels itself down its converging trajectories fueled by this dialectic of the historical and the fictional. We have David Ferrie, who will forever be Joe Pesci in a mauve wig to this reviewer, slowly seducing Oswald into the plot in a series of masterful, and existentially deranged, conversations. We have Guy Banister with his fingers in the twin pies of the mafia and Hoover's FBI. Jack Leon Ruby, né Jacob Rubenstein, drives a car filled with litter, its seats eaten by dogs, careening through each day on an amphetamine high as his finances pull him under. John Kennedy is the one figure largely missing from Libra's pages, appearing only in the dreams and conversations of others and in his Lincoln limousine in streets of Dallas, but his absence is profound. He is the reason for the book, like Medea's children; an object of supreme tension both for the longing he represents and for what we know will come to pass. To me the book fails in one regard, and it is a small failure. While the knowledge of the plot's outcome jerks the reader forward, it is a macabre fascination, a simple fascination, not far from the simple pleasures of a Jurassic Park or Patriot Games. Though the book relies on the tension of its dialectic between the historical and the fictional, its dramatic propulsion is in some ways annulled by the presence of history -- or at least the flat vertical planes of history's caricature. In this sense, it is not a book reliant on outcome, as Aristotle would have it. Beside the historical chatter of this world, Libra's history loses a sense of momentum, of, pig rot words they may be, development and climax. Rather, it shines as a static portrait of a bleak and unhinged society, sardonic and pitying. Strangely, after years believing Kennedy was killed at the hands of a rogue group of disgruntled Group 40 operatives, Libra may have put to rest my distrust of the Warren Commission. I stayed up all night reading testimonies by ballistics experts, examining photos of Dealey Plaza and x-rays of Kennedy's skull. Libra puts a man on the grassy knoll, as I always had. But if the shot came from the front right, there'd be a gaping hole on the left side of Kennedy's head. There wasn't. Back and to the left? The body, in a death frenzy, contorts every muscle. The back muscles, being stronger than the abdominals, jerk the body backwards. The hole in Kennedy's skull? His brains, expanding, blew it out.

Ed

This book moves slowly. After the first hundred pages or so, all of the setting up DeLillo does begins to pay off. As it does, the story also gets heavier. All of the periphery tightens a bit, making for a better read than the beginning indicates. The strength of the book is in DeLillo's binging Oswald to life. He's such a tragic character: desirous of importance, manipulated, and very disturbing. He has that emptiness seen in sociopaths, and it's a clinic in character development watching Oswald try to fill his void with Communism and murder. In a nutshell: the space needed to weave Oswald into literary existence will probably test the patience of even the most ardent DeLillo fan. I wished that the Goodreads rating system would let us enter half star values because I would totally give Libra a 3.5. But, even though it's DeLillo, this book wasn't entertaining enough to round up to four, so three stars it is.

Zuberino

Towering in its ambition and execution. DeLillo enters into the spirit of 1960s paranoia as fully as anyone could, and the empathy and insight on display as he inhabits character after character - from Marguerite Oswald to David Ferrie to Jack Ruby and above all Lee Harvey Oswald himself - it's a staggering achievement. As the NYRB rightly said about DeLillo: he is "current fiction’s most astounding ventriloquist". It was only with the shooting scene, 22 Nov 1963, that the novel finally started to lose some of its grip on me, some of its intensity.. a little raggedy and frayed around the edges, but with a novel this flamboyant, this monumental, that is an entirely forgivable flaw. Libra's place in the NYT's list of best American novels of the last 25 years is entirely justified.

