Book Review: The Submission, by Amy Waldman

Over 10 years later, the effects of 9/11 still reverberate in the U.S. and around the world. I’m a New Yorker, and like millions of other New Yorkers, I will never forget exactly where I was on that day: in the hallway of my high school, leaving chemistry class. We heard rumors of something happening in the city; the father of one of my classmates was a fireman, and we heard his engine company had gotten called in to Manhattan. One of my best friends and I got to our orchestra class and our teacher, this hilarious but brutally sarcastic man, had the radio on. We wouldn’t be playing music that day. Instead, we all listened in utter silence to the voices on the radio as the second tower fell. My teacher, who often grimaced and told us “great; now play what the man wrote” when we finished playing a piece, was crying. Then, as we all know, came the sorrow and confusion and rage, the blame, the co-opting of the tragedy by politicians, the wars.

I share all of this to illustrate why I have no interest in reliving that day though movies, or books, or memorials. I understand why they might be cathartic for some people and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone a small bit of comfort, but I have never knowingly searched out fiction about 9/11. I can’t. It’s too soon. So when I received The Submission by Amy Waldman, I was hesitant and nervous. But my friend (actually, the same friend I was with in the hallway on September 11, 2001) was reading it, and assured me I would like it.

I LOVED it.

The Submission is the fictional story of the anonymous competition to build the 9/11 memorial in NYC. Claire, who lost her husband in the attacks, represents the victims’ families on a judging panel consisting of artists, historians, and other NYC elites. When the winning design is chosen, the architect is revealed to be named Mohammad Khan–a Muslim. From there, we follow Claire, Mo, Bangladeshi immigrant Asma, and several others as they attempt to decide the fate of the memorial and negotiate the increasingly-hostile climate between New Yorkers and Muslims. As Mo refuses to stand down, explain himself, or change his design, and the opposition becomes virulent, the ethics of having a Muslim build a memorial to those who lost their lives to extremists become increasingly muddled–even for Claire, Mo’s greatest supporter.

Waldman has the incredible ability to make her characters, if not entirely sympathetic, understandable and realistic. The temptation to make Mo perfect must have been high; yet the story was much more interesting when Mo is arrogant and stubborn and conflicted about his actual relationship with Islam. Liberal Claire wobbles and becomes increasingly filled with doubt over what was originally her favorite design. If you had told me The Submission would have me feeling pity for a man who, in the midst of an anti-Islamic, anti-Garden rally, rips off a woman’s headscarf, I never would have believed it. But that character, Sean, is not painted as only a racist bigot–he’s simultaneously grieving for the loss of his brother and living ever deeper in that same brother’s shadow, he’s trying to win his hard mother’s respect and love, he’s dealing with his own feelings of incompleteness. And that’s just one character! Waldman turns a compassionate eye to every player in this tale, and that lent to its compulsive readability.

She also captured the post-9/11 xenophobic rage extremely well. Suddenly, all Muslims were viewed with suspicion. There were attacks on local mosques. Muslims living in the U.S. were forced into the position of having to explain themselves and their religion, based on the evil actions of a group of extremists. With the character of Mo, Waldman deftly presents us with a non-religious man who is radicalized by the anger and distrust of other Americans. We also see how quickly a country turns on those it deems “the other” in times of crisis.

Something interesting to me, considering Waldman is a seasoned journalist herself, was what I read as a scathing indictment against journalism. Rather, a certain kind of journalism–the kind of biased reporting designed to stoke the flames of public opinion and play to people’s fears and weaknesses. While writers cannot always control the way their words are interpreted or used, they can certainly write with the intent to harm, or heal. Four of the least sympathetic characters were either journalists of this stripe (Alyssa Spier and Lou Savage, who was a Rush Limbaugh stand-in) or institutional figureheads interested in keeping the controversy alive in the press to enhance their own image and careers (Imam Malik and Governor Bitman). It brought up all sorts of interesting questions for me. Are journalists responsible if their inflammatory rhetoric incites violence? Is reporting “the truth” worth irreparably harming people’s lives? How can we distinguish between talking heads and “true” journalists? And can “news” ever be truly unbiased?

As it was, this novel is nearly perfect. The only two things that kept it from being five stars, to me, were the disappearance of Sean by the story’s end and the fact that sometimes the dialogue was a little too tidy and perfect. I imagine the latter Waldman was indulging in a little wishful thinking, what with those newspaper-ready quotes and ready-to-go sound bites! But having done interviewing myself on an amateur and academic level, I know that actual human speech is rarely that cleaned up on its own, and because so many characters are making speeches, or appearing on television and radio, the fact that there was barely one stutter of “uh…” in there stood out to me. Secondly, we receive a resolution–albeit brief–for most of the cast of characters, including Claire, Mo, Paul, and Bitman. But Sean simply disappears. I would have liked to have one last chapter, to see if he had grown since his time with the anti-Garden protesters. Again, these are minor complaints. The Submission should be read not only by every New Yorker, but by everyone in the country. Even those people, like me, who still think it’s too soon.

I received this book free for review from the publisher via NetGalley. It came out in 2011.

Bookwanderer Rating: Four and a half out of five stars    

Read The New York Time’s review here.

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