The Best Book I Read in 2011

Stephen King is receiving a lot of praise for his new doorstop 11/22/63. For all I know, that praise may be justified, and one day soon I will see for myself. But it’s hard for me to imagine that King’s assassination epic will be as good as Don DeLillo’s often-overlooked assassination epic Libra. I wrote the following mini-essay about the book on my Goodreads profile earlier this year; I reprint it here because I have nothing further to add to it. It took a while to get into, but no other book had my mind swimming during and afterward as much as this one.

For the record, here are the other books I’ve chosen over the last few years as my favorite reads of the year:

2005: The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss
2006: The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
2007: American Pastoral, by Philip Roth
2008: The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
2009:  Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner
2010: Remainder, by Tom McCarthy

And now, this year, Don DeLillo’s Libra:

“Facts all come with points of view.”
–Talking Heads

I became reasonably convinced that Libra is Don DeLillo’s masterpiece about halfway through. After slogging through the first quarter of the novel — you’re introduced to dozens of characters, and they’re all revealed to you in that customarily opaque way that any reader of DeLillo will instantly recognize, and the dialogue only takes you so far because DeLillo characters don’t talk to each other so much as around each other, and it takes a while to get on solid footing, except you never really get on solid footing with DeLillo, because he forces you to slow down, he writes prose that you can’t glide over, and even when you have a handle on what’s going on, he throws in a line that comes seemingly from nowhere but feels absolutely essential to your understanding of the novel, so you have little choice but to re-read the page, and so skimming is not an option, and even after all that close reading you STILL aren’t given clear portraits of his characters, especially THESE characters, these men who live in the shadows, ruminating, plotting, conspiring, and instead you get to know them only through the sheer accretion of detail, which is all a roundabout way of saying that you have to stick with it because DeLillo assumes you’re a patient and knowledgeable reader, and everyone knows what singular event this complicated engine with all its moving parts is chugging toward — it all suddenly clicked into high gear.

I’ve been an admirer of DeLillo’s for a while, but never before have I been sucked into his world so completely as I did while reading Libra. More focused than the sprawling Underworld (though it does contain that breathtaking prologue) and less zany than White Noise (indeed, this book is as airtight and humorless as they come), this fictionalized account of the Kennedy assassination is a taut, frighteningly plausible re-imagining of the event that “broke the back of the American century.” And it seems to me that it’s the perfect representation of everything DeLillo is about.

One such DeLillo hallmark on display is that sense of inexorability and dread hanging over every page. The plot to kill Kennedy may have started with a handful of disgruntled agents choosing to go off the reservation, but by November 22, 1963, the event seems almost preordained. And in DeLillo’s version of Oswald, a treatment so sympathetic it led George Will to call it “an act of bad citizenship,” you have a terrifically complex character, someone who believed he existed to shape history, but in truth, was someone shaped entirely BY history. Consider how after the assassination, Lee Oswald instantly and irreversibly becomes Lee Harvey Oswald, a name change so jarring that his mother no longer recognizes him as her son, but as a media creation forced into action by outside, alien forces.

For a while I played the game that I’m sure most readers played (especially now that it’s so easy to do), firing up the Internet and comparing what’s real versus what DeLillo conjured up. But at some point I stopped, because it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether Win Everett and Larry Parmenter are less real than David Ferrie, or if Lee Oswald really said and thought those things while in Minsk, or if Jack Ruby really was commissioned by the Mafia to take Oswald out. To read this book and assume you’ve read what DeLillo believes happened is short-selling the novel. The lasting image for me is of DeLillo’s stand-in Nicholas Branch, the semi-retired CIA agent being asked to write the secret history of the assassination, alone in his study with mountains upon mountains of material, all the minutiae and trivia and arcana given to him by some unknown, god-like Curator. There is no making sense of all that documentation, but because it is documented, because we have Oswald’s pubic hair and Jack Ruby’s mother’s dental records, and every single frame of the Zapruder film noted and memorized, it assumes there should be sense to make, that if you crawl deep enough into the rabbit hole you will emerge with a coherent narrative. And the joke is that of course you won’t. Libra may come off as deadly serious, but it sells that dark joke for all it’s worth.

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