The Submission of Whom?
Amy Waldman places her debut novel in the ash-filled wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. The towers have fallen, and a small jury has been tasked with choosing, from thousands of anonymous submissions, a memorial to honor the lives lost. Among the jury members is Claire Burwell, the only juror to have lost a family member, her husband, in the attack.
After much deliberation the winning design is a garden, symbolic of healing and rebirth, but the decision becomes controversial after it is made public that the designer, an American named Mohammed Kahn, is labeled a Muslim by a nosy reporter. Although he does not practice, 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, punchy, 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 reformed 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 one another and among themselves until the whole process is compromised to the point that an innocent women loses her life. The masses, eager to use their collective voice, finds that it has none, and that America is not a black and white country.
That's democracy, finding a single resolution among 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, each 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.
Waldman incorporates an intricate use of architecture and design into her prose, eloquently describing the contours and lines of buildings. It fits the story of the memorial thematically as well as engaging the reader with vivid imagery. The memorial is brought to life by her words, and the reader can develop their own opinion on it. At least until the epilogue, set some time in the future, in which everything is neatly tied up, in an underwhelming and seemingly forced conclusion.
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'. Despite a dissatisfying ending, Waldman's writing is strong enough to carry a reader through the 300 plus pages. As a work of fiction, “The Submission” is as much a memorial to 9/11 as Waldman's imaginary garden would have been.