on 27 February 2004
'Libra' is absolutely brilliant. Simply by the biography of Lee Oswald it is gripping and intense, but combined with the infamous conspiracies in which he may (or may not) have been involved, the probing descriptions of the agents, Oswald's wife and his mother it is a masterful novel.
You're constantly wondering what is fact and fiction, a device that is as clever as it is easy to employ on such a subject; The entire enigma of JFK's assassination is tightly woven into American fabric thirty one years on.
Delillo has created something powerful and moving with 'Libra' and I can't recommend it enough. It is a daunting trip into an incomprehenisble time in American history.
on 19 April 2010
Somtimes you see a book and read a few reviews on Amazon and you just know it's for you.Immediately after starting this book I had a feeling it was going to be superb.The writing is first class,the kind that is rare.The story is of course familiar but added to in a clever sophisticated way,rather than blindly slapping on layers of conspiracy.Regardless of the subject matter it's a stand up book and he surely could have written an equally engrossing book if he had just made it all up.It pulls you in,and you won't find yourself racing through the last few pages.A classic to the very last word.
on 18 May 2000
Another superb read from perhaps the greatest American writer of his geneartion. Unlike many novels concerning JFK/LHO DeLillo's attempt details event from two different angles. The first which explores Lee Harvey Oswald's life is well 'fleshed out' by the authors dazzling creativity and is, in my view, the more interesting of the pair. The other more convetnional plot sees the infamous conspiracy to assasinate the young president unfold. Such is the quality of the authors delivery and characterisation, by the end we are left sypathising with Lee Harvey Oswald, one of the most notorious men of the twentieth century. On the whole I'd recommend this novel to anyone who has enjoy DeLillo previously or anyone with a general interest in the recent history of the U.S.A.
on 12 February 2015
DDL is variable - between the torrid brilliance of White Noise and The Names, and the piffling pseudery of The Body Artist, for example, lies a Grand Canyon of quality - but this novel packs a powerful punch. Some of the protagonists are still household names, other less so (and many don't use their real names anyway), but note how they inhabit the margins of things - cities, towns, organisations, society, themselves - and the thwarted bitterness running like a poisoned stream through their lives. They want someone to blame, someone to take it out on, and there are cleverer, more shadowy figures lurking in the background who are prepared to push all the right buttons to ensure they do just that. The book has the clammy tension of a first-rate thriller and scenes of vivid brutality punctuate the action - Oswald in military prison; Jack Ruby kicking the stuffing out of a man who gropes one of his club hostesses. Violence is the keynote of this extraordinary work and though the killing of Kennedy is its denouement it seems that, even today, more than 50 years after the event, no closure has been reached, the terrible wounds still gaping wide open.
on 13 July 2012
At a question and answer session a few years ago the somewhat overrated actor Gary Oldman was asked: throughout his long and winding career, what was the most enjoyable role he has had the pleasure of playing? Oldman did not ponder, instead instantly blurting out
"Oswald. He didn't do it, by the way."
This seven word statement was followed by cheers and a round of applause from a now rowdy, clearly conspiracy oriented, audience. Oliver Stone in the years following JFK had been a quite staunch conspiracy theorist - on one occasion forcing the late JFK Jr. to leave a dinner by consistently turning the conversation with lines like "you can't seriously believe the Warren Commission?" - but Oldman's quote and the subsequent response showed that the events of November 22, 1963 still have an effect on Americans as the fiftieth anniversary looms, and possibly the wrong effect.
