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August 28, 2004 3:00 am

Towering voices

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In the French writer Frederic Beigbeder's latest novel, a small crowd gathers around a television set in Paris as the events of September 11 unfold. They watch, mesmerised, as the second plane "zeroes in" on the South Tower. The main narrator, a novelist named "Frederic Beigbeder", admits to envying Russell Banks for his description of United Airlines flight 175 appearing in the sky over New York like a "Paleolithic bird, a spear point, a scimitar glittering in the morning sunshine".

Banks wasn't the only writer shocked into wringing phrases from the catastrophe. Many found that literariness gave some protection against what another, Ian McEwan, said was the most frightening thing about that day: what we couldn't see; what we were left to imagine – the terror of those taken hostage and the thousands trapped in the corridors and lift shafts of the doomed towers.

Beigbeder doesn't expand on the enormous spectacle of destruction. Instead he tries to imagine his way into those hidden places, by representing the dead as if they were speaking from beyond the grave. This kind of posthumous first-person narration, which ancient rhetoricians called "prosopopeia", was deployed to some effect by Alice Sebold in her novel The Lovely Bones, and it's no less powerful in Beigbeder's hands.

About half of Windows on the World is narrated by Carthew Yorston, a Texan real estate agent and divorce, who has brought his two young sons for breakfast in the restaurant at the top of the North Tower. We know from the beginning that they have less than two hours to live (the North Tower was the first to be hit and the last to collapse) – but "so much the better", the other narrative voice, Beigbeder's own, interjects. "This isn't a thriller; it is simply an attempt – doomed, perhaps – to describe the indescribable."

Beigbeder apparently based much of the dialogue reported by Carthew on transcripts of the victims' mobile phone conversations published by the New York Times. People receive SMS updates on the events taking place beneath their feet on the 94th floor; a waitress who survived the 1993 attack on the building waits patiently for the helicopter that she expects will rescue her; brokers calmly talk their wives through their pension plans and instruct them to cancel hotel reservations.

The combination of banality and panic is quietly devastating ("I would so like it to be yesterday") – as are Carthew's attempts to persuade his sons that the shock waves, the choking smoke and the plane slamming into the tower opposite are all part of some fantastic fairground ride. Beigbeder has risked unoriginality of feeling and plainness of expression here, and the novel is all the more affecting and disconcerting for it.

Windows on the World, by Frederic Beigbeder, Fourth Estate, £12.99, 320 pages

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