Jeremy Owen

Sorry , I'm neglecting my duties to fellow readers by not declaring that I finished this one a couple of weeks back and have nearly completed a second read since !Thing is , the story , cast of characters and the presentation of the facts / fiction and assumptions as told in the book are still running through my brain now .I can still remember the day my mum told me JFK had been killed when I came in from playing outside as a small child and the effect the event had on her . Every time some TV company showed a documentary or play or movie from then until she died - twenty years ago now - it was recounted as a sad time due to the , perceived , end of his good works .The Libra story is more concerned with Oswald / Lee Oswald / Lee Harvey Oswald / O.H.Lee and his growing up into the disturbed , manipulated ( ? ) dupe ( ? ) killer of the president of the USA .The tale centres around Oswald's fascination with communism at the time and a rogue FBI / CIA unit plot to despatch Kennedy , climaxing with the two working together to this shared ambition . Jack Ruby - Oswald's killer - gets a role in the bigger story towards the end .The book tells of the life and death of Lee Oswald with a nod to the involvement of Ruby and the assassination of the President is seen as a step too far in Oswald's living the communist dream rather than the reason for the story .DeLillo has put together a revealing account of the times of the average American which is interwoven with known facts and mixed with conspiracy theories but the result is a great read .

Nicholas Pell

A real favorite of mine written by perhaps my favorite living author. This is a historical fiction novel about the Kennedy Assassination. Lee Harvey Oswald is an engagingly sociopathic loner, angry at the injustices of society and frustrated by his lack of a connection to history. The story is a metanarrative (har har) as told by the main reviewing the CIA's entire case files on the subject. Many points of view are utilized from the vast palette of JFK conspiriana. For fans of Don Delillo and assassination buffs alike, Delillo crafts a surprisingly believable version of actual events.It's a thick, but surprisingly readable book with well-rounded characters and a compelling story set against the backdrop of one of the most important events for the American psyche in recent history. Kennedy is almost entirely absent from the book, as is Jim Garrison, but the rest of the gang are there and talking to each other like characters in a Don Delillo novel.

Matt Harris

At first the denseness and humourlessness of the book proved a bit hard to get into, the anti-hero Lee Harvey Oswald is really hard to like... He started to get under my skin though, and a few chapters later I was feeling sorry for him as prospective fall guy.What a litany of depressing characters! Reflecting the American Dream to do whatever you want to do, although it may involve self-importance and dangerous acts... The men who DeLillo imagines were responsible for coming up with this grand plot to scare a nation with an attempt on the life a leader watch as their plan starts to take on such a cancerous life beyond them, and still take part and push it along its locus. It is a solemn book in every respect, and Lee's essentially humanist at the core beliefs get subverted and changed as he joins the navy and then flees to communist Russia seeking asylum. Many facts of his life I did not know until reading the book, and I am not sure how closely the author researched (I get the feeling it was very deeply) but Lee's mother and every character close to him is drawn so believably, as s neurotic lady with so many chips on her shoulder about life. So much of the depiction of his life at that time in USA makes me upset about the conditions and influences unkind to those of less social standing. Bullied, hung upside down by navy roughnecks, for his weediness or his interest in Marxism, Lee nevertheless keeps an amazing faith in "Little Cuba" and personal freedom. Unfortunately there are many who want to use this unique person, exploit his sympathies and weaknesses, and these characters are creepily drawn by DeLillo, the character who cannot seem to register in his head that his oven is definitely off and it's safe to sleep, or the cruel gunmen who join him and finish the job on the fateful day in Dallas.The last third of the book is quite eerily clever, lining up coincidences and showing the dark consciousness of someone on unstable mental ground. Lee goes by his aliases, including Hidell (Hide the L) and Leon, or O. H. Lee, and halfheartedly tries to hide evidence which will so obviously bring him down. His impassive brutality developing through the book even to the only people close to him, show the disintegration of a young man in pathetic and brutal grey.A really difficult but worthwhile, unafraid and masterful novel.