I start with this grim reminder as I could not help but feel that DeLillo's book must have, at some point, been considered as a Hollywood project. Published in 1988, long before Stone picked up a copy of On the Trail of the Assassins, DeLillo's writing plays upon the reader's images of Oswald and Ruby in such a way that its translation to screen would have been seamless. A further positive would be that DeLillo, unlike Stone, Garrison or Marrs, readily admits that his piece is fiction - a positive step in story telling which neither of the other two acknowledged about their own. It would not be hard to imagine this book with fifty pages of footnotes and placed on the `Alternate History' shelves of your local bookstore. But it is this which DeLillo has done so well, he has taken an existing subject, gone down the "what if?" line, and written a wonderful story which smacks of reality in all the right places. Take the portrayal of Marguerite Oswald for example, the paranoid bizarre little lady that hired Mark Lane to "defend" Oswald in front of the Warren Commission. In Libra, Marguerite lives in her own world, consistently having to justify herself to a judge in her own fictional world. For example:
Now, about Marina as Russian or French. It is amazing how her English improved right after Lee is killed. It is amazing how she suddenly has a cigarette in her hand, which I never witnessed when Lee was alive. I will research the picture of Marina to learn if it is true. (p. 452)
DeLillo frames her as a control freak that could control nothing and he does it beautifully. As he did with the fictional Nicholas Branch, a character which all researchers on the assassination (myself included) can relate to in one way or another. Branch, a retired employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, lives in his study which houses everything one could possibly need to write a history of the assassination and more. It would be easy to exchange the name Branch for `McAdams' or, more poignantly, `Bugliosi' - ignoring the conspiracy/lone-gunman element, of course.
Closing in on 2013, the National Archives have recently released a statement saying that they will use their full mandate and release the remaining hundred-thousand documents in 2017, despite Michael Kurtz previously saying otherwise. Some still believe that these classified documents hold the key to the assassination, and there is no doubt that when they are released there will be swathes of people rushing in to look them over, as in the 1990s following the JFK Act (the one positive achieved by Stone's motion picture). It is difficult to imagine that any document will be uncovered that will lead to headlines the next day, however it is very likely that more disgraceful incidents of ignoring CIA, FBI and Secret Service protocol will be found. Initially these came to the fore because of groundbreaking work by John Newman, an ex-Army intelligence officer turned lecturer. Newman found that the Agency had deliberately withheld information on Oswald from the FBI and Secret Service, even going as far as to move it into different files so that others within their organisation would not stumble upon and disseminate it. Newman worked tirelessly, interviewing all those he could that appeared in the files, some of whom were nonagenarians. When Newman released his book, Oswald and the CIA, in 1995 it was an extremely embarrassing episode for a lot of people. Yet, the reasons for this game of hide-the-file are still unknown. My hope is that the 2017 release will highlight concrete reasons for doing so, however one thing is almost certain - there will be no one to interview this time. You would be hard pressed to find an Agency apologist who would say that this was not the reason for the coy status - time is a healer.
Ultimately, the legacy of the assassination will be the innumerable fantasies created to understand the gaps in the official record, gaps that those responsible for the official record do not acknowledge. Every book has to make a "leap of faith" to join the first dot and the hundredth, but unlike DeLillo who readily accepts that he has written a fictional account of an alternate reality, the conspiracy theorists sell theirs as authentic works of history. This is damaging to reason and logical thinking. Is it unsurprising that many of those that believe a huge conspiracy killed Kennedy also believe that a cruise missile hit the Pentagon? Their books belong in the fictional section, but not on the same shelf as Libra, and not even in the same breath as DeLillo.
on 27 June 2015
This is an OK read, but throughout the book I kept thinking, but is this bit true or has DeLillo made this up? The problem is that while some of the story is obviously based on facts relating to Lee Harvey Oswald and the assassination of JFK, a lot of the details are fiction, invented by the author to turn a news item into a story. The same with the characters: some are real and some aren't. But we don't know where the division lies, and while this might not matter to some readers, for me it reduced the enjoyment of the story.
The thing is, it's interesting if true. But the parts that aren't true lose that interest value, and because this can't work as a thriller, because we already know the outcome, it fails as an entertaining novel. Facts should be interesting, fiction should be entertaining, but mixing the two is difficult, and in my view it doesn't really work here.
