The Submission (2011)
By Amy Waldman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ISBN: 9780374271565
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The premise of journalist Amy Waldman’s debut novel The Submission is that history repeats itself. In 1980, blind design submissions were submitted for the proposed Vietnam War Veterans’ Memorial. When the entry was chosen, a hailstorm of controversy erupted when the winner was 21-year-old Maya Lin. Some claimed her design was ugly, but most of this was a mask for what other critics simply verbalized: disgust that an Asian would be given the task of designing a memorial for Americans killed in an Asian war. (Never mind that Ms. Lin was born in the U.S. and is of Chinese descent, not Vietnamese.) As we know, Ms. Lin did build “The Wall,” though she was forced to accept a compromise in which Frederick Hart’s “Three Soldiers” statue sits at the memorial’s entrance.
Flash ahead to 2003. Another selection committee sits in New York City and solicits blind entries for a 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero. The committee has narrowed it down to two choices, a soaring abstraction known as “The Void,” favored by art critics on the panel; and a contemplative design called “The Garden,” the choice of panel chair Claire Burwell, a wealthy socialite and 9/11 widow. “The Garden” wins, but there’s a problem: the architect’s name is Mohammad Khan. Does the committee stand by its choice, or does it conclude that there is simply no way that a Muslim can build the memorial?
Once again, objective reality is of secondary concern. Khan is also native-born, Ivy League educated and, like many immigrant kids, prone to hyper-Americanism. This 37-year-old son of immigrants doesn’t even like his first name; he prefers to be called “Mo.” His main motive for entering the contest was disgust over the attack and his desire to show the attackers that they can’t do this sort of thing to America. As for being a Muslim, he’s about as Muslim as secular Jews or infant-baptized Catholics who wouldn’t know a Mass from moss (like yours truly). His religion is a thoroughly American one: he’s obsessed with money and success. His hubris is that the thing he loves most is himself.
Mo’s ego, secularism, naïveté, and stubbornness are about to clash with another American reality: that politics often trumps fairness. Waldman sketches a world we all recall after 9/11–Islamophobia, the bunker mentality of those fearing new attacks, the rise of rightwing hate groups, the hyper-nationalism of those bent on revenge, and the stifling of voices of opposition to Bush-era military adventurism. Remember when the Dixie Chicks were boycotted for a remark that they were “ashamed” to from the same state as Bush? Or when one was considered a traitor for opposing the Iraq War? One can easily imagine the hue-and-cry if Waldman’s fictional scenario had been the reality of 2003.
Waldman populates her novel with thinly disguised provocateurs that abound in post-9/11 America: the cynical rightwing shock jock Lou Sarge; the Tea Party-like chair of Save America from Islam, Debbie Dawson; Sean Gallagher, a loser blue-collar guy suddenly thrust into the limelight as the Christian champion of his dead brother; Burwell, the do-the-right-thing fuzzy-headed liberal; and Alyssa Spier, Mo’s egoistic doppelganger, except that she’s an amoral tabloid hack willing to exploit anything and anybody to advance her lackluster career. Mo has no hard-fast principles beyond the belief in his own brilliance, his sense of entitlement, and his rigidity. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of him: Islamic rights lawyer Laila Fathi, orthodox Muslims, rightwingers seeking to make him their poster child for lost American values, and liberals wanting him to be “reasonable” and “explain” himself. The latter becomes crucial when alarmists interpret his design as a “Muslim” garden and see its design as plot to mock America.
Waldman wisely lets all of this play out according to internal logic and refrains from telegraphing or judging. But she does give us an alternative take on 9/11 widows: young Bengali mother Asma Anwar, whose illegal immigrant husband worked as a custodian in the Twin Towers. Waldman’s cool detachment moves the narrative and makes readers question their own assumptions. A liberal, for instance, might viscerally embrace Mo, but might also come to see him as a foolish prig; and it’s hard to see how even the most sanctimonious reactionary can be unsympathetic to Anwar.
Both Entertainment Weekly and Esquire made The Submission their book of the year, and all manner of prize nominations are rumored. Is it that good? Not really. It’s thought provoking and a breezy read, but it’s no literary masterpiece. I found myself very dissatisfied with the final chapter, one in which Waldman let down her guard and wrote a futuristic coda that’s a liberal/utopian version of “And they all lived happily ever after.” Some of the characters–including New York’s mayor and the State governor–are more caricature than plausible; some of the dialogue is contrived; and Waldman leaves some logic holes. (Why was a Frederick Hart-like compromise never considered?) The Submission is a bit like the post-9/11 hysteria–more hype than substance. Forget the lofty heights; this book belongs in a more humble but respectful category: Good book. Good read.