'There is a world inside the world,' Lee Harvey Oswald repeats in Don DeLillo's novel Libra (1988). The phrase suggests wheels within wheels, partly because Oswald is obsessively riding the New York subway when we first hear it. 'There's more to it,' David Ferrie says in the same novel. 'There's always more to it. This is what history consists of. It's the sum total of all the things they aren't telling us.' Surface and secret: even when people dispute the details, the names and the numbers, they accept this two-world structure. Larry Parmenter, another character in Libra, believes 'that nothing can finally be known that involves human motive and need. There is always another level, another secret, a way in which the heart breeds a deception so mysterious and complex it can only be taken for a deeper kind of truth.' This is getting a little fancy, but then Libra is perhaps the last really good novel of the great age of American paranoia, the age that began just before the Kennedy/King assassinations, and faded away somewhere in the early Nineties. It's not that the Forties and Fifties didn't have their paranoias, or that we are short of paranoids now. It's that people didn't always believe, and don't have to believe, that what they don't know is the deep, secret, missing truth. In less paranoid ages ignorance may just be ignorance.
LRB 5 February 1998 | PDF Download