Only a reporter could have written The Submission, an acutely topical and realistic novel about the rancorous debate unleashed when a Muslim wins a competition to design a memorial to those killed in the September 11, 2001, attacks. This is a story that reads as if a New York City newspaper’s star reporter miraculously got intimate access to every major player and every major development in the most heated controversy of the day, plus the time to digest and organize it all before sitting down to write.
And, in a way, it is just that. First-time novelist Amy Waldman was in fact a New York Times reporter from 1997 to 2006, and her novel accomplishes masterfully what in newsrooms is called “covering the waterfront.” Delving into the highly politicized aftermath of the tragedy, Waldman has given voice, context, and insight to seemingly every relevant character in a hot-button drama that is still unfolding: our national battle over the nature of Islam and its role in America. The timing of this novel’s release perfectly fits the news cycle, arriving ten years after the 9/11 attacks, just in advance of the opening of Manhattan’s real-life memorial—and mere months after backers of the “Ground Zero Mosque” won a court battle clearing the way for them to build.
The Submission picks up the story two years after the WTC attacks, as a prize jury charged with selecting a design for a victims’ memorial spars over the proposals of two anonymous finalists. Claire Burwell, whose husband died in the attacks, wants “The Garden,” while Ariana Montagu, the jury’s celebrity artist, wants “The Void.” When “The Garden” is chosen, the name of the winning architect—Mohammad Khan—is revealed to a shocked jury. Intense debate begins even before Khan’s name is leaked to the press: should and can Americans accept a 9/11 memorial designed by a Muslim, or will doing so merely tear the country further apart?
Major figures in the drama include a former banker; a tabloid reporter (perhaps the Times was too close for comfort?); and an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant named Asma Anwar, a 9/11 widow and mother like Claire Burwell, but otherwise Claire’s opposite. Where Asma is poor, dark, uneducated, and relegated to the margins of American society, Claire is rich, blonde, Ivy League–educated—and unsure of everything, including and especially herself. To Waldman’s credit, given her obvious sympathies toward “The Garden” and the hope and reconciliation it represents, we also get a three-dimensional portrait of an opponent, Sean Gallagher, whose brother died in the attacks and who finds a vocation as a victims’ advocate. Acknowledging that 9/11 rescued some people by giving them a cause—and a dignity—they previously lacked, Waldman treats Sean with some empathy.
The Submission tracks close to real-life events, with Manhattan’s “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy providing an obvious model. Given the hysterical tenor of that controversy, nothing that happens in Waldman’s novel, not even murder, is over the top. Opponents of the real mosque (and its associated Islamic community center) claimed that allowing it to be built would be insulting to survivors even as it created a haven for violent jihadists in our midst—a capitulation, in other words, tantamount to handing the 9/11 terrorists a victory. Largely lost in the din was the fact that a mosque already existed near the site before 9/11. A similarly willful public ignorance plays out in The Submission. When the governor, who for political advantage is siding with those who oppose a Muslim-designed memorial, is reminded that the design competition was anonymous, she cheerfully notes polls showing that 70 percent of Americans don’t know this.
Waldman doesn’t let the media off the hook, either. The novel’s tabloid reporter, Alyssa Spier, is toxically ambitious and unencumbered by any concern for fairness or context. Spier has an eye for the sensational and provocative photo op. “Get a shot of that!” she barks to her photographer when illustrations for “The Garden” are knocked down after a press conference, and she spies one bearing the dirty imprint of a shoe sole. Her goals and tactics will be familiar to anyone in the news business (full disclosure: I am a reporter myself), and her rapid ascendancy to columnist, a reward for having whipped the public up into a frenzy, is chilling. “People want to be told what to think,” her editor tells her. “Or they want to be told what they already think is right.”
The Submission is a deftly dramatized page-turner, and as a piece of journalism it would merit a Pulitzer Prize. Yet as a work of fiction in the hybrid fact-fiction style most commonly associated with Tom Wolfe, it achieves only a mixed success. The main characters, perhaps because the author tries so hard to provide equal time, wind up being spread too thin, so that well into the novel we are still wondering, whose story is this? The background figures, meanwhile, are all standard stereotypes: a right-wing media demagogue, a professional hatemonger, a blatantly self-serving governor, and the opportunistic leader of a Muslim civil-rights organization. And despite all the terrific observation, quotes, and insight, there exists a tone of detachment in the narrating voice—crucial for a reporter, yes, but perhaps too wary a stance for a novelist.
Readers longing for a hero or a heroine here, even one in the tragic mode, will leave this book disappointed. Waldman is a reporter, and a certain hard-nosed cynicism prevails; despite occasional shows of heroism and heartfelt inspiration (usually by children or members of the Muslim-American community), the novel suggests that widespread, effective idealism is no longer possible in America. Indeed, the disturbing impression left by The Submission is of a country sunk in dissension and rancor. Regarding the memorial, Claire says ruefully that “it’s almost like we fight over what we can’t settle in real life through these symbols. They’re our nation’s afterlife.”
As we survey America’s actual afterlife a decade after 9/11, Claire seems spot on. We’ve waged one war many see as pointless, we’re waging another that most see as endless, and we’re still grappling with how to treat American Muslims. Ultimately Waldman’s most intriguing character is the architect, Mohammad Khan, whose cultural and spiritual evolution is only tantalizingly introduced in the novel’s epilogue. We might wish that instead of covering the waterfront, Waldman had allowed us to get to know this one man better. It is a sharp irony of this novel that the figure who undertakes to lead us into the garden where hope grows is treated so cursorily, and remains an outsider to the end.