Despite being too young in 1963 to remember the day, George Packer (The Unwinding) has been fascinated ever since by the Kennedy assassination. Like so many of us. In his recent blog for the New Yorker, Packer writes of haunted dreams and of something locked away in our psyches that refuses to go away. As Max Liu reminds us below, Don DeLillo once wrote that the president’s death marked ‘the beginning of dangerous times’, and yet he was labelled ‘paranoid’. But as the years pass with increasing speed, history gains new layers, and we find ourselves increasingly living among plots and theories, misinformation and invasive surveillance, isn’t it time we took more notice of the prescient DeLillo and urged novelists today to follow his lead?
In ‘Mr Edwards and the Spider’, Robert Lowell writes of “gnarled November” and, channelling the rhetoric of 18th century New England puritans, conjures an atmosphere full of dread: “This is death/to die and know it”. The poem feels apt this month as we reach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Lowell’s fellow Bostonian, President John F. Kennedy. Members of my parents’ generation remember where they were on 22nd November 1963, just as I recall the lunchtime poetry slam I was attending when the planes flew in to the World Trade Centre in 2001. But even for those of us who weren’t around in ’63, that day in Dallas inhabits our imaginations with an aura that makes it both luminous and elusive.
According to Don DeLillo, the Kennedy assassination marked “the beginning of dangerous times”. It’d be reassuring to think those times reached their apotheosis on 9/11 but events this year, in Boston, Nairobi and Woolwich, indicate that terror hasn’t gone away. Finding a bountiful editor to send me to Texas to explore these topics proved impossible but George Packer had more luck and his account of recently visiting Dallas shows why The Unwinding has been shortlisted for the National Book Award. Touring Dealey Plaza is, for Packer, “exactly as I had imagined it … Like entering the landscape of a recurring dream.” Reading this, I imagined the nut country sunshine, the brick high-rise that housed the infamous book depository, the grassy knoll; even without going there I knew what Packer meant.
As well as conspiracy theories and schmaltzy biopics, the assassination inspired novels by DeLillo, Norman Mailer, D.M. Thomas; it epitomised a new age of images that’s reflected in the art of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and it cast the dye for the darker side of the 1960s which is heard in music by the Doors and the Velvet Underground; it’s referenced in everything from Vietnam War cinema to Annie Hall, and it’s lurking off camera in the Mysles brothers’ 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens, about Jackie Kennedy’s thwarted cousins from Long Island. On the 2010 DVD extras, a man who appeared in Grey Gardens as a boy returns and reflects: “It makes me think about how fast my life is passing.” This anniversary does that too. “Never mind what was happening 30 years ago,” said my French teacher on 22 November 1993 as I neglected my present participles to speculate about CIA involvement. In that evening’s special episode of Quantum Leap not even time-travelling Sam Beckett could stop Lee Harvey Oswald gate-crashing history. The Kennedy myth endures in part because we still don’t really know what happened. Packer accepts the lone gunman theory but I’m not convinced. And so the dream recurs.
“History is the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us,” wrote DeLillo in Libra, his 1988 novel about Oswald. A quarter-of-a-century later, would those critics who labelled DeLillo ‘paranoid’ deny his prescience? Next spring, Guardian Faber publish The Snowden Files, Luke Harding’s book about how a 29-year-old NSA contractor became the world’s most wanted man when he exposed the levels of state surveillance we live under. Some commentators say we aren’t angry enough about invasions of our privacy, while others dismiss Edward Snowden as irresponsible and narcissistic, but political consciousness can swell slowly. Three eminent American novelists – Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Thomas Pynchon – published books this autumn which say devastating things about the power complexes which belie our wired times. The dying days of 2013 are unlikely to be as eventful as November 1963 but they might prove to be the moment when writers wised up to how we live now.