On Reading DeLillo’s Libra

In Don Delillo’s Libra, all the men are of the same ilk to an extent that isn’t believable. They all seem shaped by DeLillo’s masculine sensibility. They are all in ¾ profile, or less. There’s a whole domain of feeling that none of them experience—or, being a domain, I should say “enter.” None enters it, this domain of feeling. It’s a place, broadly put, of vulnerable, soft emotions. (Believe me, I never thought this kind of thing would be my literary crusade.) 

Of course, any author, DeLillo included, is free to depict whichever sides of his characters, whichever emotional strains, whichever traits and tendencies, he chooses. But when 7 out of 7 of the main male figures in Libra neither emit or reflect some major portion of the emotional spectrum, then we call that statistically anomalous, or “curiously devoid.” To use DeLillo’s language, each has a shadowed corner where things like doubt, sympathy, sadness, and vulnerability reside. This corner is thoroughly and consistently unilluminated, and it looks not like the characters keeping these recesses unexplored, but the author.

All the men, from Oswald to Parmenter to Ferrie to Mackey to Ruby (and more) can be described as thoughtful, cunning, suspicious, determined, hardened, intelligent, incisive, paranoid, deep. But not even Ferrie, the homosexual (was DeLillo aware of this name choice? Was it a historically accurate name? Terrible choice if his), can be said to be fanciful, lighthearted, open, even just in general to be a feeling or expressive kind of person. Even when Ferrie has a sexual encounter with Oswald, we don’t really understand his motive; the incident begins and ends in about three sentences, and we learn nothing of what either he or Oswald thinks. Nothing! Not even a mention from either that acknowledges it took place. One could say, Well, these are ex-CIA men, Communists, radicals, Marines, and the like. But men in these professions are people too. They have hearts. They have fears. They have weaknesses. They have emotional capacities and emotional responses. Even people who don’t want to have emotional responses have them.

DonDeLillo_LibraNow, yes, the book draws on real historical events and people. You might say, What’s DeLillo supposed to do, make all these guys touchy-feely if none of them were in so-called real life? It’s immaterial. DeLillo imagines the waiter dropping silverware when Parmenter is at dinner. He imagines a woman walking ahead of Oswald on a New Orleans street as acting wary of being followed, stopping to let Oswald pass. He imagines Oswald hits his wife, and makes love to her. But he never imagines Oswald to have any feelings about his hitting his wife or about making love to her.

Jack Ruby has a habit of asking the dancers at his club if they think he’s a little “swishy.” Does he look gay? Does he come off as one of those that could play for the other team? It’s telling that he does this, but when, narratively, we get his inner satisfaction about the heft and texture of a grapefruit (a whole, and great, paragraph), why not a word on his inner motive for asking women about his appearance? It’s surely more nuanced than simple fear or homophobia. Nothing in DeLillo’s interpretation is simple. It would be anomalous if it was; and so this exclusion is what looks swishy.

In one scene, four or five of these guys are at a camp or cabin of some kind, conspiring, inspecting weaponry, talking as always in slanted, ricocheting dialogue. One of these men, Raymo, seems to have a moment of haunted recollection about the past; he took part in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and was subsequently held captive during Castro’s coup. What DeLillo tells us is that the man was silent “a full two minutes” before starting to eat the food before him. Now, when we spend paragraph after paragraph inside the heads of each and every one of these guys, and get sentence upon sentence about shadows, the skittering world, the world inside the world, the world outside the world, all the things that history is and isn’t, ruminations on the menace of national events, the ins and outs of ism after ism, it simply looks like a glaring incapacity when the author won’t go anywhere near a character in his moment of weakness or pain, one which we as readers are very curious about and one which would in fact balance out the copious passages of steely brooding. How unaccountable that all the men are capable of and interested in and devoted to mulling so much about everything outside of themselves, yet none dare look within. I wouldn’t believe it if 7 of 7 were vegetarians or avid miniature golfers, and I don’t believe it that not a one of them can say what’s going on in their precious little hearts.

It is fun at first for a writer like myself to pick up a book such as Libra and see that this business of wordsmithing and storytelling can also attend to the macho world of the CIA and conspiracies and national intrigue and history. Art is of course unprejudiced; it will bend to any purpose. I wouldn’t want it any other way. If some people think novels these days are too often concerned with introspection, feeling, struggle, inner turmoil, love (gasp) and such, I’d be hard-pressed to say it’s not true. Furthermore, as a reader, if all novels and stories dealt with the inner struggles and painful inadequacies and whatever other girly stuff I am occupied with in my fiction (so far), I’d be as nauseated as anyone else. But after 300 pages of Libra, there is a way in which this kind of imbalance in the characters rings patently untrue, and a thoughtful reader wonders whether this originates in the author’s uncertainty, cowardice, a blind spot, stubbornness, delusion, or what.