by Paul Elie
from Georgetown University

Don DeLillo Got It Right

Assassination season is fully upon us now.  The airport shelves groan with “new” books about JFK.  The latest television series — series, plural — are up and running.  The commemorations are being put in place, the security forces engaged.

All this makes me think of Don DeLillo’s Libra, one of the most powerful and memorable novels I have read.  It’s hard to believe that the novel is a quarter century old now – that it was published shortly before the 25th anniversary of the assassination (when the airport shelves groaned with “new” books about JFK).  The novel offered what DeLillo, in a terse and eloquent Author’s Note, called “a way of thinking about the assassination without being constrained by half-facts or overwhelmed by possibilities, by the tide of speculation that widens with the years.”  And with its converging double plot (one plot involving Lee Harvey Oswald, the other involving a group of anti-Castro operatives) it offered a way of thinking about character and action in fiction, and in life itself.  It dramatized the question that the sudden preponderance of Big Data is making urgent all over again: the question of whether we exercise a degree of individual agency in our lives – call it free will – or are wholly shaped by forces biological and social which we compete against but never elude into the space of freedom.

“The tide of speculation that widens with the years.”  Probably I’ve missed something, but twenty-five years after Libra, we don’t know for sure who killed President Kennedy any better than in 1988 or 1963. 

This is why we look to art – to great works of art like Libra.

  • 7 November 2013
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