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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Book Reviews

Downed Towers, Tall Tales

Windows on the World by Frédéric Beigbeder, translated from the French by Frank Wynne. Miramax Books, New York, 2005, 320 pages, $24.95.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2005, 368 pages, $24.95.




Courtesy Miramax Books
“You know how it ends: everybody dies,” is the first line of Frédéric Beigbeder’s Windows on the World, referencing both a fact of life and “the novelty of this story…that everyone dies at the same time in the same place” (p. 1). The last 30 pages of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close contain no words and 15 photographs, of a body hurtling past some 40 stories of one of the World Trade Center towers: each image is manipulated so that the jumper—first seen in the lower right-hand corner of a page with arms spread, ankles close together, falling back-first and looking skyward—levitates upward (without changing posture) in all ensuing photographs until, in the fourteenth image, he’s near the top of the page. In the fifteenth image, there is no jumper. But we know that there was; know, too, that that tower and its twin are no longer, for everyone knows that on September 11, 2001, death was the fate of almost 3,000 people who could not escape from where they were in the World Trade Center.

Courtesy Houghton Mifflin
When the end of a story is a foregone conclusion and the core of that story is especially familiar—which happens to be the case, given the volumes already written on the September 11 terrorist attacks, including myriad compilations of survivor testimonies—the way that story is told becomes just about all that matters. Despite the enormous chasm that divides these two novelists’ literary styles, both works feed into a to-date undiminished obsession with how people died and how the bereaved have gone on, and both engage the broader question of why the attack occurred.

As to how people died on September 11, Frédéric Beigbeder’s primary fictional narrator, Carthew Yorston, describes in detail for almost half of Windows on the World what it was (read: might have been) like to be trapped in that restaurant on that morning; as to the book’s other half, Beigbeder pontificates in first person on what he perceives to have been the attacks’ causes and effects (when not writing about himself). His first line of reasoning (that the US reaped what it sowed) isn’t particularly original or inspired; his second—that the terrorists did not reap what they sowed—is, I would argue, pretty much full of holes four and a half years after the crime and almost three years after the invasion of Iraq.

As to how the bereaved (might have) managed to go on, Jonathan Safran Foer’s protagonist, Oskar, a child savant whose loving father perished in one of the towers, determines to solve the mystery of a key his father had to no known lock; this key-to-no-lock is, for the novel’s sake, a fitting metaphor, because there are no answers in Foer’s world as to how anything could be the same again when nothing would ever be the same for those who lost loved ones that day. As to the why of September 11, Oskar, despite his precocity, curiously doesn’t ask. His long-estranged grandparents, survivors of the 1945 Allied devastation of Dresden, eventually reveal in their own counter-narrative what Foer’s own astonishingly simple answer happens to be: history repeats itself.

It’s somehow telling that both writers resorted to counter- and parallel narratives to try to get at the meaning of an attack that paralyzed much of lower Manhattan for some days and in a way permanently eliminated that diminishing if not imaginary divide that still separated (or so we New Yorkers liked to think) the American heartland from its cultural capital on September 10, 2001. Indeed, the attack on New York in particular sanctioned an anyway-long-delusional nation to further deceive itself (then and since) into believing that, when those planes flew into the Twin Towers, each and every resident of the United States had come (and to this day remains) under assault. In Windows on the World, Beigbeder extends this conceit to the West: what happened on American soil must, it seems, inevitably occur elsewhere. Sitting in Le Ciel de Paris, the restaurant in the Tour Montparnasse, where some of his parallel narrative takes place, Beigbeder speculates on September 11, the differences between the US and France, the meaning of 1968, his personal past, or anything else that comes to his mind. At one point, he almost wistfully imagines planes targeting the Montparnasse tower; at another, he remarks speciously: “I hope America will always be ten years ahead of us: that would mean the Tour Montparnasse still has ten years” (p. 76)—or, at this moment, about five and a half. In Extremely Loud and Extraordinarily Close, September 11 is the calamitous episode used to explore, and epitomize, personal tragedy. Indeed, if there were no counter-narrative in the book told by the grandparents who survived Dresden, the attack on that day—and the entire novel—would stand within a historical void.