I found the opening chapter, written in short, blunt sentences that soon grated on me, rather poor, but luckily it began to pick up soon after, and gradually the novel grew in stature, till it reached a peak towards the end when we get to the assassination scene, which I thought was really good. This is followed by a weaker last chapter seen from Oswald's mother's point of view. So overall, rather a mixed bag: not bad, not great.
on 7 January 2005
The way the author links up the life of Lee Harvey Oswald (the Libra of the title) with the multiple and convoluted conspiracies to stage an assassination attempt is completely engrossing. Oswald's imagined life on its own is fascinating, and if the depiction of the workings of the CIA is anything like the reality, we should all have a long deep look at how our world works.
Unusually for DeLillo, the minor characters, mainly invented, are all brilliantly portrayed and the reader cares about how each and every one of them ends up. DeLillo's notorious way (or lack of it) with dialogue actually works in this novel (whereas for me it fails utterly in a novel like Underworld).
The assassination scene finally arrives after 400 pages of intrigue and is well worth the wait. It's so well written that the events seem to flash in slow motion across your eyes as you read.
The only bum note for me was the depiction of Jack Ruby, who is written as a kind of afterthought. The author is obviously constrained by the factual basis, but Ruby's own story could have been more thoughtfully interweaved.
on 6 March 2007
I had to read 'Libra' for my university module on Contemporary American Fiction. I have to say I was impressed. I had not done much (if any) research on the assasination of JFK before reading the novel, so in part it has constructed my view of events.
The novel depicts the 'un-media-filtered' version of events, following Oswald from young boy, to man, to assasin... or was he? Don DeLillo gives you many angles on Oswald himself, giving you a chance to come to your own conclusions.
The meaning of the title itself- and I don't want to spoil it- at first seems a little 'corny', but given a second look, you can appreciate the multi-levels of meaning Don DeLillo is conveying.
This utterly compelling novel, I found confused some people, but I really enjoyed it. It takes an event in history, rips it up, and re-constructs it, playing with stereotypes, and challenging assumptions.
I'm not surprised DeLillo has received the positive acclaim he has for his novels. I liked it so much, that I went out and bought Underworld.
on 30 December 2009
Your reaction to this book depends, I think, on whether you have read James Ellroy's trilogy of America in the 1950s and 1960s. Ellroy himself cites Libra as an inspiration, and you can see the connections and overlaps.
If you haven't read Ellroy, then Libra reads as an entertaining blend of fact and fiction, and an interesting depiction of Lee Harvey Oswald. It depicts the `conspiracy' as part-deliberate, part-accidental, part-malicious and part-farcical. Which may well be an accurate concoction. When it was written, it was certainly an unusual and insightful way of approaching something that already seemed done to death.
If you have read American Tabloid et al, then the deficiencies in Libra begin to stand out even more starkly. Ellroy succeeded where Delillo failed. Ellroy made the conspirators a set of three-dimensional beings; tangible in their flaws and foibles, zealous in their chaotic politics, capable and yet easily dismantled. Ellroy also brought the Kennedys and their acolytes to life - vital if the reader of forty years later is to truly feel the sense of the era, and what drove extremists within it. Delillo does none of these things - his conspirators are too slight, and flit in and out of the narrative too much. The absence of the high-level politics in Washington is a serious omission - the reader needs to really understand why Cuba and the Bay of Pigs still mattered so much to these characters, and why they could countenance shooting their own President. Without this strategic view, the motivations fail to convince.
In addition, where Ellroy has a drive and a pace to his narrative, Delillo's falls flat generally, and especially in the middle third. Ruby is introduced far too late; he seems an afterthought and merely clutters up what should have been the acceleration towards a climax. I agree with other reviewers who found the last forty pages poorly thought-out and badly delivered.
In summary, this may have been a stand-out book when it was written, and deserves props for its ambitious approach and interesting angles. However, once Ellroy got going, he showed how this book should have been written.
on 3 January 2014
Fact and fiction merge in this rich reimagining of the Kennedy assassination told through the lives of some of its main protagonists. DeLillo conveys successfully the dark tensions and vehement politics that suffused extremist America in the 1950's and 60's, counterbalancing his imagined history with the confused and convoluted reality any investigation into the assassination swiftly becomes.
Libra is a detailed, well observed and fascinating period piece that is social history and thriller in one.