What if the commission to design the World Trade Center memorial had been given to a Muslim architect? This scenario powers The Submission, the first novel from former New York Times bureau chief Amy Waldman. Her debut is flawless in execution, but unripe in its judgment.
The design nicknamed “The Garden,” already privately divisive among the jury chosen to pick a memorial from thousands of entries, becomes even more inflammatory when the winner’s name is revealed. The triumphant architect is an American-born atheist without a religious community, but that seems of little import next to the fact that Mohammed Khan is perceived as Muslim, and immediately accused of envisioning an “Islamic paradise garden” on the memorial site. Rushing to his defense at first, juror Claire Burwell, who lost her husband on September 11, faces ire for “allowing” the choice to come down to someone other families of victims see as disrespectful. The jury’s de facto leader, a former investment banker, decides to pressure Khan to decline the award, which he has no intention of doing even before a Muslim activist group appoints itself as his defender.
Mired in details of press conferences and back-room deliberations, The Submission is an entirely realistic exploration of Waldman’s beginning scenario. Maybe it’s too realistic: The bureaucratic storm surrounding the revelations is slow-brewing and unsurprising, relying on the initial moment of shock to propel its suspense through a ton of meetings. The backroom dealing, copious as it is, provides insufficient intrigue, and the one surprising voice in the deliberations (the Bangladeshi widow of an illegal immigrant on the WTC cleaning staff) is hushed too soon.
By reducing her characters to venal thumbnails, Waldman allows them to live out the worst versions of themselves, attacking each other in turn instead of allowing their perspectives to deepen the national dialogue around the memorial. (Unfortunately, the token reporter is the flattest and most odious of all.) It’s a heartbreaking view, with a hastily tacked-on epilogue meant to inspire hope, but revealing only trouble. Without offering any insight into the explosive situation it stems from, The Submission only serves to confirm people’s attitudes, not to highlight any un-turned-over stone in the post-9/11 consciousness. That does a disservice to its audience as much as its characters.