Admittedly, fiction is both the perfect and a problematical medium for grappling with the whys and wherefores of September 11, 2001. That these two books are flawed would not be so disheartening were they not flawed in such sobering ways. That Foer equates an attack that reduced 16 acres of prime Manhattan real estate to rubble and killed less than 3,000 persons with one that, through incendiary carpet bombing, leveled an entire city—which had no military value—and killed upwards of 130,000 civilians, confuses an act of terrorism with something that was both a war crime and a crime against humanity. That Beigbeder shows up in his own fiction without bothering to address what John Lanchester terms “the arbitrariness and artificiality of narrative” or the “morality of making people up, and then devising trials and torments for them, designed to expose and test their deficiencies” confuses ego with enlightenment (see Lanchester’s “A Will of his Own,” his review of J. M. Coetzee’s Slow Man in The New York Review of Books). Despite—or, indeed, because of—these defects, however, both books deserve to be read.

***

Carthew Yorston, trapped in Beigbeder’s novel during breakfast with his two young sons at Windows on the World on September 11, is as much caricature as character: a wealthy, 43-year-old real-estate agent from Texas who calls himself an aristocrat; a member of the Sons of the American Revolution; a patriot; a man who knows the Twin Towers’ statistics; and a divorcé. Not present at breakfast is Carthew’s girlfriend, Candace (younger than him, perhaps his middle-age crisis), a Victoria’s Secrets model—“You know the type. She makes J-Lo look like a bag lady.” (p. 4)—whom he met on the Net and who wants to get married, have children, and, consequently, live together: three mistakes, as Carthew sees it, that he doesn’t want to repeat. At 8:31 am, when his narrative begins, Carthew is feeling as though he’s the center of the universe: his kids loved coming up the WTC’s high-speed elevators, they are all now seated at the restaurant on the 107th floor with the day stretching before them to include a trip to the Statue of Liberty and the South Street Seaport, and the glow of his late New York nights with Candace is radiating still. “In two hours,” Carthew oddly informs us then, at the end of this first narrative, echoing an evocative line from the film American Beauty, “I’ll be dead; in a way, I am dead already” (p. 5).

The others present on the 107th floor are also caricatures: a corporate couple (he in a Kenneth Cole suit, she in Ralph Lauren) who are (Carthew can simply tell) having an affair; Lourdes, a (Christian) Hispanic employee at the restaurant; Jeffrey, a (Jewish) customer; and Anthony, a black security guard (who is, of course, Muslim). The bases, in other words, are covered; and although character sometimes breaks through—at least in Carthew’s case, for he’s allowed reflection—the cast remains mostly stereotyped for those minutes left to them. (Time is marked by chapters, which begin at 8:30 and end at 10:29.) And, as the moments wind down for those who will perish, death is as caricatured as life: the corporate couple make love in the face of certain demise; Lourdes loses faith in being rescued only to come to rely on her higher faith; Jeffrey opens a bottle of aged Haut-Brion that Anthony refuses, because of his religion, to share (which leads Jeffrey to accuse Muslims of the attacks); and Carthew at one point not only thinks about Cat Stevens (whose music he admires and who, of course, converted to Islam and became Yusuf Islam) but also swears an oath—cynically or ironically, it’s difficult to tell—that “If we make it out of here, I’ll convert to Islam” (pp. 243-245).

No one will ever know the details of what happened in the time remaining to those who were at Windows on the World that morning after they were trapped. In the face of terror and desperation, I for one am not sure that sex, or finger-pointing, or specious conversions took place, but maybe they did. At any rate, Beigbeder is either brave or silly to say so, but I leave that judgment to his readers. The strength of his writing—which shortlisted him for the Prix Goncourt and won him The Independent’s foreign fiction prize in 2005—most certainly lies in his descriptions of what people (might have, must have) suffered above the inferno as water in the coolers began to boil: these are all harrowing without being sensational, heartrending without being mawkish. Beigbeder’s sense of the human heart comes through loud and clear: it dies hard, and when faced with certain, untimely death, is capable of momentous dignity.

