Don DeLillo
Viking, $19.95 (cloth)

Docudrama, at least in book form, is part of the great American literary tradition in which novelists appropriate and recreate historical figures. At mid-nineteenth century the iconoclastic Herman Melville, in Israel Potter, portrayed Benjamin Franklin as a self-interested sorcerer, a “Machiavelli in tents,” while, in the U.S. bicentennial year of 1975-76, an equally iconoclastic Gore Vidal gave us, in Burr, an obtuse and adipose George Washington waddling to his horse. Between the two, in The Financier and The Titan, Theodore Dreiser probed the Darwinian motives of a Charles Yerkes–like figure who was as socio-financially powerful as he was personally implacable.

In his new novel, Libra, Don DeLillo resumes a different part of this docudrama tradition, one less concerned with expose than with the vexed boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. DeLillo works the kind of territory exploited by Truman Capote’s self-styled nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood, and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. Libra, like them, concerns actual killers and victims, though DeLillo’s characters are not the anonymous murderers off the interstate and their “ordinary” prey. Because this novel deals with Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of President John F. Kennedy, its protagonist is a public byword from the outset, and DeLillo sets himself the task of making fresh characters who are already notorious in the public mind, giving suspense to a narrative already detailed in various post-assassination reports, depositions, and journalist accounts.

DeLillo forswears the Faulknerian or Joycean interior monologue, evidently believing such a form to be impossible in the age of the multi-media information explosion. Data (“data-spew,” he calls it) has overwhelmed the individual consciousness. “The Joycean Book of America . . . the novel in which nothing is left out” is no longer feasible. The very idea of comprehensiveness has become, of all things, the fiction of the historian.

And DeLillo does challenge the prerogatives of the historian whose facts, he argues, threaten to be chimerical when computers can tell us everything about our bank transactions and yet leave matters as seemingly simple as a hat size or time of day indeterminate. Embedded in Libra is the parable of the mute historian, a retired CIA senior analyst assigned to write the definitive account of the assassination. In the fifteenth year of his task, he works in a room overflowing with “an incredible haul of human utterance,” witnesses’ names, hearing transcripts, polygraph reports, canceled checks, tax returns, the grisly material of ballistics tests conducted on goat carcasses, human skulls, blocks of gelatin. Devoting his life to understanding a moment that “broke the back of the American century,”he has yet to write a word. His data “lies so flat on the page . . . lost to syntax and other arrangement, that it resembles a kind of mind-spatter.” The novelist, on the other hand, can spend a few weeks at the local library shelf on the Kennedy assassination and find the random points of light that will become a fictional constellation.

Ironically, in this twenty-fifth anniversary year of the assassination, a new generation of readers will for the first time, in this novel, encounter the names that cluster around Lee Harvey Oswald: Jack Ruby,  David Ferrie, Marguerite and Marina Oswald, Francis Gary Powers, Dealey Plaza, the Zapruder film, the Texas Schoolbook Depository. They will also probably find in Libra their true account of the background of that violent historical moment—not because of naivete on the part of DeLillo’s audience, but because this novel builds in a powerful argument for fiction’s appropriation of history. DeLillo essentially pits the novelist against the historian, which is to say fiction against nonfiction.

Indeed, to dip into volumes on the assassination is to see how closely DeLillo sticks with the published material. Lee’s mother, Marguerite, did appeal to a juvenile court judge to defend her truant son. Lee did take driving lessons  from his wife’s friend, Ruth Paine. Jack Ruby did vomit after hearing of the assassination. DeLillo amalgamates the conspiracy theories developed in the aftermath of the Warren Commission report  which Norman Mailer called “a congery of evasions”), basing his own theory on findings of the 1970s Congressional House Assassinations Committee, which expressed “suspicion” that elements of the Mafia and/or anti-Castro activists may have taken part in the plot.

Libra is also indebted to the BBC journalist Anthony Summers’s book Conspiracy, which argues the possibility that “a renegade element in U.S. Intelligence manipulated Oswald.”

DeLillo constructs exactly that scenario with fictionalized CIA men moved by zeal and greed. But DeLillo also questions the nature of conspiracy itself, presenting it on the one hand as “the perfect working of a scheme, a cold and certain game [by] silent nameless men with unadorned hearts” who find “coherence in some criminal act”; on the other, as “a rambling affair that succeeds in the short run due mainly to chance,” a  convergence of “deft men and fools, ambivalence and fixed will and what the weather was like.” This latter may suggest the reason for DeLillo’s preoccupation with conspiracy in virtually all his novels.

Libra is loosely biographical, following the episodes in Oswald’s life that weave into the convergent  conspiracies. We meet the schoolboy truant Lee in New York riding subways and passing days alone at the Bronx zoo, a casualty of his mother’s failed marriages and her instability. Shuttled through the South from New Orleans to Fort Worth and Dallas, Lee quits school at sixteen, joins the Marines, becomes a Marxist. The novel chronicles a remarkable life of defection to the Soviet Union, marriage to the Russian Marina Prusakova return to the U.S., and idealization of Castro’s revolution, which he hopes to join, proving his devotion in a diary and in pro-Castro political activity. DeLillo’s Oswald, above all, seeks to intervene in history:”he tried to feel history. . . he was a man in history now.”

Readers of DeLillo can certainly take pleasure in Libra. The chaacteistic barbs are here: “All over [the CIA] they were formulating plans to hit Fidel. It was an industry like wood pulp or shoes.” And no one writing today so well sees the metaphysical in the American mundane, or so clearly recognizes loneliness as the great American subject. It is a purely American moment when Lee, moved by the still, sleeping, pregnant Marina lying beside him, determines to begin saving immediately for a washing machine and a car, for an apartment with a balcony, for sleek and clean modern furniture. “These,” writes DeLillo, “are standard ways to stop being lonely.”

Libra, moreover, continues its author’s ongoing meditation on the mass media, especially television which virtually brackets the novel. In contrast to the rosy nostalgic fictional TV moments recalled in a number of recent novels, the boy Lee, sequestered in a forced, suffocating intimacy with his mother, watches the filter-tinted “blue heads [that] spoke to them from the TV screen.” Later we see Marina enraptured by an erotically televisual President Kennedy, and finally Lee’s detached sense of his televised death at the hand of Jack Ruby, which he watches onscreen: “He could see himself shot as the camera caught it. Through the pain he watched TV. . . . The only thing left was the mocking pain, the picture of the twisted face on TV.”

Yet Libra pays a high price for these fictional moments. The usually ebullient and bold DeLillo so curtails his range of language here that he competes, unsuccessfully, with his own sources. Too often we get paraphrase instead of the imaginative depth the novel at its best affords. Libra is too much a novelization, too little the kind of novel we have come to expect from DeLillo.

Within the past year two writers have departed from what they do best. Tom Wolfe’s decision to write a novel brought us The Bonfire of the Vanities, which at first satisfies readers’ Manhattan high-rise voyeurism but stalls badly when we realize that all the characters sound just alike, being loosed from the documentary sources that discipline Wolfe, force him to differentiate voice and character. Here, in Libra, DeLillo moves onto new journalism’s turf. Both should return to their lasts. You have only to compare DeLillo’s shot-down U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers, with Wolfe’s gripping description of Chuck Yeager’s ejection from a test plane in the opening scene of The Right Stuff to see how much DeLillo is out of his element. Each writer must have sought some kind of validation with a foray into another genre. In the 1980s the battle between fiction and history goes on. Now, these experiments done, may Tom Wolfe return to journalism and DeLillo get back to the novel, picking up where his splendid White Noise concluded.