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New To Me: Review of Libra by Don DeLillo

Libra by Don DeLillo(New to Me books are books I’ve just read that have been out for more than a year – whether that means “a year and a bit” or “several decades”.)

Where I got it and why: From the local library, one of the books on The List

Recommended? Only if you’re a big fan of JFK assassination conspiracy theories.

Review: I can no longer remember just where I heard about this book or why I decided that I wanted to read it, but I have a sneaking suspicion it has something to do with a discussion on my favorite blog, Making Light. I also suspect it has something to do with the way I always think I’ll like conspiracy novels more than I actually do.

Libra is a fictionalized biography, both of Lee Harvey Oswald and of the JFK assassination. In addition to following Oswald through his befuddling 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 question is, how do they get there?

The thing I usually dislike about conspiracy theories is they tend to whittle down the importance of individual people. For all it does feature a CIA plot to assassinate JFK, Libra avoids this. 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. (This tension with history is almost certainly one of the things DeLillo was aiming at, and he deserves credit for it. It works.)

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 with few attributions, and tending toward stilted. For a book that was all about people and how they think, I found the dialogue horribly unconvincing. But the whole thing seemed a little – I don’t know, removed, as though you’re watching the characters through a pane of security glass. I like a little more immediacy in my characterization.

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.

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