But, then, there is Beigbeder’s parallel narrative. Each of these chapters is also assigned a time from 8:30 to 10:29—not on September 11, but at later dates—perhaps to indicate that nothing important (let alone definitive, in the most terminal sense) happened to any of us who were not killed on September 11 or, more provocatively, to suggest that everything that happens at any given moment is as significant, or meaningless, as anything else. For Beigbeder is nothing if not brashly at ease with his own contradictions in Windows on the World, and, like anyone full of himself, seems to be both a decent guy and not a particularly nice one. He claims to love Hugh Hefner and the idea of being a playboy; he’s a writer in his native land, in which, he asserts, “works of art are exceptionally pedantic and self-satisfied” (p. 19); and he maintains that he decided to become famous because he couldn’t get laid otherwise (p. 83). “My motto: become what you despise,” he writes (p. 220). As what he most despises, it seems, is being an artist in a world in which art has become completely narcissistic, he goes about narcissistically beating that dead horse. He unabashedly counters Carthew’s fictive background with his own (what else?) unhappy childhood, before going on to confess that he prefers peep shows in Montparnasse (his sex drives are of more interest to him than they were to this reader) to antiwar demonstrations (as Iraq’s future is being debated at the UN), and that his girlfriend—to whom he cannot commit—has left him for good (at 9:18, one morning). Her departure, and his writing of this book, frees him to go to New York City to visit Ground Zero, examine the architectural models at the Winter Garden and the objects found in the rubble on display at Saint Paul’s, and ruminate on the meaning of terrorism and its effect on Manhattan.

It is here that Beigbeder’s parallel narrative reaches confused extremes. For despite the fact that Beigbeder insists that, “Terrorism does not destroy symbols, it hacks people of flesh and blood to pieces” (p. 172)—the inarguable premise of Carthew Yorston’s narrative—it’s difficult to know what he’s talking about when he uses the word “symbols.” The towers are down, the debris is being cleared as Beigbeder writes, and the “symbols” of what he earlier describes as “the collapse of a house of credit cards” (p. 8) are destroyed, long gone. What’s left are words, Beigbeder’s, in this instance—“The moral of this story is: when buildings vanish, only books can remember them” (p. 137)—and life. Except that life as Beigbeder encounters and sees it in Manhattan is hardly one most New Yorkers live. For, in his eyes and, if we are to believe him, his experience, Manhattan is an ongoing party (or maybe an endless bedroom), a place where “…their terrorization has produced precisely the reverse of what they had hoped for. Hedonism is at its peak. Babylon lives again!…Terrorism terrorizes no one: it shores up freedom. Sex dances with death.” (p. 189)

If “their” terrorism terrorized no one, those subsequent high alerts orchestrated by the Department of Homeland Security would never have been sounded or taken seriously, shelves emptied of duct tape, countless people rounded up and deported, countless more refused US entry visas and turned back at borders (including a relative of my nephew’s wife, who was recently handcuffed and interrogated for more than a day at JFK and finally returned to the Czech Republic on grounds that several years ago he had been rejected for an extension on his US visa), or the Global War on Terror declared or supported. If hedonism is at it peak—and I’m not speaking solely of sex here, but of a sense, and understanding, of pleasure—a lot of New Yorkers I know are missing it this time around, whether or not Babylon lives again (although it should be noted that the real Babylon certainly isn’t alive and well in its native land). Sex may indeed dance with death in the works of Sade, Beigbeder’s compatriot, but no one has argued to my satisfaction that it’s a liberating influence anywhere in the United States of America today. As for terrorism “shoring up freedom,” the Patriot Act, and a hard look at the far, Mesopotamian reaches of the US’s (alleged) reaction to terrorism, presents a much darker picture.

