Growing up in northern New Jersey, I have visited New York City for my entire life, growing accustom to its fast-pace culture, its lights, Broadway shows, and its panhandlers. As I drive on my local Route 17, its skyline pans across my windshield in a distant view. Just the sight of its dimensions provokes a sense of freedom and true vivacity for what is the icon of the United States. New York City is the Mecca of the West, a place that draws an audience from all over the world to curiously explore its spectacles. It is a pilgrimage worth taking to this city that best embodies the ideal West; a meeting point between culture, consumerism, and an energy that Western society covets. An experience unlike any other, one must truly meet New York City, itself, to understand its glory. Both Frédéric Beigbeder and Jean Baudrillard feel the wonder of New York City as Beigbeder reveals it in the disaster of 9/11 and Baudrillard explores the alluring sexuality of this “city that is heir to all other cities at once. Heir to Athens, Alexandria, Persepolis: New York” (Baudrillard 14).
Baudrillard’s America (1986) brings its audience on a journey through the United States, looking for “astral America.” Focusing on space, images, and landscape, he understands New York through his senses, describing the electricity one feels when in the city, and the “centrifugal” (Baudrillard 18) forces that bring its inhabitants together. In Windows on the World 2004), Beigbeder specifically explores the tragedy of 9/11 through a story of a man and his two sons trapped within the World Trade Center during its destruction. Like Baudrillard, he feels the wonder of the city when he writes, in the voice of the narrator Carthew Yorston, “’Unbelievable,’ the brochure said: for once the advertising doesn’t lie. I’m blinded by the sunlight on the Atlantic. The skyscrapers carve out the blue like a cardboard stage set” (Beigbeder 21).
As each author attempts to understand the lust for the Big Apple, Baudrillard describes the lights and electricity in a masochistic manner. He describes the solitude of each of its inhabitants, “This is the anti-Ark. In the first Ark, the animals came in two by two to save the species from the great flood. Here in this fabulous Ark, each one comes in alone – it’s up to him or her each evening to find the last survivors for the last party,” (19) while acknowledging the responsibility of each member of the city to create their own destiny. Baudrillard witnesses the personal journeys of each person that travels to New York, where it is difficult to find success but it remains the central location of a land of opportunities. New York City is a platform on which people create their own future. This pain of isolating oneself in order to find personal pleasure can be seen in Beigbeder’s novel as well, in the storyline of each character, bored with mundanity of life, and yet torturing themselves because of societal expectations. Carthew, for example, explains his discontent with his marriage, but will not divorce her, despite the fact that he has a mistress. Likewise, the woman in Ralph Lauren and the man in Kenneth Cole are clearly in love and yet choose to discuss and argue over stocks and bonds. The character’s feelings are visible but stifled by societal pressures to do what is expected of them. The attempt to be a good father, the best salesman, or the best lover masks the true wishes of each character. In his own voice, Beigbeder criticizes American culture for its indulgence and misdirection that is dishonest because it is not confronted, but identifies with it all the same. He is able to see that our greater motives are that “We want to mean something. To have a purpose. To say something” (Beigbeder 215) and yet he acknowledges that when he visits New York he is swept up in the nightlife and the secret society of misdirection, himself. Nearly treated as a character, New York, itself is a forceful entity, a city that drives each visitor to want to fulfill his or her fullest potential.
Although Baudrillard wrote his novel nearly twenty years prior to Beigbeder’s, in a way, he foreshadowed the reaction that people would eventually have to a disaster like the destruction of the World Trade Centers. Beigbeder ponders, “The more violent the accidents, the more beautiful the destruction…Can the destruction of the Twin Towers really be presented side by side with a fireworks display, be it the most grandiose in the world” (Beigbeder 125)? Beigbeder is simply appreciating the art and majesty that can be found in tragedy. As fireworks inspire awe and wonder, uniting one set of people under its grand lights, the destruction of the World Trade Centers also united one group of people to come together as a nation—something marvelous, in itself. Similarly, Baudrillard admires the aesthetic quality of demolition, which is not directly related, but relevant to the World Trade Center’s destruction when he says, “Modern demolition is truly wonderful. As a spectacle it is the opposite of a rocket launch. The twenty-storey block remains perfectly vertical as it slides towards the centre of the earth. It falls straight, with no loss of its upright bearing…and its own surface absorbs the rubble…What a marvelous modern art form it is, a match for the firework displays of our childhood” (Baudrillard 17).
Americans will always see 9/11 as a hallowed day for New York City and our nation, honoring the disaster and the victims who will permanently be idolized as heroes. These two French authors do not immediately correlate the events of that day with the faces of its victims, but rather, understand it in terms of a production. While Beigbeder uses anecdotes from the lives of each character to tell his story, he is making greater statements about the city and Western society. As for Baudrillard, he was writing before the destruction of the Twin Towers, and yet, was still able to encapsulate the energy, seduction, and fantasy brought on by New York. For a country that is as over-the-top and excessive as America, without approving of the attacks, they understand and appreciate a destruction that matches the size. Neither text suggests that they wish America harm, but there is a certain practicality in their analysis: Beigbeder doesn’t romanticize his characters in Windows on the World and America doesn’t focus on people, but perceptions and feelings brought on by spaces. As an American reading both of these books, I sympathize with their authors. I have lived just a half an hour outside the City for my entire life and still feel the lust and energy every time I visit. There is electricity felt in New York found in its fast-pace culture. While confronting the horrors of 9/11 has never been easy for me, since it is a tragedy that personally affected the lives of many friends, I sympathize and agree with the authors’ perceptions of New York. I wish that the events never took place, but in many ways, retrospectively, I believe that New York City was nearly asking for it. As a “centrifugal” city, it pulls the attention of the world to its wonder. If a terrorist wants to “hit home” in the hearts of Americans, New York City is naturally the biggest stage for such a spectacle. Although 9/11 will be our biggest disaster in NYC to date, it is also our biggest source of unification for an entire country; as the capital of capitalism, is a place where bigger is better.