For The Someday Book

Book Review: The Submission

Posted on: October 8, 2011

The Submission, by Amy Waldman, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (New York), 2011, 299 pp.

The Submission is a novel about 9/11. More particularly, it is a novel about the aftermath of 9/11 on the families of the victims, on New York, on Muslims, on politicians and the politics of the nation. It is startling how well Amy Waldman captures the tenor of our post-9/11 tensions. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that this is fiction.

The plot centers on the selection of a memorial for the World Trade Center site. A jury of artists and one elite 9/11 family member conduct a blind review of hundreds of submissions, and they settle on one called “The Garden.” When they gather to unveil the winner, they discover his name is Mohammed Kahn, an American Muslim. The jury immediately knows that the politics will be explosive, but they forge ahead. The 9/11 widow, Claire Burwell, had been the chief advocate for the design, but finds herself questioning Kahn and his design. Another group of family members, led by Sean Gallagher and joined by radical anti-Muslim advocates, organized against the memorial design. Things quickly get out of hand as talk radio pundits begin to claim The Garden is actually an Islamic garden, a martyrs’ paradise.

The novel traces the interior struggles of each of the characters at the center of the debate. Claire Burwell, the sophisticated, wealthy 9/11 widow on the jury, slowly begins to doubt her judgment and yearns for a direct apology or explanation that Mohammed Kahn cannot give. Mohammed Kahn believes he should not be obligated to defend his work differently than a non-Muslim architect, and he struggles between stereotypes to present himself as both a sincere Muslim and an American, but appears to be neither. Sean Gallagher has made his life’s meaning out of honoring his firefighter brother’s memory, and his own grief and rage gets caught up in political forces beyond his grasp. Asma Anwar is an illegal Bangledeshi immigrant whose husband was also killed on 9/11, and she tries to find her voice in the fray.  There are also bureaucrats and politicians, reporters and advocates and lawyers in the mix.

I can’t say that I enjoyed this novel in the least–but that is not a statement about its quality. Amy Waldman does a compelling job of capturing the pain of racial and religious stereotyping, the sanctification of 9/11 victims, the hyperbolic media portrayals of controversy, and the national tension since 9/11. Consequently, reading the novel felt like watching the coverage of the latest scandal on television–it evoked the same frustration and helplessness, the same feeling of people talking past one another without ever listening or ever speaking from their hearts. I found this to be a hard story to read, because it covered material that is still raw and hard to experience. But I am grateful to Waldman for the time capsule of this novel, which will preserve this difficult experience for others in the future.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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