Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Submission: Confronting Beliefs

This is a novel that demands a lot of its readers. That's not to say Amy Waldman's The Submission is difficult or dull -- in fact, it's the polar opposite of both. What it is, though, is a novel that makes readers think; that asks readers to challenge long-held beliefs and ideas, no matter how firmly they think those ideas are held. Notions you may judge to be obvious, aren't. And ideas that may have seemed odious suddenly may not seem that way either. To me, it's one of the best kinds novel: A novel that feels perfectly in tune with how our society operates (for better and, mostly, worse), and that demands that you confront your own feelings and beliefs.

Enough with abstractions. Here's the deal: Two years after the attacks of 9/11, a jury convenes to select a design for the memorial to be built at Ground Zero. The jury selects (without knowledge of the designer, since the submission process was anonymous) a design for a beautiful garden with flowing canals and the victims' names written on the walls in the shapes of the twin towers. Most everyone's happy, until...envelope please...the designer is revealed to be a Muslim. Or at least he's a guy with a "Muslim name": Mohammed Kahn.

The public outcry is immediate. And furious. How could a Muslim be allowed to design an "Islamic paradise" to effectively memorialize the "jihadist martyrs," not the victims, right-wing conspiracy theorists ask? Obviously, not all Muslims are terrorists, you bigoted fools, say Mo's advocates. So why shouldn't Mo, an irreligious American architect, be allowed to build his design, since the design was judged the winner based on aesthetics, not politics or religion? But Muslims are responsible for 9/11, counters the opposition, so it'd be, at best, insensitive,and at worst, horribly insulting, to allow a Muslim designer to memorialize them.

This culture war is the basis of the novel, and the frenzy that follows is examined through the eyes of several New Yorkers -- including Mo himself, and Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow who is the leading proponent of Mo's design. But both of these characters begin seeing themselves through the lens the increasingly polarized public sees them. They begin to question and doubt, to yield, especially in Mo's case, to others' (often stereotypical) visions of them.

A Bangledeshi immigrant who lost her husband in the attacks, a woman who runs an organization called Save America From Islam, a buffoonish right-wing talk show host, and a down-on-his-luck blue collar fella named Sean who lost his brother round out the cast of characters that give this novel a really complete feel. And the media circus (another character is a less-than-ethical journalist) and the political wrangling (the governor of New York has national ambitions and is constantly waiting to see which way the wind blows and maneuvering politically) feel spot on. As do the difficult questions the novel raises. 

Are moral absolutes really absolute? Why is bigotry so wrong (and idiotic...and harmful)? Can art ever really be separated from artist? The readers must grapple, especially those of the conservative persuasion, at whom Waldman often takes aim.

Much like the politically charged environment portrayed, this novel itself was also divisive. It's the only book I've seen wind up on a "most overrated novel of the year" list, as well as several "best of the year" lists, including this one from Entertainment Weekly. I tend toward the latter -- perhaps not one of the best books I've read this year, but a very, very good one, nonetheless. Waldman (a former journalist) writes lucidly and knows her stuff -- whether architecture or the ins-and-outs of a newsroom. You trust her, even if her characters piss you off. This is highly recommended!


  1. I think this is a good subject for the author to examine and it must make interesting reading. The public does tend to become very polarised on issues such as this.

  2. Greg, I'm happy to see you liked this one better than The Marriage Plot. If you didn't, I think you would have been entitled to ignore all of my recommendations from here on out.

  3. Interesting, I have this one and I'm planning on reading it within the next couple of months, it sounded like a good read.

  4. I'm glad to hear you are in the second camp, because I was disappointed to see this on the Most Overrated list. I am excited to read it myself.

  5. I'm so glad you picked this one up. I read it shortly after its release and have been championing it for a few months now. I was originally reluctant to read it when I did (the release coincided with the 10th anniversary) but I haven't been able to let it go since. It's definitely been my favorite of the year (although I hope to tackle at least a few more including The Art of Fielding during the coming work-less week.)

    Happy Holidays!


  6. @Sam - Yeah, very polarized - it's amazing how spot-on it feels, given how polarized things are now.

    @Brenna - Well, as a left-leaning political junkie, there was no way I wasn't going to like this one. ;)

    @Jessica - It's a really good read - hope you enjoy it!

    @LBC - Methinks those who put it on the "overrated" list are of the conservative bent.

    @chronicles - I wish I'd read it closer to the 10th anniversary, like you did - but as long as the country stays as politically polarized as it is now, this book won't lose its immediacy. I agree that it's amazingly well done!

  7. I heard about this on the radio (NPR maybe?) a few months ago, and promptly forgot what it was called. Because I can't really create to-read lists and drive at the same time, despite my bests multi-tasking intentions. Anyway, I'm glad to see it turn up here, and even more glad to see that you liked it, because I've been wanting to read it for a while. I'm trying not to buy more books (a constant battle), but I think I'll make an exception for this one...