Words in Boxes

Nouns, verbs, and occasionally adjectives.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Book Review: Libra

When I first picked up Libra by Don DeLillo, I didn't know the novel was about Lee Harvey Oswald, which is fortunate for DeLillo, because if I had known, I probably wouldn't have read it. The thing I hate about historical novels, especially ones as intricate as this one, is how I don't know its ratio of truth to fiction. But DeLillo is very conscious about writing in this space, and revels in it.

Libra is a book I feel I should like more but don't. It's like a good jog - hard getting started, vaguely uncomfortable groove in the middle, but satisfying when finished. It follows Oswald from his childhood until his death at the hands of Jack Ruby, depicting him as a weak-willed man who explains away his own personal failures as the casualties of sweeping historical forces beyond his control. He makes an easily-suggestible target for conspiring men, and conspiracies do abound, as you might expect, all orchestrated by ugly, back-stabbing, amoral men in seedy hotel rooms.

One bit I liked (and I'm a sucker for this kind of thing) is how DeLillo occasionally interrupts the main narrative with sections about the struggle of a CIA historian to write a secret history of the assassination that he cannot finish and no one will ever read. The historian, holed up in his study, slowly buries himself under the weight of the evidence – papers, photographs, biographies – unable to let any fact, no matter how trivial, escape examination.

DeLillo's writing is staccato and disconnected – sentences without verbs, events out of order – which is hard to get used to, but works. If you are looking for a page turner, this is not it. If you're looking for aesthetically pleasing prose, this isn't your book either. But if you like fiction that explores the ground between history and fiction - and you have the patience to read it - you should pick it up.

I'm James Sulak, a software developer in Houston, Texas.

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