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October 26, 2011

The Submission by Amy Waldman

Amy Waldman’s The Submission begins with a jury making their final deliberations on how site of the September 11th terrorist attacks are to memorialized. Two years on from that fateful day, the nation is still raw, and anxious for healing to begin. No juror feels this more acutely than Claire Burwell, who lost her husband in the attacks, and who has been selected to serve representing the interests of the victim’s families. She rallies support around a design called The Garden, where she can imagine her children playing and which serves to honour the kind of man her husband was, as opposed to the more brutalist designs championed by other jury members. The Garden wins, the identity of its designer revealed, and he turns out to be a man called Mohammed Khan.

That the outrage sparked by this revelation seemed implausible to me mostly means that I don’t live properly in the world. A world in which the idea of a Ground Zero Mosque (which is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero) sends people to the streets spouting hatred and threats of violence, which no doubt inspired some of what transpires in The Submission. The story shifts from Claire Burwell to Mohammed Khan himself, an architect American born-and-raised who is stunned to find himself in the spotlight, discussed on late night TV by right-wing windbags who speculate upon his motivations and foster rumours that this secular Muslim has extremist ties.

The story moves back and forth between these two characters and others, including a reporter who sees the story as an opportunity to further her own career, a Bangladeshi illegal alien who also lost her husband in the towers, the brother of a deceased firefighter who sees his newfound 9/11 status as a chance to finally make something of his life, the jury chair who’s caught between the jury and a state governor with elections on her mind.

Waldman is the former co-chief of the New York Times’ South Asia Bureau, and has the journalistic chops to tackle a story with such breadth, and also understands the spiral effect of story and the role the media plays in this process. It was on the side of fiction, however, where the story fell down for me, and in characterization more specifically. Claire Burwell herself is little more than a type, and she loses substance as the story progresses. Her supposed downfall is an ability to see the issue from all sides, but I failed to see her at all. Waldman tries to complicate her character by suggesting that all was not as well in her marriage as she presents to the outside world, but this significant storyline is never picked up again, and Claire herself ends up virtually disappearing from the novel about two thirds of the way through.

Another character weakly drawn was the firefighter’s brother, who turns out to have stupidity and alcoholism underlining his vitriol. It would have been more interesting to find a bigoted jingoist as intelligent and sure of himself as the characters on the other side. And not for the sake of fairness and balance, but rather because I think we’d be fooling ourselves if we explained away all the idiots as people who know they’re idiots deep down. In reality, there is a fiercer opposition to contend with.

But The Submission turns out to be a better book than it seems, and it turns out that what Waldman is writing about is not opposition at all. Khan digs in his heels and refuses to submit to the demands being put upon him from all sides– does he deny his background, assert himself as an American? But what of his understanding that being American means one has no need to deny his background? But who is he serving here? His country? His some-time faith? Himself? Claire Burwell is asking herself similar questions in her role as juror, and doubt is cast in her mind as to Khan’s intentions. Doubt he refuses to assuage because he’s never given her reason to mistrust him, so he holds back on principle, her mistrust doubly undermined. They’re turning in circles, and so is the whole world around them, violence and intensity escalating with each revolution, which culminates in a life that is tragically lost.

Waldman’s language doesn’t call attention to itself, though hers is a working prose that is doing things, so you’ll notice when you take your mind off the plot enough to pay attention. And similarly with the literary-ness of the novel, which creeps in and eventually outshines the plot. In the end, The Submission is a story both more universal and more specific than what the plot suggests, challenging, provocative and rich.

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