Friday, August 5, 2011

Don DeLillo--LIBRA

Imagine for one second that there is a spectrum of writing that runs from poetry on one end to novels on the other. Poetry requires attention to individual words and even to the details smaller than words, while novels require the ability to manage and organize large sections of information and text. In that spectrum  you might put short stories right in the middle and perhaps you could even argue that they are the most artistic type of literature because they combine the strengths of both, or that they are the most difficult to write because they require overcoming the difficulties of both. On that spectrum I would put Don DeLillo way out on the novelist's end. His prose is notable for its flatness, its total drabness, while his books as a whole are notable for his skill in managing huge amounts of information.

I don't mean to say that DeLillo crams in a lot of facts are that his novels are extremely complex (though Underworld is a pretty complicated set of plots and subplots), but that his characters, motivated by mental quirks, tend to generate a lot of theories and assertions and pseudo-facts that pile up and need to be organized somehow. DeLillo's characters are not bundles of repressed emotions and desires. They are the embodiments of something that DeLillo calls "paranoia" but which has only a slight connection to what is normally meant by the word. For DeLillo it summarizes complex set of beliefs that his characters tend to exhibit. One is that everything in the world is connected. Two is that these connections are usually hidden, visible only to individuals with a special gift for sensing them. A third is that these connections become visible through "coincidence." For DeLillo, a paranoiac is one who tells stories that end with the classic line, "Coincidence?!?! I think NOT!" as though the mere idea that two things might have some secret connection is intrinsically fascinating, regardless of what the connection may be. It's not exactly delusional, but it's certainly different.

Dry prose and paranoids, then, are the stuff of a DeLillo novel, and take them as far from poetry as one could go. His writing has been described as "postmodern" for the way it captures a kind of anomie of modern society, especially in the conversations between people who don't have anything to say, full of questions and exclamations punctuated undramatically with periods, full of stock phrases and quotations from advertisements, conversations where people wonder what other people might say in a similar situation. This from Libra:
"I wonder," she said. "What do other people say to each other?"
"Now. I want to know what people say. Maybe there are things we haven't thought of." Laughing at herself. "Things we out to be saying."
"While having sex or afterward?"
"While having sex is not interesting. Moany-groany love talk. No, afterward, now."
"Do you think we've been saying the wrong things all these years?"
"Wouldn't you like to overhear? I don't want to watch other people. I want to listen."
"They talk about wanting a cigarette."
"Who was that on the phone?"
" 'Where are my cigarettes' That's what they say."
"He wouldn't tell me his name."
"Larry Parmenter. . ."

I suppose in some weird way that maybe this captures quite well the hopeless self-consciousness of modern society, or even captures a kind of postmodern attempt at post-coital cuteness in an age where every situation has been watched and rewatched in movies or television way too many times.  But from another perspective, this is just awful, dialogue that is empty of any personal motivations or significant emotions, doing nothing to say anything about the characters, except that they seem to be aware they have been cast in a DeLillo book where everybody--from CIA officials to Cuban paramilitary officers to strippers at a sleazy Dallas night club--seems to talk this way.

This kind of dialogue--and much of DeLillo's writing--is distinctly lacking in poetic appeal and works only in a bigger context, where one can zoom out and admire the architecture of the book. This is especially true in a massive work like Underworld, but the same holds for White Noise and Libra, where there are still several plots and complicated entanglements and intersections between characters' lives and ideologies. And from there one can--or maybe one is even required to--stop to think about DeLillo's philosophical outlook. He doesn't not have exactly the paranoiac's view that everything in the world is connected, but, something closer to the belief that the world is driven largely by paranoia--that is, DeLillo's specific brand of paranoia--and that all the paranoia that is out there tends to create its own connections and its own history.

This is certainly true in Libra, DeLillo's book about the Kennedy assassination, though that view is far from the most interesting part of the book. When I say "about the Kennedy assassination," I mean a certain version of the events of November 1963. DeLillo seems to be trying to square the official version of events with some of the more famous conspiracy theories, as though trying to give a version of events that would make both explanations correct but limited. For DeLillo, there was an extra shooter in the Grassy Knoll but it is Oswald's shot that kills JFK and Governor Connally. There is a conspiracy behind the assassination, though the assassination does not go according to their plan and Oswald is not knowingly part of it. Jack Ruby does have Mafia connections but he does not work for them, killing Oswald out of a combination of love of Kennedy and fear of his own demise at the hands of threatening gangsters. That is the "historical" background of the novel, and with that DeLillo sets out not to put flesh on a vague history, but rather to put ideas and connections behind these disparate historical personages.

