Best Books of 2011: The Submission by Amy Waldman

on Monday, November 14, 2011
I'm going to try and pepper the rest of my 2011 posts with reviews of the best books of the year. They won't be in any particular order and, of course, on December 31 I'll post my full annual Top 10. So here goes with one that I'm sure we will be seeing on almost every Best of '11 list:

The Submission by Amy Waldman

The terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 have proven a spectacular stumbling block for America’s literary giants. Don Delillo failed dismally with his novel, Falling Man. John Updike similarly penned a stinker called Terrorist. Indeed, it took an Irish expat, Colum McCann to write the first great novel about that terrible day; Let The Great World Spin came out in 2009 and has yet to be surpassed as a work of true compassion, subtlety and insight. And it didn't even mention the attacks.

Now it seems a debut novelist has written the first great post-September 11 American novel, one which captures the pulse of a nation crippled by fear and grief on the one hand and buoyed by hope and defiance on the other. The Submission rests on a simple premise: the city of New York holds a blind competition to design the permanent memorial at Ground Zero. The selection committee, made up of government lackies, socialites and a single representative of the victims’ families, reviews the submissions without knowing the names of the entrants. Following considerable argument, they defer to the preference of the victim’s representative, Claire Burwell, and choose a beautiful garden surrounded by walls with the names of the fallen, only to discover its creator is one Mohammad Khan. Hardly the apple pie name they had hoped for.

What follows is a mad scramble to backtrack, justify and second-guess in which Waldman subjects all sides to wide-ranging excoriation. There are the obvious targets: the press who feast on the controversy and lace their stories with half-truths and sensationalist provocations; the flag-waving zealots baying for blood, who start a wave of racist attacks on Muslim women, pulling off their burqas at every opportunity; the flip-flop politicos who chase the vote at the expense of even the most basic decency; and, of course, the Muslim extremists seeking to co-opt Khan for their cause.

To her credit, Waldman is not satisfied simply taking easy pot shots. Even the more sympathetic characters have agendas and are prone to infuriating thoughts and actions. Burwell is divisive and self-righteous. Khan himself is arrogant and unwilling to do anything to quell the controversy. Only Asma Aswan, a woman whose husband wasn’t listed among the victims because he was an illegal immigrant sweeping the Trade Centre’s floors, comes across as truly innocent but hers is ultimately the saddest fate.

For the first three quarters, The Submission is an almost perfect novel, examining the dangers of knee-jerk reactions and questioning what it means to be a victim, what it means to be Muslim and, ultimately, what it means to be American in the wake of the this century's defining moment. Unfortunately, Waldman veers wildly off the rails towards the end, with a fairly predictable crescendo and one of the most unnecessary epilogues I have ever read. Students visit Khan twenty years later to discuss the controversy, and we learn the fates of all the characters. It is a clumsy, desperate end in which perhaps lies a crucial, if unintended, lesson of this otherwise outstanding book; some tragedies are just so immense that there can never be satisfactory closure.


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