Last week I finished The Submission, by Amy Waldman. The book was a gift from my boss who pronounced it “an amazing read, but not light.” It is certainly compelling — and beautifully written! — if also problematic in significant ways.
The title refers to a proposed design for a memorial for the victims of 9-11, chosen in a blind competition in an re-imagined New York two years after the attack. The plan details a walled, rectangular garden, bisected twice by perpendicular canals, with pathways lined by trees in a grid in each of the quarters. The names of the dead would be inscribed on the garden’s inner walls. The book opens with the contentious deliberations by the jury, composed of mostly artists and other art world professionals plus one representative of “the families,” who is the main proponent of the garden. The other design, preferred by the the most vocal of the artist contingent, is known as “The Void,” a proposal distinctly less comforting or inviting. In a vote largely determined by the emotion of the widow, the garden barely wins, whereupon the identity of the submitter is revealed: an architect named Mohammad Kahn. Dun, dun, DUN.
The freaking out begins with the chairman of the jury embargoing what he now considers to be a tentative decision. The designer’s name is soon leaked to the press, however, and the jury is forced to acknowledge its choice. To mitigate the ensuing controversy, the jury chairman — under pressure from the governor of New York — decides not to finalize the memorial design without a public hearing. The novel details the mobilization of the stakeholders on various sides of the debate over whether it is appropriate for the memorial to victims of a terrorist attack by followers of radical Islam to be designed by an American Muslim.
As expected, the political right opposes the choice. The debate quickly becomes principally about the architect himself instead of his design, which is, however, interpreted as having Islamic influences, then re-interpreted as being the paradise described in the Quran, then re-interpreted again as a heavenly cemetery for martyrs of radical Islam. Other opponents include ad hoc groups formed in response to the jury’s choice, as well as, it seems, the majority of the families of the victims. The governor also falls into the opposition camp. Its proponents include a coalition called the Muslim American Coordinating Council (MACC) as well as, on principle, the artists on the jury who hadn’t advocated for the design in the first place. It’s the widow from the jury and, ultimately, Kahn himself who struggle with their ambivalence.
Simply put, this book was hard to read at times. The extreme opposition in the novel is rooted in reality, which we saw in the debate over the so-called “ground zero mosque.” And Waldman really brings to life one of the victims’ families, whose surviving son acts as spokesperson for that contingent. They are working class family from Brooklyn, and the son is rudderless before and after the attack and becomes increasingly conflicted about his parents’ marching orders to stop the construction of the garden at any cost. At the public hearing, the father of another of the victims is given a particularly sympathetic portrayal; calling the choice “insensitive” and citing the example of the pope’s decision to move a proposed convent from Auschwitz, he notes, “We, who have carried the weight of the loss, are now being asked to carry the weight of proving America’s tolerance.”
The motivations of MACC are fairly easy to understand, and Waldman does a great job of portraying the difficulties of that coalition, coalesced around a shared identity as Muslim Americans which is nevertheless interpreted very differently by its members, religious and secular.
Hard to understand was the character of Claire Burwell, the jury’s widow. Her reaction to discovering the identity of the creator of the garden she loves and fights for is initially unchanged. But upon meeting and getting to know Kahn, she becomes increasingly doubtful of her ability to continue to support the design — mostly, it seems, because Kahn won’t say whether his proposal is “an Islamic garden” and won’t say that he condemns the 9-11 attack. As he says to her when they finally sit down together towards the end of the novel, “‘What is the principle behind demanding that I say it, when your six-year-old son can tell you its wrong? Wouldn’t you assume that any non-Muslim who entered the competition thinks the attack was wrong?’” She is extremely wealthy from her husband’s money, and although great pains are taken to establish her discomfort with the lifestyle she married into, her assertion of her privilege is off-putting. She thinks herself the gatekeeper to design approval, that she represents all of the families — as she goes, so go they, she implies — and that she is entitled to answers from Kahn. The novel is supposed to be about her internal journey towards her true self during this emotional time in her life, but ultimately it’s simply not compelling or sympathy-inducing.
It is Mohammed Kahn who is the standout in the novel. Raised in Virginia by parents who only get involved in a local mosque after the attacks, Mo, as he is known, is Muslim by birth alone. He wrestles with ritual observance during his time in the spotlight, but he is characterized by his talent, drive, and ambition in his field. He is above all supremely rational (and stubborn) and finds completely confounding that he is collapsed into identification with a religion that he hardly knows. His is the experience of many Americans in the post-9-11 world, starting with the scene that introduces him to readers in which he is detained at LAX for flying while Muslim. He is complex, frustrated, principled, lost by the situation he finds himself in, and honestly struggling to make sense of it however he can, all in the center of the extreme pressure cooker of the national debate into which he is thrust.
Missing from the novel are significant contributions from evangelical Christians and Jews of any kind, both of which would have to factor into this situation. And the thought that a memorial design could have been chosen a mere two years after the attacks strains credulity (especially as the actual memorial barely managed to open ten years later). The end of the story is rather puzzling as well; after the protagonists have expended unknowable time and energy panicking about the “source” of the garden — which question is set up to come across as unfounded paranoia — the final scene shows that Kahn did indeed draw his inspiration from a garden he happened across in Afghanistan. The horror! (And it seems clear that this inspiration is purely aesthetic, not religious.) This frustrating development, its placement at the end of the story making it function as a big “reveal,” undermines the narrative argument that Kahn suffered a great injustice in his treatment as the memorial’s creator.
The reader is left with a dull disappointment with Waldman’s America, at the very least for the fact that human prejudice is shown to have vanquished human-made beauty. It is not worthy of the novel’s honest attempts to grapple with how we honor the dead of 9-11.