Given the entirety of Windows on the World, it’s clear that Beigbeder knows all this. But as a master of contradictions, he doesn’t (perhaps can’t, won’t) stop himself, and he never goes so far as to draw that line between audacity and stupidity. That’s a provocation in its own right, of course, to be taken seriously.

***

Jonathan Safran Foer’s stylistic aplomb and gorgeous prose make Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close gratifying despite its main character/narrator, Oskar, who is (but surely wasn’t meant to be) somewhat annoying. Child narrators are irksome in general. Not having complex emotional or emotive ranges, they’re mostly literary devices that need to be forgiven their quirky propensity for narrowing, and sometimes collapsing, experience around them and being the arbiters (and centers) of their own peculiar universes. Oskar is like a child with Asperger’s Syndrome on speed: his favorite book is Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time; he considers himself an “inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, Francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archeologist, collector” (p. 99); he collects coins, rare butterflies, Beatles memorabilia, and semiprecious stones; he incessantly makes up bons mots, and spends more time Googling than is humanly possible. He is also a sleuth trying to solve the mystery of a key he has found in a vase bought by his father some time before dying in the World Trade Center. As the key is in an envelope with the word “Black” on it, Oskar resolves to find and visit every person named Black in New York City in order to find the lock this key fits, and solve what he sees as the riddle of his father’s death.

We consequently follow Oskar’s episodic, shaggy-dog, helter-skelter and very high-speed search (which leads to one endearingly deaf Mr. Black, who speaks only in sentences that end in exclamation points, at high volume). In search of “Black,” by the way, Oskar only wears white. As he is also afraid (since September 11) of elevators and public transportation, he races up and down stairwells, takes cabs, and walks about, outpaced only by his mind. The Blacks he meets are from all walks of life and, in fact, come in all colors, and they all submit with extraordinary patience to his sometimes startling and often outrageous questions. “Could we kiss for a bit?” he asks Abby Black, whom he has found living on Bedford Street, after speaking to her at length:

“Excuse me?” she said, although, on the other hand, she didn’t pull her head back. “It’s just that I like you, and I think I can tell that you like me.” She said: “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”…I asked why not. She said: “Because I’m forty-eight and you’re twelve [Oskar has lied about his age].” “So?” “And I’m married.” “So?” “And I don’t even know you.” “Don’t you feel like you know me?” She didn’t say anything. I told her, “Humans are the only animal that blushes, laughs, has religion, wages war, and kisses with lips. So in a way, the more you kiss with lips, the more human you are.” (p. 99)

Oskar’s widowed mother, from whom he appears to be estranged, spends a lot of time with Ron, whom she’s met at a bereavement support group after his wife was killed in an automobile accident. But Oskar’s Grandma Schell lives across the street, and she and he keep each other company via walkie-talkie and by putting signs in their windows for one another in the dead of night. Grandma Schell is one of Foer’s two counter-narrators to Oskar’s tale; the other is her husband, Thomas, who abandoned her when she was pregnant with Oskar’s father and who has now returned (to New York and to her, from abroad) upon their son’s death. Their letters (Grandma Schell’s to Oskar, and Thomas Schell’s to his dead son, written over the years but never sent) inform us that they are survivors of Dresden. Grandma Schell’s sister, with whom Thomas was in love and who was carrying his child when the Allies leveled Dresden, did not live through the bombing; years later, Thomas accidentally meets his lover’s sister in New York, and they marry despite the fact that he is still devastated by his loss and in shock because of Dresden’s destruction. Indeed, Thomas Schell is so traumatized that he can no longer speak, has “YES” and “NO” tattooed on his palms to answer questions by raising one or the other hand, and, although perhaps in his right mind, incapable of enduring life as most live it.

Before leaving his pregnant wife, Thomas encourages her to write a book, which he doesn’t realize is a tome of blank pages; after abandoning her, he writes the letters he never sends to their son, one so crammed with words that they can’t possibly fit on the page (as reproduced in the novel, this letter is typographically tracked tighter and tighter as the leading diminishes, until all that is left is a mass of black ink). Foer uses many such touches as “documentary” evidence to support his narratives: photographs (some from Oskar’s scrapbook entitled Stuff That Happened to Me, others of people Oskar interviews and catches on camera, one of the Brooklyn Bridge, and so on); “reproductions” of scratch-pads from a store where Oskar’s father (and other doodlers) tried out a series of pens; a letter in code; a letter with certain words circled in red throughout; and pages with one line of type. Whether such support is needed is questionable, especially as these “documents” are as fictive as all the narratives they are meant to document.

