Windows on the World

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Frédéric Biegbeder, a French twenty-first century Zola/Sartre/Swift/Sedaris nihilist-comic hybrid, has created a work that some American readers are spitting vitriol over. Is it because he is French? Is it because he writes what others only broach in internal monologue? Is it because we are made masochists, revisiting that which many would prefer to leave alone, made to cry, over and again? It might be, sadly, that readers cannot accept the truths Biegbeder delivers.

Windows on the World, which was the second bestseller in France and which earned Biegbeder the esteemed Prix Interallié of 2003, is a vociferous and ambitious and volatile attempt to understand September 11, 2001. In a tongue-in-cheek, sharp, sardonic style, the established author juxtaposes the live existential musings of a fictional narrator sitting in Le Ceil de Paris, a restaurant on the fifty-sixth floor of Tour Montparnasse, with the dead accounts of characters who are in Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, when they are slammed by the first terrorist- piloted plane.

Biegbeder then, in a minute-by-minute detailing, enmeshes the pontifications of history, architecture, national and international values, attitudes, and relations with naked terror of men, women, and boys who speak (or think) their every thought, viscera, physicality, philosophy, and psychology—as they feel, see, smell, and hear death, and as they die.

Here is where negating readers balk and squawk: the American brothers and sisters are manic, are panic, are fury and fight, are courageous and cowardly, are cooked to death or hurling themselves in swan-dive out windows. They are dead, doomed to die, and dead again. And at the same time, the speculating narrator, who thinks on paper in spunky, sardonic, sarcastic, cynical undertones, is alive.

But thankfully, Beigbeder wrote the work knowing full well, as the grotesque aficionado Flannery O’Conner once noted, that “truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”