Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 312 pages; 2005. Translated from the French by Frank Wynne.
Windows on the World won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2005, but this book could just have easily won a non-fiction award too. This is because the chapters of this brutally searing book alternate between reality and imagination, so what you get is three stories in one: the factual account of what happened the day that two planes deliberately slammed into New York’s World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001; the fictional account of a divorced father trapped in the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of Tower One with his two young sons at the time of the attack; and the author’s own personal memoir about the event and its aftermath a year after it happened.
Strangely enough, despite being written by a Frenchman, it is also a homage to America and how the terrorist attack sowed doubt into the American dream for the first time.
I won’t pretend that reading this book is not a harrowing experience, because it is. We all know what happened that day and we can all recall where we were and what we were doing. It is indelibly etched on our brains forever.
The beauty of Windows on the World is its attempt to put that event into some kind of context, to try and make sense out of something that is incomprehensible.
But for many people this book will be too painful to read — Beigbeder makes no apologies for this. “I truly don’t know why I wrote this book,” he says towards the end.”Perhaps because I couldn’t see the point of speaking of anything else. What else is there to write? The only interesting subjects are those that are taboo. We must write what is forbidden.”
He also goes on to say that he is fully aware that his prose “takes on a power that it would not otherwise have. This novel uses tragedy like a literary crutch”.
But what beautiful prose it is. Make no mistake, Beigbeder writes eloquently and sensitively without resorting to exploitation or voyeurism or sadistic pleasure. And he throws in enough black humour to stop the book from wallowing in terminal despair.
There is a frank, candid nature to his writing, which at times, is painful to read, not because it hones in on the terrible events of that day, but because it illuminates the author’s own dark soul (for example, his weakness for sex, his hatred of his own narcissistic tendencies, his inability to hold down a proper relationship). At various times the writing reminded me of Chuck Palahniuk (in its ability to capture the surreal horror of it all), Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised (in its sometimes dark, detached narrative quality) and Janette Turner Hospital’s Due Preparations for the Plague (in its depiction of an apocalyptic terrorist attack).
All in all, Windows on the World is a fascinating book that refuses to be boxed into one particular genre. It disorientates the reader, takes them back in time and poses questions we’d rather not have asked. But despite the morbid subject matter one comes to the last page feeling, not down and depressed, but somewhat hopeful for the future.