The novel chosen for this research exercise is The Submission by Amy Waldman. Waldman has had a successful career with the New York Times before embarking on this debut novel. Given her background, the subject of her work of fiction reflects her work as a journalist, centered on one of the most pressing topical issues of our times. Set in the aftermath of the September 11 2001 terror attacks on America, the story begins with the event of choosing the winning design for the World Trade Center memorial, for which a distinguished jury was assembled in New York. The jury members are awed and surprised when they open the envelope to know the winner’s identity – he is a Muslim, Mohammad Khan. In other words,
“The handpicked jury, featuring artists, historians and the personally bereaved, finally – although not unanimously – arrive at a decision. It’s for a walled garden featuring steel trees made of material from the Twin Towers. The names of the victims are to be inscribed on the inside of the wall. The winner of the competition to design the memorial is then revealed as one Mohammad Khan, a Muslim.” (The Mirror, 2011, p.11)
The narrative then delves into how the shocked jury members handle this new reality. While some of them have no issues with the religious identity of the winner, others take objection. Hence, despite calls for unity and token expressions of tolerance, the revelation of the winner creates a rift among the jury as well as the general public opinion. In the backdrop of this dramatic setup, Waldman weaves together a novel that is rich in insight, stellar in character construction and skeptical of human motivation. In other words, Waldman is able to recognize the tragedy of 9/11 without indulging in sentimentality. (Barrow, 2011, p.59) A review piece in The Mirror highlights this achievement:
“Finally it’s taken a novelist, and a debutant at that, to give us the clearest view yet of the human, political and cultural cost, and a possible, hopeful postscript on the 10th anniversary of the tragic event…But Waldman, a highly-acclaimed US foreign correspondent, hasn’t just written a ‘political’ novel. Her story, so wonderfully controlled, with pitch-perfect prose, is steeped in raw emotion and grandstanding…At its heart are fully realized characters, and many of them, with their own issues, agendas and flaws.” (The Mirror, 2011, p.11)
One of the jury members is the affluent and attractive Harvard law school alumni Claire Burwell. Claire loses her husband in the terror strikes. She came into public attention, though, during her irate rebuttal of accusations that 9/11 families were exploiting the system for pecuniary benefits. At this point, politicians with ambitions for high office step into the scene to gain political mileage. The Governor of New York is one such individual; and having been impressed with Claire’s outspoken demeanor, he appoints her to the jury. It is in the subsequent transformation of characters such as Claire that Waldman’s class as a pedigree novelist comes through. For example,
“Having manipulated the other jurors’ pity and survivor’s guilt to ensure her choice wins the competition, Claire initially is the architect’s strongest supporter. Her liberal husband would not hold his religion against him, she says. Her art-loving husband would want the design to stand on its own merits. But Claire gradually turns on its creator, her doubts about his religion and dislike of his reticence eating away at her as she struggles with loneliness and the fading memory of her husband.” (Daily Herald, 2011, p.37)
The other character that Waldman crafts with detail and depth is that of the winning architect Mohammad Khan. In many ways he is the tragic hero of the story, who undergoes a personal struggle in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Despite having grown up in America since his birth, he is suddenly treated as a second class citizen, with ‘random’ airport searches and a lost promotion in career making him feel resentful. In this context, participating in the competition for memorial design appeared to him as a way to reignite his career and also to pay back for a country that has treated him with unfair suspicion. The crossing of the destinies of Mo (as Mohammad Khan is referred to in the work) and Claire sets up some interesting sub-narratives.
“Buffeted by the media storm, Claire and Mo find themselves manipulated by reporters, right-wing zealots, the liberal left and a governor with hopes of higher office. Claire faces jealousy from a fire-fighters brother who lusts for the spotlight and believes he should have been on the jury. The unabashedly secular Mo finds no more of an acceptance from observing Muslims than the Jewish head of the selection committee. The fight over the memorial leaves both haunted, aware even if unwilling to acknowledge that they have lost their best selves.” (The Daily Mail, 2011, p.48)
The other interesting character in the novel is that of Alyssa Spier, a cub reporter, “who fancies herself as a harder-nosed Carrie Bradshaw, scents blood and, if she can dig enough dirt on Khan, the chance to make her name.” (The Daily Mail, 2011, p.48) Amid this intriguing plot structure, Waldman is able to pull off a wonderful debut novel, which is searching and cerebral, yet with moves forward at a fast pace. The lack of subplots in the story (a reflection of the author’s journalistic background) works to its advantage. In sum, Waldman brings forth “biting sketches of cynical hacks and scripted shock-jocks ring true, as she scrutinizes the link between art works and their creators. Acute and exhilarating.” (The Daily Mail, 2011, p.48)
Much of the power in Amy Waldman’s work comes from her capacity to gradually reveal layer upon layer of her characters’ circumstances, creating a continual sense of enlightenment as the story progresses. Her introduction of a Bangladeshi widow made suddenly affluent by the compensation fund exemplifies one of the contradictions created by the tragedy: that many people benefited financially as a result of the event, but the money thus gained could never truly compensate for what was lost. The widow’s newfound wealth allows her to stay in the U.S. without working but makes her constantly fearful of deportation or the kidnapping of relatives in her beleaguered homeland. (Daily Herald, 2011, p.37)
The Submission is difficult to classify into conventional genre and milieu. For example, it is not a work belonging to the tried and tested genres of Western/Country, Existential, Historical, Romance, Crime/Thriller, etc. The themes evident in earlier generations of the novel, such as the economic travails of the Great Depression or the high-tension of the Cold War era or the cultural upheavals of the Hippie generation are all far removed from the concerns evident in The Submission. Perhaps, then, it is a definitive novel of the post 911 era. To this extent, it is a pioneering work, with the capacity to create its own socio-cultural milieu. Critics also acknowledge the boldness with which Waldman tackles controversial issues, especially her harsh take on 911 widows and fire-fighters’ families. But, it is a novel which could not have come at a more appropriate time.
“A decade after the attacks, it is possible now to look with perspective on who we were, who we became and who we want to be. Waldman’s novel ends with regrets two decades after the attacks. It is almost as if she is sounding a warning, telling us that we have another decade to do better, to make things right and to try to heal some of the wounds still lingering from that horrible day and those that followed.” (Daily Herald, 2011, p.37)
Barrow, Daniel. “Novels for 9/11.” New Statesman (1996) 5 Sept. 2011: 59.
“Fictional ‘Submission’ Looks at How 9/11 Left U.S. Fragmented.” Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL) 19 Aug. 2011: 37.
“Literary Fiction.” The Daily Mail (London, England) 19 Aug. 2011: 48.
Waldman, Amy. “Prophetic Justice: The United States Now Prosecutes Suspected Terrorists for Their Intentions, Not Just Their Action. When It Comes to Islam, Are American Jurors Equipped to Understand If Words and Beliefs Are Truly Dangerous?.” The Atlantic Monthly Oct. 2006: 82+.
“Zero Tolerance; Book of thE WEEk.” The Mirror (London, England) 9 Sept. 2011: 11.