The horizon is an advertisement
Frédéric Beigbeder is a French writer who deserves to be better known in this part of the world because he is so relevant to what Pakistan is going through these days. Pakistani society is witnessing two major social developments: (a) the rise of the market economy accompanied by advertisement fuelled consumerism, and (b) the consolidation of anti-American sentiments of the Islamist demagogues. The recent violent attacks on KFC and McDonald’s in Lahore have once again substantiated that some sections of our society are simmering with hatred for the icons of America. Beigbeder has examined both of these developments in their proper context in his two novels: £6.99 (yes that is the title) and Windows on the World.
£6.99 is set in the office of an advertising agency in London and its protagonist and narrator, Octave Parengo, is an ad executive. Before writing this novel, Beigbeder himself was employed by Young and Rubicam, an advertising firm. At the earliest, we are told (in the author’s short biography that Beigbeder was fired from his job after he wrote this novel). When the story begins, Octave Parengo announces that he is writing “this novel” to get himself fired. Thus the reader enters the world of Parengo, the fictional representation of Beigbeder, with the knowledge that it is going to be an all-out attack on the superficiality of the advertising industry. The analysis is unrelenting and the story is a ride through hell. Parengo has a cocaine habit and, despite his attitude problems, is a darling of the industry. His candid description of the industry and his job makes him an endearing figure from the outset: “I am an advertising executive: Yup, that’s right, I pollute the universe [and make] you dream of things you will never have…When after painstaking saving, you manage to buy the car of your dreams I will already have made it look old. I am always three trends ahead, and I make sure you’re always frustrated.”
Now that Pakistani banks have all turned to consumer loans, this is the novel that can help the reader deconstruct the mantras. Is it really a Car For You? Does a house really give free cash? Do we really need an LCD flat panel TV? Why can’t we ride a bicycle and grow our own vegetables? Why do we have to mortgage our life? Parengo tells us that his job has shown him the brutal nature of the whole system of production and consumption. Some revelations about how far advertisements have constructed our reality will help illustrate the acuteness of his perceptions: “the toothpaste is a superfluous product because dental health relies entirely on the brushing, the paste serves only to freshen the breath…all washing powders, liquids, dinky little tablets are interchangeable, and besides, it is actually the machine which does the washing.” From this demolition of the everyday certainties to the total subversion of the form of the novel, Beigbeder jolts the reader of literary fiction out of the bourgeois schoolmarmish attitude. Right in the middle of the demolition of capitalist utopia, there is a line “don’t go away! the book continues after the break” and a parody of an advertisement appears. The advertisement is constructed like the ad of a detergent powder except that the powder is cocaine “To try it once is to try it again and again.” The end of the commercial break and the story continues.
To read £6.99 is to experience contemporary literary wizardry at its most self-reflexive: from the title of the novel to the story, everything is constructed to convey the idea that it is a marketable product not the Aristotelian realization of the divine through mimesis. Isn’t it the case with every novel that one buys? The jacket design, the clippings on the blurb, the photoshop-touched photograph of the author (only if the author’s face is attractive), the pre-publication hype and the post-publication author tours are all carefully choreographed to create revenue for the publisher and the author. In the middle of all this, £6.99 comes along with a title that changes with the price and the currency: 99 Francs in France, £6.99 in England, 14.99 € in other European countries. The setting of the novel, the products discussed within the story, and the designer names keep changing according to the locale. The translator becomes a collaborator or a re-writer. All this is done to hammer home the idea that advertising has taken control of our inner most desires. If one looks at the skyline of Lahore, one realizes that the horizon is an advertisement of a split air-conditioner, the sky is a Car for All of Us, the north is a Flat Panel TV set, and the south is a Slimming Clinic. £6.99 is thus a novel that can help us breathe under the shadows of the hoardings. This paperback dose of reality does not need to be bought on installment plans. It is only £6.99.
In contrast to £6.99, Windows on the World is different book altogether. There are two narratives unfolding simultaneously. There are two protagonists in this novel: Carthew Yorston, a divorced man having breakfast with his two children at the restaurant named Windows on the World on the top floor of the World Trader Centre on the morning of September 11, 2001, and Frederic Beigbeder, a novelist trying to imagine the last moments of the life of his characters: the father and his two sons. The time that passes in the story is 119 minutes before these characters die. Each minute is given a chapter. The plot is simple and quite obvious from the outset. “You know how it ends: everybody dies” removes most of the suspense from the narrative. Hence it can be called an anti-novel. Some critics call it faction (fact plus fiction) because the story spins around the fictional self of a real novelist trying to imagine in a work of fiction the agony of the death of people who actually died. The two narratives unfold in alternating chapters. So far, the novel appears to be the work of a brainy novelist doing tricks with the tools of his trade: the two settings (Paris and New York), the two narrators with equally important roles, the two denouements and the absence of suspense to some degrees.
Windows on the World becomes a very interesting read when the fictional self of the novelist starts meditating on America during his attempt to understand the lives of his characters and the incidents surrounding their death: the terrorist attacks, the hatred for America, the American desire for hegemony, etc. This aspect of the novel is what is most relevant to the Pakistani readers because it is an attempt to redeem America: “It is too easy to ascribe its (America’s) influence to political machination, to compare Disney to Hitler or Spielberg to Satan.” Beigbeder tries to bring into foreground what is often forgotten about American culture in the heated debates against American imperialism: the critique of American politics produced by American artists and writers from within. According to Beigbeder, there is no democracy in the world which is as thoroughly criticized by its own writers and artists as America. He gives a long list of names such as J. D. Salinger, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, Bret Easton Ellis, William T. Vollmann, Chuck Palahniuk, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, and many others to support his argument.
This is where Beigbeder’s analysis functions as a reminder. We, as a non-Western pluralist civilization, have failed to produce our own culture of critique and dissent while busy hating America. While blaming Western imperialism for all of our own shortcomings, we as a civilization have forgotten the importance of critique and dissent. Compared to Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac, our stalwarts of critique appear either dwarfish and apologetic or institutionalized and repressed. Self-censorship, compromises and a safe, clean sensibility built on the repression of all things enjoyable and life-giving are the characteristics of literature and art produced within authoritarian societies. Compared to the critique produced by Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, William T. Vollman and Bret Easton Ellis, our Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib appear to have been appropriated.
What makes Beigbeder’s diagnosis uncanny is that he thinks the hatred that America inspires among Muslims is actually love. It is a paradoxical statement but it explains the strange incidents that took place in Lahore on the 15th of February. Those who attacked McDonald’s and KFC also wanted to eat the fast food available at the counters before destroying the buildings. It is love based on the idea of completion and obsession. Muslims are obsessed with America because it possesses what Muslims lack: Muslims want as much freedom as Americans have within their society to enjoy life and to produce art.
Towards the end of the novel, he also tries to reconcile the differences between France and America: “If you go back eight generations, all white Americans are Europeans. We are the same: even if we are not all Americans, our problems are theirs, and theirs ours.” If Osama and Bush follow this line of thinking, they will realize that they both believe in faiths which declare them to be descendents of the same Adam and Eve. They should not think of destroying the world while trying to solve a fraternal problem. Beigbeder also sponsors a prize which helps young and aspiring writers. He should ask both Osama and Bush to invest money in this project instead of piling up weapons. A creative writing coaching program inspired by Beigbder’s playful, self-reflexive and non-conformist ideas will also help many in Pakistan.
The author of this article teaches literature and critical theory at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org