Every now and then I read – or in this case, reread – a novel that meshes with the events in the world around me. The novel takes on a new meaning, or I see it in a new way, that is external to the narrative itself, but it gets at something fundamental about the author's understanding of the world or of history. It makes me see things a bit more clearly and helps me to think outside of my normal perspective.
The novel that I want to write about for this post is Don DeLillo's Libra, his imagining of Lee Harvey Oswald's life leading up to to Kennedy's assassination. This novel today hit me in a spot where I think about history and mythology, I think about personal connections, and I think about the personal ownership that we take of historical events. I haven't really taken the time to sort out everything that this means, but here goes.
Libra does something that I have seen DeLillo do in other novels that take on historical subjects. That is, he wants to reach inside the minds of people who have done terrible things and try to understand them. Oswald, in this version of the story, is constantly aggrieved and I think that DeLillo wanted to understand what it takes to be positioned in the midst of a conspiracy, to feel alienation while also pushing people away. Throughout this novel, Oswald justifies his actions and backtracks to re-narrate his own history. One example of this follows the actual story of Oswald defecting to the USSR and then returning to America, effectively defecting his adopted country. In the novel, Oswald thinks that he will receive some kind of recognition in USSR that he did not get in his birth country or in the Marines. When this doesn't happen, when he is not lionized for what he sees as his courageous actions or rewarded for the risks that he has taken, he is immediately disillusioned and begins plotting this return to America. When he gets back to America, he plays off this defection as a part of his larger plan to infiltrate the Soviets and bring intelligence back to the USA. He similarly plays double- or triple-agent when either joining or infiltrating the Fair Play for Cuba committee. Oswald tries to recast his own actions in the best way to suit himself. This re-narration conflates his personal history with a set of changing goals and motivations. In this way, the character constantly recontextualizes his own actions and, thus, his own life so that his conception of himself is always aligned with whatever his current goals tend to be. He does not see any inconsistencies in his actions, nor does he see any contradiction between what he wanted in the past and what he wants now.
In the closing pages of this novel, Oswald is perched in the book depository in Dallas, taking aim at the president. In this fictionalized version of events, Oswald takes the first two shots, but his third shot misses. He sees Kennedy get hit through his scope from a different direction, shot by another sniper. After this, Oswald struggles to figure out how he fits into the scheme, realizing that the whole conspiracy was more complex than he had imagined. Then, after Oswald is killed by Jack Ruby, Oswald's mother vows to take up her son's cause to find out what had actually happened, thinking that Oswald had been railroaded or was set up to be the patsy. DeLillo plays with historical questions and conspiracy theories throughout the novel, but in a way that makes both the reader and Oswald question what is real. The question over what is real becomes more and more complex the more that different narratives are overlain atop one another. Oswald is, in some ways, a more sympathetic character because of this. The reader is lost in the mire of narratives, as Oswald himself is.
DeLillo plays a sleight-of-hand here that creates a false sense of identity between Oswald and the reader. Because Oswald's motivations and his relationship to the truth are thrown into question and the reader is likewise questioning these very same things, the reader may feel some connection to this Oswald even while this Oswald treats people terribly and plots horrific acts. DeLillo also plays a game here with Oswald's guilt that is similar to something that happens in Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. I am going to digress here for a moment because I think that this is significant. In An American Tragedy, Clyde Griffiths murders his pregnant girlfriend because he likes his prospects with a new, richer girlfriend better. Clyde's lawyer tries to get him off the hook by invoking a kind of regret-while-in-action defense. Basically what this means is that he admits that Clyde did set out to kill his girlfriend, and he did strike the blow that killed her. However, so that argument goes, as his arm was descending with the weapon to club her to death, Clyde repented of his act and tried to pull back, but it was too late, his arm was already in motion and he supposedly-unwittingly killed her without actually meaning to because in that last moment he didn't mean to. He was just trapped by the inevitability of his actions up to that point.
So this sort of cynical attempt to garner sympathy for a killer is something that Oswald seems to court as well, in this novel. As Oswald watches Kennedy's assassination, he momentarily regrets and wonders what his actual role in the murder is. Oswald (again, in the novel) attempts to recast his own guilt even in the moment. DeLillo has used these tactics elsewhere, as well.
In Falling Man, DeLillo's novel about the aftermath of 9/11, the very end of the novel puts the reader into the perspective of one of the terrorists aboard one of the planes. The moment is shocking and confusing because this perspective is utterly foreign to so many Americans traumatized by that attack. His purpose, I believe, was to think about the unthinkable and to attempt to view history from that unthinkable perspective. I think that in the case of the terrorist and in the case of Oswald, DeLillo makes us share a perspective with these characters in order to humanize them so that we can see motivation and see confusion. I don't mean here that he wants to make them sympathetic, per se. I think that the goal is that by demystifying these people, by stripping away their monstrosity, we begin to see the horrific acts within a new historical context. Seeing a human who chooses to do an awful thing as a monster is easy. It doesn't take any thought to dehumanize even someone who may seem brutal in their actions. But this also strips the human of agency. A monster cannot help but be monstrous. Humans can help being monstrous and it makes us short-circuit the thinking that we, in turn, could never act in monstrous ways. See, dehumanizing others based on their actions is a means that we use to protect ourselves. The thinking goes that I am human so I would never do that atrocious thing. Likewise my friends and family, the people I know. We are, thus, insulated from the harm that we may do to others, whether intentionally or not.
So at the end of all of this, I wonder whether DeLillo is right. Do we need to see the monster as human? To see things from that perspective? That is a difficult question, but I think that it is one worth grappling because I am not certain that this is necessary or good. I don't think that it is bad necessarily, I just don't know. To me, this is what fiction at its finest should do. I was born well after Kennedy's assassination and so only know it as a historical fact and never felt the trauma of it. I was a young man on 9/11 and I well remember the terrifying shift that the nation felt at that moment and the uncertainty that filled the days and years after. Yet I felt a disconnection from the event. I don't think that this is entirely uncommon. There is a concept called “vicarious trauma” that was discussed a lot in the years following 9/11. The idea is that by seeing events on television and the ensuing news reports and by experiencing the aftereffects that the terrorist attacks had on the country, it is possible to be traumatized by something that happened to someone else, to feel the trauma as though it has happened to oneself. There were a lot of critics in the years following 9/11 that thought that this was an apt diagnosis for many Americans.
This might be what DeLillo is doing. He may be trying to align our experience with those of others. If this is the case, then I do think that there is value in this exercise. I think that learning motivations and considering what others think and feel, even when we disagree – especially when we disagree – is vital. I also think that acknowledging a multiplicity of perspectives and narratives is vital to understanding history. We don't necessarily need to know the different versions but we need to be aware of that they are out there. This may be the most difficult part and it may be what ultimately helps us to see the unseeable.
I am going to end this here and try to reconstruct what I was thinking in a later post because the paragraph that I just deleted got way abstract than even the rest of this post has been. Digress and digress.