A new kind of novel at the time when metafiction and intertextual references had cycled through several decades since Welcome to the Fun House, though the seeds of Libra are clearly present in White Noise. It seems DeLillo became obsessed with drilling into the core of the American media/military/mythological complex.
Feels like it could have literally been put together with fragments from a real investigation archive (such an investigation is explored as a frame story, but isn’t used as a literal grounding—the novel functions at a higher level of abstraction than that).
Many of the core ideas of Libra can be found in embryonic form in White Noise, particularly the idea of plots (in multiple senses of the word) moving towards death, DeLillo’s characteristic representation of entropy. Where White Noise is more of a meditation/clustering of concepts around a loosely formed plot, Libra is very deliberately shaped around an interleaved narrative structure which paints history as a patina rather than flowing through a cohesive series of events. Like a symphony of coincidence, it brings in more and more characters and details and scenes to the point of being overwhelming with a constant sense of unease. The challenge for the reader is to simultaneously hold in place the competing explanations of irrational coincidence and rational conspiracy. Grand narratives of history are constructed by clumsy and uncertain individuals.
Oswald comes across as a simple man, confused rather than unreliable, looking for a place in the world. His mounting desperation and brutality contrasts with the right-wing bravado, cynicism and subterfuge of the crimeland and intelligence men. One of the best aspects of this portrayal is how effectively DeLillo evokes the sense of isolation and confusion as the dyslexic and vaguely literate Oswald tries to comprehend vast works of modern history and literature and derives his own meaning from them.
From the author’s 2005 introduction:
See the truth and know it if you can.
Happiness is taking part in the struggle, where there is no borderline between one’s own personal world and the world in general.
He tried to feel history in the cell. This was history out of George Orwell, the territory of no-choice. He could see how he’d been headed here since the day he was born. The brig was invented just for him. It was just another name for the stunted rooms where he’d spent his life.
Maybe what has to happen is that the individual must allow himself to be swept along, must find himself in the stream of no choice, the single direction. This is what makes things inevitable. You use the restrictions and penalties they invent to make yourself stronger. History means to merge. The purpose of history is to climb out of your own skin.
Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move towards death. He believed that the idea of death is woven into the nature of every plot. A narrative plot no less than a conspiracy of armed men. The tighter the plot of a story, the more likely it will come to death. A plot in fiction, he believed, is the way we localise the force of the death outside the book, play it off, contain it. The ancients staged mock battles to parallel the tempests in nature and reduce the fear of gods who warred across the sky. He worried about the deathward logic of his plot. He’d already made it clear that he wanted the shooters to hit a Secret Service man, wound him superficially. But it wasn’t a misdirected round, an accidental killing, that made him afraid. There was something more insidious. He had a foreboding that the plot would move to a limit, develop a logical end.