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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Windows on the World

by
Frédéric Beigbeder


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Windows on the World



Title: Windows on the World
Author: Frédéric Beigbeder
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 306 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Windows on the World - US
Windows on the World - UK
Windows on the World - Canada
Windows on the World - Canada (French)
Windows on the World - France
Windows on the World - Deutschland
  • French title: Windows on the World
  • Translated by Frank Wynne
  • Awarded the prix Interallié, 2003
  • Awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, 2005
  • In an Author's Note in the American edition, Beigbeder writes that: "some scenes have been revised for this edition" (apparently because when he read the translation he found: "moments when it was starker and perhaps more likely to wound than I intended")

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Our Assessment:

B : uneven but interesting take on what happened in New York city on 11 September 2001

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist A 19/5/2005 .
Entertainment Weekly C+ 25/3/2005 Jennifer Reese
FASz F 7/3/2004 Claudius Seidl
FAZ . 5/7/2004 Jürg Altwegg
The Guardian C- 11/9/2004 Josh Lacey
The Independent . 10/9/2004 Gordon Burn
Independent on Sunday A- 3/10/2004 Laurence Phelan
The NY Times Book Rev. . 17/4/2005 Stephen Metcalf
Salon . 20/3/2005 Laura Miller
San Francisco Chronicle . 20/3/2005 Sylvia Brownrigg
The Spectator . 9/10/2004 Patrick Skene Catling
Sunday Telegraph D 10/10/2004 James Francken
TLS . 22/10/2004 Daniel Starza-Smith


  Review Consensus:

  No consensus -- some find it in poor taste and/or poorly done, others are impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) remarkable achievement. The novel, which came out in France in 2003, is elegiac, glancing and suitably embarrassed (.....) Now that the international sympathy that the attacks first generated seems to have run dry, many Americans will find this foreigner's fresh grief and incredulity a welcome relief." - The Economist

  • "While serving up a few clever insights and pretentious inanities (...), this ambitious mess revives the horror of 9/11 but sheds no new light on that day." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Man muß es selber weiterschreiben, weiterdenken -- und wenn die Kritik der Bücher so etwas Ähnliches wie die Kritik von Saucen wäre, wenn es also nur darum ginge, einem Autor das Gelingen oder Mißlingen seines Werks zu bescheinigen, dann müßte man Beigbeder wohl das totale Scheitern attestieren." - Claudius Seidl, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

  • "Beigbeder schreibt gut und zynisch; auch ein paar frivole Sexszenen gehören zu seiner Mischung. Jeglicher Antiamerikanismus ist ihm fremd. Der Mann versteht sein Handwerk. (...) Beigbeders Roman ist eine ideale Ferienlektüre für die Reise im Charter -- Buch und Flug werden irgendwie aufregender. Nach der Landung in der Wirklichkeit gibt es wieder Besseres zu tun. Und zu lesen." - Jürg Altwegg, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "So far, so good. Unfortunately, Beigbeder has chosen to intersperse this intriguing narrative with something more risky: an imaginative re-creation of the events at the top of the north tower. (...) The result is just schlock. Beigbeder is simply incapable of writing a conventional narrative or creating autonomous fictional characters. Beigbeder is a smart, sarcastic writer who likes to shock; confronted by 9/11, he is not only cowed, but cowardly." - Josh Lacey, The Guardian

  • "In the same way that the films of Jean-Luc Godard are not really stories photographed, but a record of actors playing parts, Beigbeder's direct address to the reader -- sardonic, brattish, drillingly autobiographical, with a constant undertow of breezy self-loathing (...) -- has the distancing and cooling effect that makes his material nearly bearable. Beigbeder is certainly modish." - Gordon Burn, The Independent

  • "There are a clutch of terrifically poignant images and some unpleasantly graphic ones, and Beigbeder makes it easy to experience the horror and pathos afresh. (...) It's enough, I think, that he's made the gesture -- a genuine attempt to experience and understand the pain of that day." - Laurence Phelan, Independent on Sunday

  • "There is everything to dislike here: a gimmicky setup, wherein each chapter ticks off another minute in the countdown to Yorston's annihilation; the endless recentering of the significance of 9/11 back onto the author himself; and too many yadda yadda interior monologues about sex and death. And if one chose to quote heartlessly from Windows on the World (...) one could make it appear criminally asinine. And yet, almost in spite of himself, Beigbeder has happened onto something true." - Stephen Metcalf, The New York Times Book Review

  • "By the third or fourth time Beigbeder has confessed to chasing after fame, it is hard to maintain any faith in the author's integrity of motive with Windows on the World. The novel was a best-seller in France; and that, you feel, more than anything, was what Beigbeder was after." - Sylvia Brownrigg, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Perhaps the essential purpose of this terribly clever, powerful, fatalistic book is to make you feel lucky. So far." - Patrick Skene Catling, The Spectator

  • "To stop his retelling of the catastrophe from becoming cloying or pat, Beigbeder works hard to encourage the reader's animosity. (...) Beigbeder's reputation rests on his unflinching way of thinking. But this book doesn't grapple with the grim truth of 9/11 -- it recounts its terrible events in a shamefully reassuring and pious tone." - James Francken, Sunday Telegraph

  • "What will cause greater offence is Beigbeder's appropriation of an international tragedy as a backdrop to his introspection and his intrusion into an area which belongs to the survivors who have published their accounts. (...) Windows on the World , a bestseller in France, achieves at least some of its aims, despite a translation which brings its own stylistic infelicities." - Daniel Starza-Smith, Times Literary Supplemenet