In the end, Oskar meets his grandfather, who is still aphasic, and shares with him his greatest secret: the five messages left by his father on the answering machine on the morning of September 11, after the planes hit, which only Oskar has heard. And Oskar also admits to his grandfather that he has found on the Internet a Portuguese video of bodies falling from the towers, and that he has been trying to recognize his father among them but can’t because of the pixelation when the images are enlarged. Oskar’s grandfather asks: “You want him to have jumped?” To which Oskar responds:

I want to stop inventing. If I could know how he died, exactly how he died, I wouldn’t have to invent him dying inside an elevator that was stuck between floors, which happened to some people, and I wouldn’t have to imagine him trying to crawl down the outside of the building, which I saw a video of one person doing on a Polish site, or trying to use a tablecloth as a parachute, like some of the people who were in Windows on the World actually did. There were so many different ways to die, and I just need to know which was his. (p. 257)

He will, of course, never know. But Oskar and his grandfather will together steal away to open his father’s grave, and place into its empty coffin all the letters Thomas Schell Sr. ever wrote to his son. And Oskar will be softened toward his mother and Ron by his grandmother’s last letter to him (for Grandma Schell leaves and follows her husband after all these years), in which she recounts how she thought to tell her sister how much she loved her on the eve of Dresden’s destruction. Her sister was already asleep, however, and Grandma Schell didn’t wake her, thought it unnecessary to do so, believing, naturally, that there would be other nights, another time. She closes her letter with:

Here is the point of everything I have been trying to tell you, Oskar.
It’s always necessary.
I love you,
Grandma (p. 314)

The key, Oskar knows by this time, is a key to nothing. Not astoundingly, his audience knew it all along.

***

That the American heartland’s embrace of New York on September 11 has not lessened comes as no surprise to those of us who lived in what we imperially called The City (the way Greeks still refer to Istanbul) for enough years to have witnessed—over a period that began long before that September morning in 2001, and has hastened since—New York’s embrace of the heartland. The grit, toughness, and razor’s edge that was Manhattan has dissipated, disappeared. Those neighborhoods that were once poor or “uninviting” (to anyone not from Manhattan, that is) or hardly neighborhoods at all are now much like theme parks whose only mark of distinction is their clientele: middle America for the South Street Seaport and Times Square; posh for the meatpacking district, Soho, and Tribeca; and “in” for the Lower East Side. And while the Time Warner building finally gave New York a mall to call its own, the city had become mallified a long time before, home to blockbuster-sized superstore chains from pretty much everywhere in the heartland and boasting a Starbucks on just about every third corner.

This New York, however, is curiously absent from both Windows on the World and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The city seems to continue to be, in both novels, what it was always said to be: a place that can be anything and everything to anyone and everyone. In Foer’s New York, a nine-year-old can go from one neighborhood to another, by cab or on foot and often alone, without ever having reason to be afraid, wary of strangers, or worried over; in which people he doesn’t know open their homes and sometimes their hearts to him; in which everyone—rich, poor, old, young—is, despite anything else they might be, kind. And then there’s Beigbeder’s New York: still, and perhaps more than ever (if we’re to believe him), Sin City, a site of unrelenting sexual energy, endless possibility, continual promise—the Big Apple as La Grande Bouffe.

There’s just one problem: those towers did come crashing down, and September 11 is now a seminal moment, not only in New York’s ongoing mythology but, much more to the point, its daily reality. It’s one thing to misunderstand, misinterpret, or misrepresent the city; it’s another thing altogether to misconstrue or misapprehend the importance of what actually happened on that day.

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to greekworks.com. Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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