Amy Waldman places her debut novel in the ash-filled wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. The towers have fallen, and now, a small jury has been tasked with choosing, from thousands of anonymous submissions, a memorial to honor the lives lost. Among the jury is Claire Burwell, the only juror to have lost a family member in the attack.
After much deliberation the winning design is a garden, symbolic of healing and rebirth, but the decision becomes a controversy after it is made public that the designer, an American named Mohammed Kahn, is labeled a Muslim. Although he is not practicing, and in his own words an Atheist, many of his countrymen are insulted that he would defile sacred ground with what they see as an “Islamic Garden”.
Waldman, a contributor for both “The New York Times” and “The Atlantic”, has a powerful, punching, prose that seamlessly incorporates symbolism from the real-world events of 9/11 into the lives of her characters. Her imaginary garden, with steel trees made from the wreckage of the Twin Towers becomes an afterthought to it's imaginary designer, the media, as well as the public.
The process of building the memorial becomes a microcosm of American democracy. A thousand different interest groups fight with each other and amidst themselves until the whole process is compromised to the point that an innocent women loses her life. The masses, eager to use it's collective voice, finds that it has none, and that America is not a black a white country.
That's democracy, finding a single resolution amongst three-hundred million different opinions, and Waldman perhaps hints at the answer in the title. There isn't a protagonist, or an antagonist either, but rather just Americans, trying to do what they think is right. The rub is that while everyone wants to memorialize the attack, nobody can agree on how to do it.
People say that 'everything changed after 9/11', and they are right, to an extent. Waldman's novel is a portrait of the changing American landscape in the twenty-first century, in which globalization and capitalism has blurred the line between 'us' and 'them'. There aren't any happy endings to be found in the novel, a harrowing reminder of the reality of the events portrayed. As a work of fiction, “The Submission” is as much a testament to 9/11 as Waldman's imaginary garden would have been.