Monday, March 21, 2005

Windows on the World

When my friend in London gave me a copy of Frédéric Beigbeder’s Windows on the World last summer, I didn’t think too much about it. I thought the (English) cover was ugly and I didn’t understand the title. What a willful forgetting! It sat in a stack in my office and, eventually, I saw the cover and understood the title: two black columns, very close up, with a thin slice of sky between them.

Beigbeder, a handsome decadent, born in September 1965, is a novelist (this is his fourth or fifth), t.v., presenter, and minor (it’s hard to tell how minor from a quick Google search) celebrity in France. His book borrows liberally from the stark aesthetics of the nouvel roman of Robbe-Grillet (whom he visits at NYU in one of the chapters) and the self-indulgent self-referentiality of, well, the French.

The book is an excruciating read. I forced myself through it as a kind of penance for not having lived here in 2001 and for getting so much pleasure now out of taking the PATH into the World Trade Center site. Now, when the train pulls into that open-air station, I feel the exhilaration of arriving in New York City and have to remind myself that I am also in a graveyard. The PATH station today is full of huge mesh screens, windbreaks, I imagine, that have been printed with inspirational slogans and, for me, they work: Gene Kelly tells me that he walks faster in New York than anywhere and I feel, each morning I read that quote, that I could dance.

I know I’m not the only one who tried to make the tragedy manageable by zeroing in on a class of victims to identify with—the heroes of Shanksville, PA, the firefighters and rescue workers, the many lost of Cantor Fitzgerald—for me, the most poignant were the workers at Windows on the World. Beigbeder shares both my sentimentality—the waitress, Lourdes, is not his most successful character because she’s such a stereotype: the noble Latina martyr—and my skepticism about the restaurant, its wonderful cheesiness. It is just the place you might take your children once.

Windows on the World operates, in fiction, on similar principles to 102 Minutes the New York Times journalists’ nonfiction reconstruction of the time between the first airplane strike and the second tower’s collapse. Beigbeder’s novel begins with an apology: we know how it ends and we know the ending will not be happy. Nonetheless, he focuses in on a divorced father playing hooky with his two young sons, in New York City from Texas on a guilt-fueled extravagant vacation. The children are ordinary and rotten--pushing all the buttons in the elevator, hitting each other, spilling syrup, yelling--the father is hollow and sex-obsessed: they are not likeable characters.

Chapters about Carthew and his sons alternate with essayistic chapters about Beigbeder’s decision to write the novel; each chapter has the time for its title and the Beigbeder chapters purport to have been written at 8:37 AM, at 9:12 AM (or, occasionally, PM). These chapters are essential for emotional relief and occasionally rise to the brilliant essayist observation of Roland Barthes. The conceit of the first half of the book is that it’s written atop the Tour Montparnasse, Paris’ truly hideous skyscraper with restaurant/observation deck and it’s the source for some truly moving and interesting observation about the hopefulness of the seventies, skyscrapers and airplanes, the Franco-American playboy as icon and the lounge as his habitat, the generations of 1968 (his parents’,), 1989 (his) and 2001, and the stress of bringing a child to a fancy restaurant (he brings his beloved toddler one morning). As the novel progresses, Carthew and his sons grow more and more aware of the hopelessness of their situation and Beigbeder travels to New York. At the same time, the shallow Carthew rises to heroism while Beigbeder’s persona sinks into drunken self-indulgence. The chapters in which one of Carthew’s sons begs him to change into his superhero costume and use his top-secret special superpowers are achingly moving and make a lovely foil to Beigbeder’s own wistful what-ifs about helicopter rescues. By the end of the book, I liked the author less and admired his character more.

It took me weeks to read this book: I could only manage a few chapters at a time at first. Then, once the first tower collapsed, I had to get it over with. It’s a painful read. In the end, it’s a fascinating version of the story from a perspective that is neither entirely outside nor entirely in. (Beigbeder the narrator reveals, toward the novel’s close, that he has an ancestor named Carthew, making his persona a kind of cousin of his character.) It reminds us of all the reasons that the United States and France have been locked in a tense courtship and it does something that an American novel could not easily do (and, perhaps, no great work of French art could fail to do): it proceeds cynically to its soaring conclusion.

[The Times mentioned Beigbeder's book in a recent essay, but it's over a week old so you'll have to pay...]

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