Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Submission

 by Amy Waldman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
320 pages            Fiction

The Submission is an alternate history novel about the development of a memorial to the World Trade Center by journalist, Amy Waldman. Our city, Kalamazoo, Michigan, is reading the book for our community read this month, and my book club is discussing it this evening. It is an excellent choice for a community read because it delves into all the emotional and explosive issues surrounding September 11, 2001.

We all know where we were and how we felt when the planes flew into the World Trade Center. More than a year after the attacks, I visited my son in New York. He had a dinner party to introduce me to all his friends. At dinner, it was very important to my new acquaintances that they explain to me their experiences on that day. In part, it was how they introduced themselves to me; it was their new definition of themselves.

In The Submission, it is just three years later, and feelings are still very raw. A committee comprised of artists, historians, civic and political leaders along with a representative of the families have gathered to choose the winning design in a blind contest. One of the two finalist designs is a beautiful walled garden with the names of the deceased etched in the walls. After a great deal of debate, the garden design is chosen; then the group discovers that the winner of the contest is an American Muslim named Mohammad Khan. This information is leaked to the media and mayhem ensues. As one reviewer says, "The debate moves from the design's attributes to its attribution." A surprisingly intense review in Entertainment Weekly says that The Submission is  "a scathing, dazzlingly crafted indictment of the messes people make when they mistake ideology for morality and bigotry for patriotism."

The many characters in the novel are involved in vigorous debate, much of it recorded by the author. Some of the characters are exactly what you would expect--the Rush Limbaugh character, the blogger, the racists, the politicians, and the haters. There is also the dignified and wealthy woman representing her deceased stock broker husband and the other families on the committee; there is the itinerant younger brother of one of the dead firefighters seeking justice for his brother and his grieving parents; and there is young Bangladeshi widow of one of the World Trade Center's custodians who ultimately provides the moral compass for the novel. My favorite character is the de facto leader of the Bangladeshi community. He is a strong, resilient, loving man who exhibits that which is best in a city of divided loyalties. He remains true to his community and to the young widow he takes under his wing.

I frankly don't know when I have read a novel so compelling in its moral intensity. We are exposed to all sides of the controversy, and quite frankly, we are pulled in every direction. The only direction in which we are not pulled is in the direction of the architect, who comes off as a shallow, rather incomplete person whose motives seem opportunistic rather than altruistic. It is not until the end of the book that we get some real insight into Mohammad Khan's character.

This is not a plot driven novel, but you keep reading the dialogue and keep trying to figure out what should be the appropriate decision. And like almost all such political decisions, the compromise is unenlightened and superficial. Then there is the question about why we need symbolism and why we need to create memorials. I am sure, for instance, that there will be a memorial built to commemorate the children of the Sandy Hook shooting. I kept asking myself if a memorial to the World Trade Center, no matter what is chosen, can possibly solve the issue of terrorism in the same way that a memorial to the Sandy Hook children cannot possibly solve the issue of gun violence. In The Submission, the compromised memorial solves none of the problems nor does it serve as comforter. It is not until the epilogue that we learn what the whole experience has meant to the key players, and in one small heartfelt gesture, the humanity of all the players is brought to a moment of heart stopping clarity. It is the most fitting memorial.

This is Amy Waldman's first novel. She will be speaking in Kalamazoo next Tuesday evening. I will be there and if given a chance, I am going to ask her, "What was your motivation for needing to tie up the loose ends in the epilogue? " In the case of the World Trade Center, it is likely that the loose ends will never be tied up.

Chris Cleve's review in the Washington Post. Chris Cleve is the author of Little Bee which I reviewed a couple of years ago:
An interview with Amy Waldman on NPR:

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