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Windows On The World is a novel about "9-11", focussed on the events in downtown Manhattan on 11 September 2001. The story is presented more or less in short alternating chapters, one set narrated by a father who has taken his two young sons to the 'Windows on the World' restaurant atop the World Trade Center for breakfast, the other by the author of this work of fiction (a dead ringer for Beigbeder). (One of the boys also narrates a few of the chapters, but for the most part it moves back and forth between father and author.)
       It's a novel that hypothesises what it might have been like to be on those doomed top floors of the World Trade Center after the airplanes crashed into the buildings, as well as a novel about trying to write such a novel. Since how to approach this subject is central to the work the author doesn't hide behind his fiction but makes himself a part of it, explaining to the reader where he's coming from and his qualms and the difficulties this project poses.
       One of the problems with writing such a fiction is, as the author points out in his opening sentence: "You know how it ends: everybody dies." It's not so much a problem for the reader, who isn't expecting anything else, but it is for the novelist, who is working with the inevitable. (One of the reasons for the alternating chapters describing Beigbeder's own experiences and thoughts, even if they are also reality-based, is to introduce an element of freedom and surprise: in these sections the unexpected still can happen -- which is probably more of a comfort to the fiction-writer than the reader.)
       Beigbeder appears overwhelmed by what he's trying here. He claims:

Since September 11, 2001, reality has not only outstripped fiction, it's destroying it. It's impossible to write about this subject, and yet it's impossible to write about anything else. Nothing else touches us.
       Obsessed by the material, completely immersing himself in it, he can pretend to himself that he believes this, but he isn't entirely convincing. Like poetry after Auschwitz, fiction is remarkably resilient: reality has always outstripped fiction in certain regards (and Beigbeder could have picked any number of dates from the twentieth century for this tipping point he sees: the Holocaust, the Gulags, the Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot, Rwanda, etc. etc.), but the magic of fiction is that it is always also more than reality, supplementing, illuminating, revealing, inverting it. Silence has always been a popular opt-out-clause (Hofmannsthal's Chandos-letter is just one prominent example), but fiction isn't faltering -- and it certainly wasn't destroyed back in 2001.
       As to his claim that it's impossible to write about either this or anything else, that sounds more like a hypothesis he's putting to the test here -- one limited to this book. "Nothing else touches us" is the guiding principle to his text: it works well enough here, to be focussed so closely on this event, to never stray much beyond it. Ironically, however, the book is both thesis and antithesis: he has written a work in which he writes about nothing else, yet has also written a book that can be closed and put away, the events in it shelved like all the other major and minor tragedies of history and each reader's own life. Nothing else touches us -- for three hundred pages; then we move on. Among the surprising consequences of his continuous insistence that everything has changed (for which he offers an endless parade of examples) is the realisation that very little has actually changed.
       Like many, he desperately wants the world to be different, and so he's prone to grand pronouncements like:
     There is a communist utopia: that utopia died in 1989. There is a capitalist utopia; that utopia died in 2001.
       Perhaps still writing too close to the actual event, these observations -- many of which now sound simply ludicrous -- appear a desperate attempt at finding some validation, some meaning in the tragedy of so many senseless deaths. (They also reek of self-importance: look at me ! I'm writing about this world-altering event ! -- though Beigbeder is pretty upfront about the fact that that's exactly the kind of person he is.)
       Given that he's obsessed by the material (for the duration of the book, at least), it's not surprising he sees "9-11" as the cause for every effect he encounters -- even if it is ultimately counterproductive. Nevertheless, his parallel chapters, describing first how he writes in Paris, having breakfast day after day in a Windows on the World-like restaurant, then visiting New York and the site where the World Trade Center stood, are fairly engaging. The chapters are short, he (entertainingly) struggles a lot (with his material, with his ego, with his id), and between autobiographical snippets and various insights and observations he's fairly successful with that half of the novel.
       The scenes atop the World Trade Center aren't quite as successful. In a sense it's all an imaginative leap -- what exactly happened to those trapped up there is, for the most part, speculation (brief phone conversations and the like providing only a small picture of what it might have been like) -- but the ugly reality (smoke, heat, the quick realisation that there's no chance of escape, waiting for the inevitable) is fairly straightforward. There's only so much Beigbeder can do with it, and though it's a game effort it's entirely unexceptional.
       Beigbeder doesn't help matters with his father-figure, the improbably named (though the explanation eventually provided does excuse the choice) Carthew Yorston. A realtor from Texas, he copies a quote from Kafka into his guidebook, calls himself an "autodidact", and reassures his kids with "Benigni-style play-acting" -- not exactly attributes an American author would have come up with. But the portrait isn't terrible, and the thoughts that run through his head in this situation plausible enough: Beigbeder could have done better, but it's certainly adequate.
       Without the author popping up in every other chapter this all wouldn't be of much interest, but in making the novel as much about approaching the material as actually trying to re-imagine the events of that day from that lost perspective he's fashioned a fairly interesting and occasionally both affecting and thoughtful work. It's far from the definitive "9-11" novel, but as a first fumbling effort -- consciously fumbling, because that's the only way it could be approached -- it's not bad.
       Beigbeder, perhaps understandably, treads warily; regrettably he appears to have gone so far as to tone down the English-language version. He claims: "The only interesting subjects are those that are taboo. We must write what is forbidden", but the book's greatest weakness is certainly it's unwillingness to really test the boundaries and touch upon the forbidden: yes, there's some excess and some gruesomeness, but this is a very sanitised version of an ugly reality.
       Not really a success, but worthwhile.

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Links:

Windows on the World: Reviews: Frédéric Beigbeder:
  • le S.N.O.B. - le Site Non Officiel de Frédéric Beigbeder
Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Frédéric Beigbeder was born in 1965.

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© 2005-2008 the complete review

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