Ian Scuffling

There's a special element to DeLillo's writing where you go along reading and suddenly, unexpectedly, there's a passage that sends forth a couple tentacles that squeeze you tightly--unsettle you from your comfortable reading spot. You're in awe, gripped with epiphany--stunned, really. Moments that only come at the hands of a master. But then sometimes there's a crippling mediocrity that punishes you. Maybe it's DeLillo's game with the reader--holding you so distant and cold that when the magnitude of the message hits, it's amplified by the surrounding noise.Anyway, and unfortunately, Libra exists on the plane of mediocrity with a remarkable sparsity of the above. Perhaps this is an issue with these kinds of literary what ifs--I think specifically of Roth's The Plot Against America where Lindbergh beats FDR in a pre-WW2 presidential race and averts America entering the war. These books tend to be a fun thought experiment, but not much else. Here, we have LHO as victim of a false flag conspiracy orchestrated by clandestine CIA agents who seek to rally the nation against communism in the face of the Bay of Pigs blunder.But even as the pulp novel Libra is, it doesn't satisfy. DeLillo, maybe in an attempt to avoid sounding like a sympathizer, takes an emotional distance to LHO (and virtually every character within) that allows no strong reader engagement. Even in a scene depicting LHO slapping around his Russian wife, Marina, it's so even-handed that the horror of the scene and the judgements a reader should be making on LHO are subverted. This may be a clever trick if there were some character play here, but it seems like DeLillo is as indifferent to all of the cast as the reader feels with no real meta-fictional pranks here.But, as stated above, it is a fun thought experiment--creating a cohesive and whole conspiracy around a man who is kind of an American myth in his own right. To that end, it's a decent excursion from the sometimes daunting pile of books that matter. If one enters with medium expectation, he will leave the book fulfilled.

Ron

The Kennedy assassination is the touchstone for the previous generation the way 9/11 will be for mine (my mother claims to have dropped me in the crib when it was announced that Kennedy had been shot and Mad Men portrayed it brilliantly as well). I've long read all of the conspiracy theories and the Warren Report, but this novel far surpasses any of the real or imagined explanations.

Angus Clark

I finished Libra. I've done the first 300 or so pages of Underworld, which was beautiful but at the same time not worth finishing. Libra condensed Delillo's style down to a more manageable 450 pages, and he only felt the need to give some stupid out of place remark about the nature of humanity every ten or so pages, as opposed to the every page dose I experienced with Underworld ("Longing on a large scale is what makes history," etc).The other problem was that the story is one that you are already familiar with. JFK gets shot. Ruby kills Oswald. It's common knowledge, and you can't read the rest of the book seriously knowing that much of it must only be conjecture. It doesn't help conspiracy theorists, and it doesn't really help dinnertime conversations, because Delillo has a story to tell, not a balanced overview of events - he is an author, not Nick Branch.In the end, it's more my fault than Delillo's - historical fiction and I, as a rule, get on badly. Real characters shouldn't be repurposed - that's why you have fiction in the first place. Alas. Alright story, alright writing, not worth finishing.

