Saturday, May 24, 2008

The power of fiction

I'm reading a lot of novels based on 9/11 at the moment for my research. I've just finished a very good one, Windows on the world by Frédéric Beigbeder, translated from the French by Frank Wynne.

The novel interweaves two narratives. Firstly, an imagined scene with a father and his two young children, trapped in the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center when it is hit by the aeroplane. (They die, of course, and the narrator of this section declares this from the outset - a postmodern trick that would cause apoplexy in some writers I know...) Secondly, a Frenchman (presumably the author, musing on modern culture and researching what happened that day. Reviewers tend to dislike the latter section, but to my mind it is the important one. It is a sensible attempt to understand contemporary culture and how it has led, directly and indirectly to the current world situation. The author makes some interesting observations about 1968 and the 1968 generation. I'm not sure I agree entirely, but they are thought-provoking at the very least.

Early in the novel, Beigbeder declares:

Since September 11, 2001, reality has not only outstripped fiction, it's destroying it. It's impossible to write about this subject, and yet impossible to write about anything else. Nothing else touches us.

This brings to mind the famous quote from Philip Roth in the 60s that I've mentioned on this blog before: 'the actuality is continually outdoing our talents [as writers]'

Roth wasn't correct, as a new generation of writers showed. The 1960s saw an extraordinary flowering of American literature. Is he right now? Certainly, the Twin Towers strikes have not silenced writers: there is a plethora of fiction based on it. But it is notable how poor most of it is. Writers seem unable to wrestle with the cultural, social, political and religious context. Instead, we get trivial domestic dramas using that day as a crutch. To his credit, Beigbeder has sought to do something else.

He discusses contemporary culture, and he is admirably even-handed when discussing the sort of American hegemony that reduces most writers to facile stereotypes. He likes American culture, rails against 'bigoted anti-Americanism'. But he recognises its weaknesses, too: 'Americans should stop trying to export their lifestyle to the entire planet,' he says at one point. And he makes some fascinating observations about the children of 1968 and the children they have brought up, a 'generation of frantic channel-hopping, schizophrenic existentialism.'

He comes close to pinpointing our cultural response to 9/11. Instead of the anarchic reaction against authority of the 60s, we have slipped into introspective pessimism. At one stage in the novel, his character notes:

I love the vast column of smoke pouring from the towers on the giant screen, projected in real time, the white plume against the blue of the sky, like a silk scarf hanging suspended between land and sea. I love it, not only because of its ethereal splendor, but because I know the apocalypse it portends, the violence and the horror it contains. Virilio forces me to face that part of my humanity which is not humanist.

It is this pessimism that has driven us along Cormac McCarthy's Road. The humanist part of our humanity must prevail.

Beigbeder is correct, though: it is difficult to write about 9/11. The scale of it makes it difficult for us to relate to it in any meaningful way. But Beigbeder does it, wonderfully. As I have said, the narrative is split between the father and the Frenchman. But at one stage it shifts, unbidden, to the voice of one of the man's children. This is beautiful. They are doomed to death. The man knows it, we know it, the older brother probably knows it. The younger brother, though, tells us:

September 11, 2001. I have discovered my father possesses superpowers. I was in Windows on the World with my older brother when it happened.

There follows a couple of pages of the boy's fantasies about his dad saving them all, and ending with: 'Agent X275 signing off'.

As a way of personalising the drama, making something which is too big small enough to comprehend, this is superb.

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