The more original aspect of the book begins with a group of ex-CIA men and Cuban exiles are disgusted that President Kennedy, after the embarrassment of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, has turned his back on Cuba. As one of the exiles says:
"I thought about it a lot," Raymo said, "and I'll tell you my beliefs. I believed in the United States of America. The country that could do no wrong. It was bigger than anything, bigger than God. With the great U.S. behind us, how could we lose? They told us, they told us, they promise, they repeat and repeat. We have the full backing of the military. We went to the beaches thinking they would support us with air, with navy. Impossible we could lose. We are backed by the great U.S. What happens? We find ourselves in the swamps, lost and hungry, we are eating tree bark by this time, and the radio is saying, 'Attention, brigade, the owl is hooting in the barn.' "
Realizing that part of the trouble with that invasion was the inevitably poor planning and inability to truly commit that went along with its secrecy, the plotters realize they cannot succeed in ousting Fidel without the serious backing of the United States government. So, a more complicated plot is hatched: they will make put together a fake assassination attempt on the President that will be traceable back to Fidel, which will set the US back on track.

Intertwined with this plot is a life story of Lee Harvey Oswald, from a low-class upbringing in New York during which he becomes interested in Marxism, through time in the Marines, an attempted defection to the Soviet Union and a return to the States. Through all this, in DeLillo's version at least, Oswald is being watched by various elements in the US government, all of whom find him rather confusing though potentially useful. For the assassination plotters he is useful because he is persuadable and because he is a left-winger who has publicly supported Fidel.

And so they converge. From there everything is history. But for everyone in this book "history" is something grander than any human design, driven by forces beyond comprehension. The chief plotter has a bit of a premonition: "Plots carry there own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move toward death." Oswald, meanwhile, dreams of being part of "history":
He walked through empty downtown Dallas, empty Sunday in the heat and light. He felt the loneliness he always hated to admit to, a vaster isolation than Russia, stranger dreams, a dead white glare burning down. He wanted to carry himself with a clear sense of role, make a move one time that was not disappointed. He walked in the shadows of insurance towers and bank buildings. He though the only end to isolation was to reach the point where he was no longer separated from the true struggles that went on around him. The name we give this point is history.
While DeLillo is not great at capturing old fashioned human emotions, he is quite good getting people when they've entered the transcendent state above emotions that Oswald and the conspirators have reached of being driven entirely by that DeLillo paranoia. All ideas are connected, and these characters sense of reality has become so driven by ideas that for them, all of reality is connected. That is the delusion reason that lets these people--Oswald and the ex-CIA men alike--believe their individual actions can affect all of history.

Libra also contains an implicit criticism of the United States intelligence system for promoting this kind of delusion. Secrecy breeds paranoia, and DeLillo's uniqueness is in showing how this occurs for those let in on the secrets even more than those are are left out. Spying creates types of information that can only be made comprehensible by paranoia, DeLillo is saying. Take away the alternate histories in this book and that lesson remains, and is highly relevant where the constant National Security has become a permanent concern and our collective hunger for information has never been greater. In Libra, DeLillo has a Nicholas Branch living out a vision of this future governed by paranoia and information. He has been hired by the CIA to write the history of the event using every document they have collected, and the result is rather hilarious catalogue of secret information.
Branch thinks this is the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he'd moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.
Everything is here. Baptismal records, report cards, postcards, divorce petitions, canceled checks, daily timesheets, tax returns, property lists, postoperative x-rays, photos of knotted string, thousands of pages of testimony, of voices droning in hearing rooms in old courthouse buildings, an incredible haul of human utterance. It lies so flat on the page, hangs so still in the lazy air, lost to syntax and other arrangment, that it resembles a kind of mind-spatter, a poetry of lives muddied and dripping in language.
Documents. There is Jack Ruby's mother's dental chart, dated January 15, 1938. There is a microphotograph of three strands of Lee H. Oswald's pubic hair. Elsewhere (everything in the Warren Report is elsewhere) there is a detailed description of this hair. It is smooth, not knobby. The scales are medium-size. The root area is rather clear of pigment.
Branch doesn't know how to approach this kind of data. He wants to believe the hair belongs in the record. It is vital to his sense or responsible obsession that everything in his room warrants careful study. Everything belongs, everything adheres, the mutter of obscure witnesses, the photos of illegible documents and odd sad personal debris, things gathered up at a dying--old shoes, pajama tops, letters from Russia. It is all one thing, a ruined city of trivia where people feel real pain.  This is the Joycean Book of America, remember--the novel in which nothing is left out.
This does capture something about a certain kind of craziness that access to massive amounts of information can lead people to--the temptation to create stories, to find patterns, to find meaning in the noise. I think it is nonsense to pretend that our age is defined by such temptation (that is, when people discuss our "postmodern" lives), and I think this can mar DeLillo's work. Certainly it makes some of his characters lifeless. In Libra I think DeLillo's peculiar set of skills matches his peculiar subject, and he ends up with a good book about a peculiar kind of unemotional mentality.

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