Michael

"Facts all come with points of view." --Talking HeadsI became reasonably convinced that Libra is Don DeLillo's masterpiece about halfway through. After slogging through the first quarter of the novel -- you're introduced to dozens of characters, and they're all revealed to you in that customarily opaque way that any reader of DeLillo will instantly recognize, and the dialogue only takes you so far because DeLillo characters don't talk to each other so much as around each other, and it takes a while to get on solid footing, except you never really get on solid footing with DeLillo, because he forces you to slow down, he writes prose that you can't glide over, and even when you have a handle on what's going on, he throws in a line that comes seemingly from nowhere but feels absolutely essential to your understanding of the novel, so you have little choice but to re-read the page, and so skimming is not an option, and even after all that close reading you STILL aren't given clear portraits of his characters, especially THESE characters, these men who live in the shadows, ruminating, plotting, conspiring, and instead you get to know them only through the sheer accretion of detail, which is all a roundabout way of saying that you have to stick with it because DeLillo assumes you're a patient and knowledgeable reader, and everyone knows what singular event this complicated engine with all its moving parts is chugging toward -- it all suddenly clicked into high gear.I've been an admirer of DeLillo's for a while, but never before have I been sucked into his world so completely as I did while reading Libra. More focused than the sprawling Underworld (though it does contain that breathtaking prologue) and less zany than White Noise (indeed, this book is as airtight and humorless as they come), this fictionalized account of the Kennedy assassination is a taut, frighteningly plausible re-imagining of the event that "broke the back of the American century." And it seems to me that it's the perfect representation of everything DeLillo is about.One such DeLillo hallmark on display is that sense of inexorability and dread hanging over every page. The plot to kill Kennedy may have started with a handful of disgruntled agents choosing to go off the reservation, but by November 22, 1963, the event seems almost preordained. And in DeLillo's version of Oswald, a treatment so sympathetic it led George Will to call it "an act of bad citizenship," you have a terrifically complex character, someone who believed he existed to shape history, but in truth, was someone shaped entirely BY history. Consider how after the assassination, Lee Oswald instantly and irreversibly becomes Lee Harvey Oswald, a name change so jarring that his mother no longer recognizes him as her son, but as a media creation forced into action by outside, alien forces.For a while I played the game that I'm sure most readers played (especially now that it's so easy to do), firing up the Internet and comparing what's real versus what DeLillo conjured up. But at some point I stopped, because it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter whether Win Everett and Larry Parmenter are less real than David Ferrie, or if Lee Oswald really said and thought those things while in Minsk, or if Jack Ruby really was commissioned by the Mafia to take Oswald out. To read this book and assume you've read what DeLillo believes happened is short-selling the novel. The lasting image for me is of DeLillo's stand-in Nicholas Branch, the semi-retired CIA agent being asked to write the secret history of the assassination, alone in his study with mountains upon mountains of material, all the minutiae and trivia and arcana given to him by some unknown, god-like Curator. There is no making sense of all that documentation, but because it is documented, because we have Oswald's pubic hair and Jack Ruby's mother's dental records, and every single frame of the Zapruder film noted and memorized, it assumes there should be sense to make, that if you crawl deep enough into the rabbit hole you will emerge with a coherent narrative. And the joke is that of course you won't. Libra may come off as deadly serious, but it sells that dark joke for all it's worth.

Erik Graff

A well-written fictionalized reconstruction of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald. Following a surprisingly conventional line, almost entirely in accord with the discredited Warren Commission Report, there's not much that is very helpful here, politically or historically speaking. Still, he writes well.

mark monday

a work of bright and ruthless genius, the jfk assassination as recounted by some alien being from the far future. well actually, not really, not at all. well actually, at times it felt like it. is delillo less than human or more than human? the novel makes no attempt to be historically factual. actually, the facts presented are reasonable and sound. the novel is historically factual, as much as anything can be. the narrative is, of course, almost too complex to be detailed. although it is, in its way, a straightforward narrative, straight as an arrow, straight as any history of well-known events could be. conspiracy theories, so many of them, competing with each other, often making complete sense as they are told, only to be collapsed by the next conspiracy theory. the conspiracy theory as just one version of the many-told tale, stories handed down from teller to teller. an interesting conceit. actually, more than that - storytelling is perhaps the point of the whole novel. what is the truth in a story? who is the real person behind the historical personage, behind the character in the story? the novel wonders: can reality ever truly be represented? such a humorous book at times. the jokes are secret jokes, told with a straight face. the deaths are no joke, no joke at all. the novel is dead serious. the death of lee harvey oswald is a harrowing, moving experience, the best sequence of many excellent sequences in the book. the novel is powerful and yet filled with minutiae, with meaningless detail. each detail is packed with meaning. it is a Choose Your Own Adventure, of sorts. astrology is real, it defines us and all of our actions. astrology is an illusion, as is motivation and circumstance and conspiracy and history itself. Libra is a post-modern classic. well, actually

Harold

Great novel on the JFK assassination. It presents itself very plausibly. It's not hard to believe that it could have happened this way. I'm sure many of us recall that when Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested one of the first things he told the police was "I'm a patsy." The context in which DeLillo places this statement is striking and memorable.

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