DeLillo Predicts the News

A novelist attuned to perennial cycles of history, tragedy, and farce joins the Library of America

The Library of America’s release of a volume featuring three Don DeLillo novels, The Names, White Noise, and Libra, elevates to canonical status the work of a postmodernist with a knack for sketching the outline of a scenario years before it becomes an object of obsession.

There is so much fine writing in this volume that you may lose yourself in it and overlook the fact that DeLillo’s consciousness dwells in that place his disciple, David Foster Wallace, described in the story “Good Old Neon,” where all things that have been or will be in the universe at one time or another coexist. It is sad that so many of the scenarios anticipated by DeLillo, in his stories and novels, redefine our sense not of the tragicomic but of the tragic, full stop.

DeLillo

Much of what DeLillo has depicted in his long career foreshadows events that grip the world today. The scenario playing out now in Moscow, Idaho, is like that of DeLillo’s short story “Midnight in Dostoyevsky,” which ran in the New Yorkerin November 2009. This tale is an account of a pair of boys in a snow-swept college town who wander the streets and come up with theories about a stranger walking around in an anorak and creeping them out. Their befuddlement over who he is or what his role in the town might be is akin to the floundering of the police, the media, and online sleuths desperate for any clues as to what may have happened to the four dead kids in Idaho. But it is in his novels that DeLillo reveals the full scope of his imaginative and prognosticative vision.

The Mists of History

The new LOA volume contains a novel, Libra, displaying a prescience no less uncanny than that of “Midnight in Dostoyevsky.” Libra is an account of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President John F. Kennedy, Jr., or at least one of the people responsible for his death. The Oswald we meet in this novel is a young man so pitifully eager for relevance and importance that this need becomes an ideology of its own and makes any kind of party or political affiliation into more or less of a footnote.

He joins the Marines for the reasons people in mid-century America usually did, namely patriotism and loathing of communism, then meets a militant named Konno while stationed in Japan and becomes radicalized, accidentally shoots himself, shares a cell with a black fellow serviceman named Bobby Dupard, comes home, heads off to the Soviet Union, meets the future Marina Oswald, and comes home again to dwell in a weird milieu of spooks, snitches, outcasts, mobsters, and extremists and to plot the assassination of the president.

In almost the same breath, this Oswald expresses views and beliefs that logically could not coexist in the same mind. He stands in his yard clutching a rifle and Marxist pamphlets, becoming the subject of a notorious photo. He barges into a recruiting office and states his wish to serve the U.S. government and intelligence agencies and put to use what he calls his special insights into the communist mindset.

The point is a broad one, and DeLillo may lay it on a bit thick, but Oswald has come around to the attitude that his radical Japanese friend, Konno, expressed to him, that the thing of importance is to matter, to become an actor in history. Who cares in the end if your motives make any sense or people can figure out which side you are on.

One of the leitmotifs of Libra is an image of rain-slick streets. Another is the refrain “There is a world inside the world.” This denotes the coexistence of things not deemed to be in harmony and the way that events in what might seem to be radically different cultural and historical contexts can mirror one another. Oswald spends time in Japan during his stint as a Marine, as noted above. Having absorbed some of the attitudes that circulated in that nation in the 1950s, when the postwar economic order and the limitations on Japan’s military under the U.S.-imposed constitution infuriated many Japanese, Oswald comes home to plan a murder.

Everyone knows that Oswald envisioned Kennedy’s demise, but a consensus exists these days that Oswald had far more on his agenda and was probably the one who fired a shot from a high-powered rifle into the Dallas home of Major General Edwin Walker on April 10, 1963. Walker, a loony Bircher and segregationist, escaped with barely any injuries. In DeLillo’s telling Oswald tried to plan the long-distance shooting to take place on the second anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, when U.S.-supported Cubans tried and failed to overthrow Castro and restore the status quo ante, but that anniversary fell on the April 17. Oswald was so inept and addled that he did not know what day or even what week it was and went out to the Walker home with his mail-order rifle a week early.

Walker and Abe

In the aftermath of the assassination of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe on July 8, 2022, some news reports mentioned this incident and the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr., nearly sixty years before as twin examples of the killing of a powerful figure by a disgruntled loner. But this critic has yet to come across any articles drawing a link between the attempt on Oswald’s earlier target, Walker, and the slaying of Abe.

To flesh out the parallel is to illustrate the truth of DeLillo’s poetic refrain that there is a world inside the world. All kinds of strange synchronicities are at work that people are ill-equipped even to begin to tease out. The attempt on Major General Walker’s life and the death of Abe have more in common that some may ever realize. Oswald was a former Marine with a record of infractions and mental problems who, although he had made a show of embracing conservative values, went on to make an attempt on the life of a right-wing extremist whom he reputedly resented for having opposed the Cuban revolution.

Abe’s assassin, Tetsuya Yamagami, was a rudderless former member of the Japanese military with a record of problems and with a grudge against Abe. Although this may not have been the killer’s primary motive, it is well known that Abe disliked what he saw as Japan’s servitude to Washington in the face of the threat from an ascendant China, chafed against restrictions on the size and role of Japan’s military, and irritated people across the political spectrum with his visits to grounds where soldiers of the Imperial Army lie buried.

The parallels go further still. Oswald’s target was identified with a group on the far right-wing fringe, the John Birch Society. Yamagami’s target also had known ties to a shady group at the margins of respectability, in this case the Unification Church, or, in popular parlance, the Moonies.

The Tokyo where Oswald became radicalized functioned as a kind of interdimensional portal joining ostensibly unrelated and discrete ideologies, motives, aspirations, and circumstances. Left-wing revolutionary ideals crystallized in his mind under the influence of his friend Konno and his trauma in the brig at the hands of an abusive guard. But in the end, labels counted for nothing and he proved more susceptible to the desire to matter than to any cookie-cutter ideology, much like the assassin in Japan decades later who took the life of a politician who had sought to free from constitutional shackles the very institution to which the killer used to belong.

DeLillo’s portrayal of a sad, sick man who will do anything for his fifteen minutes of fame is as vivid and powerful as anything out of the pages of another writer devoted to the study of the marginal, the pathetic, and the despairing, namely—who else?—Dostoyevsky.

DeLillo
Don DeLillo (photo: Joyce Ravid)

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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