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Classic book review: Libra

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"All plots tend to move deathward,'' notes a character in DeLillo's previous novel, "White Noise,'' in which a toxic cloud threatens a small Midwestern community. The theme is repeated in "Libra'': "Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move toward death.''

Even the man who originally plots to have the gunman miss the President is found musing in this vein: "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 localize the force of the death outside the book, play it off, contain it.'' At this point (and elsewhere in the course of the narrative) the broodings of DeLillo and his characters intermingle so closely as to become indistinguishable.

Which is not to say that the characters are indistinguishable. Although the personalities of some of the conspirators do tend to blur into one another, three characters in the novel are very memorably portrayed: Oswald's hapless, embarrassing mother, Marguerite, upstaged even at the end in her grief by her pretty Russian daughter-in-law, Marina, who wins what vestige of sympathy the public has; Oswald's nemesis, the pathetic nightclub owner Jack Ruby, whose ironic fate is to see his identity merging in people's minds with that of the killer whose life he took; and Oswald himself, the odd boy who smiles when it doesn't make sense to smile, whom a school friend describes as "a misplaced martyr'' who "let you think he was just a fool, or exactly the reverse, as long as he knew the truth and you didn't.''

Yet the Oswald who walks into the conspirators' plot doesn't seem to know the truth about anything; and despite the masterly strokes with which DeLillo draws his personality, it still isn't clear exactly what Oswald thinks he is doing or why he is doing it.

Oswald's story consumes about half the book. It is interspersed with stories of the various planners, operatives, and incidentals involved in the conspiracy. The weaving of this tangled web is sporadically punctuated by the reflections of one Nicholas Branch, whom the Agency has commissioned to write the inside history of the assassination.

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