Amy Waldman had written at least one draft of The Submission before the announcement in late 2009 of plans to build a Muslim community center two blocks from Ground Zero. In a wrenching example of life imitating art, the real controversy that exploded over the proposed center is expressed in the perfectly timed fiction of her début novel.
In Waldman's novel, it is not a center openly sponsored by prominent members of New York's Muslim community that has Americans on both sides of the controversy shouting their opinions. It is the revelation that the winner of a competition to design a Ground Zero memorial is Muslim.
The author had guts to tackle a twist in a story that remains a daily part of our national conversation - if even indirectly as we wrestle the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and debate the tangle of religious freedom, cultural identity and immigration.
Of course, we have been down a similar road as a nation considering how best to honor tragedy through public art. Maya Lin, so young and vulnerable when her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was selected in 1981, faced brutal criticism because she, an Asian-American, reminded us of our shame and loss. And yet, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has become a national symbol of remembrance, honor, shared grief and healing.
Waldman presents us with this dilemma: How would we respond to a 9/11 memorial designed by an American by the name of Mohammed Khan? Waldman seeks to capture the worst of our fears and prejudices, of our ignorance and anger, as well as the best of our ability to forgive and show fairness and empathy.
Yet, I can't say I appreciate this novel. Perhaps it is because real events continue grip and tear that I feel The Submission offers nothing new to my understanding of and reflection on 9/11. It's an intriguing premise that loses a lot of power right out the gate since the actual competition, which began in 2003 as it does in the novel, proceeded in relative peace - at least to the outsider. The 9/11 Memorial, completed in time for the 10th anniversary of the attacks, was designed by Michael Arad, an Israeli-American.
I feel the author panders to a specific audience, reinforcing stereotypes by making caricatures of her villains and making her protagonists attractive, sympathetic and vulnerable. The themes address and applaud every response that I, a very left-of-center liberal, had in reaction to the attacks and their aftermath. Even in my devastation I feared the vilification of any one perceived as a threat because of their ethnicity, cultural identity or religion. I abhor chest-thumping American bravado; I wailed at the blatant restriction of civil rights in the name of national security; I protested the headless tumble into war. And I still feel the personal repercussions of the political rift that is even deeper now than it was in 2003 when we plunged into Iraq. The novel pats me on the back: religious tolerance, good; bigots, bad. But who is going to read this book? I venture to suggest only liberals, like me.
This is a novel of action and plot built around themes of reflection and character development. Perhaps this causes me to feel the disconnect between the power of the supposition and the unsatisfying story. Given Waldman's phenomenal career as a journalist, is it to be expected that she would excel at presenting events and multiple points-of-view, at telling rather than showing. I am left without a real sense of the architect, Mohammed Khan, his motivations or his conflicted sense of personal justice and empathy. Nor can I connect with Claire Burwell, the wealthy widow who served on the selection committee as a representative of the families of 9/11 victims. The ancillary characters - the anti-memorial activists, the Bangladeshi wife of a 9/11 victim, the newspaper hack, the former politician shepherding the design selection committee - offer fascinating sub-plots but feel manufactured.
Or perhaps it's that Waldman's details are so close to the truth that there really isn't a "story" to tell. The old saw 'Truth is stranger than fiction' is cliché writ true; sadly it's also far more compelling, thought-provoking and heart-breaking.