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The Submission is Entertainment Weekly‘s #1 Novel for the Year

 

The Submission is one of NPR’s Top Ten Novels for 2011:

Amy Waldman’s debut novel, The Submission, is that rare animal: a political novel that’s also elegantly written. It imagines the angry fallout when a jury chooses an anonymous design for a Sept. 11 memorial at ground zero, and the architect turns out to be Muslim American. Although that premise may sound suspiciously “high concept,” The Submission ventures far beyond the contrived and, through an ensemble cast of characters, tackles issues like identity politics, the rights of undocumented workers and the stress fractures of democracy. Maybe the most audacious question that’s posed by Waldman’s novel is the implicit one that lingers long after a reader has finished it: Namely, could it be that a decade after the attacks, America finally has the Sept. 11 novel — one that does justice, artistically and historically, to the aftershocks of that day?–MAUREEN CORRIGAN

 

The Submission is Esquire‘s Book of the Year

The Book of the Year: The Submission

I have no idea how Amy Waldman came to write her first novel, The Submission (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26), which is about the contested aftermath of an epoch-defining attack on New York City by Muslim terrorists. I imagine that the title must have come to Waldman before the novel did, or rather, that when the title came to Waldman — the former co-chief of The New York Times South Asia bureau — she knew she had her novel, from beginning to end. It is rare that a title can be said to contain a novel, especially when the novel in question can be said to contain a world and a time. But if you want to know why you should read The Submission, and why it is not only the best of the many excellent “9/11 novels” but also the most straightforwardly enjoyable, you have to start with the title, because it easily bears the weight of at least four meanings, because in being lightly ironic yet endlessly suggestive, it provides the model for Waldman’s prose, and because it is only the first of the many promises that The Submission manages to keep.

The Submission, you see, is about a submission — an entry in a competition — and it is also about submission, in just about every sense of the word. The plot is simple and, in terms of today’s headlines, plausible enough: There is a competition to determine who will design the memorial for the mass-murdered in Manhattan, and the winning submission is from an American architect born into a faith whose name also means “submission.” As a nonbeliever, he calls himself “Mo,” but his given name is Mohammad, and before the novel ends he will submit in the subtlest way possible to its dictates, for The Submission is a novel in which every character submits to something: to heroism, to cowardice, to self-interest, to self-promotion, to class, to grief, to innocence, to prejudice, to pride, to art, to religion, and especially to what the beleaguered Mo thinks of as “the bellicose, lachrymose religion that the attack had birthed,” that is, the new religion of 9/11.

The Submission is not a religious novel but rather a secular one that takes religion very seriously. It is not a political novel but rather a novel about the ongoing redefinition of the place where politics starts. It is a novel of large public concern, and yet what it suggests is that over the last decade “the public” in America has just become an excuse for “the private” to hold sway — for people to submit to impulses they didn’t know they had. It is a portrait of a country almost terrifyingly free and at the same time endlessly involved in the task its title describes: either trying to get up off its knees or fall down to them. —TOM JUNOD

 

The Submission is a Barnes and Noble Best Book of 2011

 

The Submission was on the shortlist for the Guardian’s First Book Award

 

The Submission is on Kirkus Reviews’ Top 25 Best of Fiction 2011

The Submission is on Amazon’s Top Ten Debut Fiction and Top 100 Books for 2011

 

Slate Audio Book Club on The Submission with Emily Bazelon, Kishwar Rizvi and Hanna Rosin

 

PBS Newshour Interview on The Submission

 

Maureen Corrigan, “Fresh Air,” NPR

The Submission is a gorgeously written novel of ideas about America in the wake of Sept. 11. It tackles subjects like identity politics, undocumented immigrants and the stress fractures of democracy. Maybe the most audacious question that’s posed by Amy Waldman’s debut novel, however, is the implicit one that lingers long after a reader finishes it: Namely, could it be that a decade after the attacks, America finally has the Sept. 11 novel — one that does justice, artistically and historically, to the aftershocks of that day?

Of course, there have been other serious fiction contenders that have ruminated on Sept. 11; among them, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland; Deborah Eisenberg’s short story collection, Twilight of the Superheroes; Don DeLillo’s Falling Man; and Ken Kalfus’ dark tour de force, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. But The Submission distinguishes itself by its panoramic scope and, also, by the ease with which it pulls off the literary magic trick of being at once poetic and polemical. Arguments about America are hashed out relentlessly on the pages of this novel, yet Waldman never stints on character development, plot or the pleasures of her inventive language. Ever the English teacher, I even found myself making lists of all the startling verbs and metaphors Waldman comes up with: For instance, describing a tough woman laughing, meanly, at another’s expense, Waldman writes: “Her laugh burst forth, breaking up her face like jackhammered cement.” This is an assured, ambitious novel that appeals to both a reader’s senses and intelligence.

The central situation here will sound more contrived in my summary than it is in Waldman’s execution. Here goes: Two years after the attacks, a jury of artists, academics and one noncredentialed civilian — a Sept. 11 widow — has been convened to sift through some 5,000 blind design entries for a memorial at the site of ground zero. In the opening chapter, a winner is chosen and then the dumbfounded jury learns that its pick is an American Muslim architect named Mohammed Khan. The chief champion of Khan’s design was the Sept. 11 widow, Claire Burwell.

Waldman succinctly characterizes Claire’s grief for her late husband this way: “It had been two years. He appeared in her dreams but vanished on waking, and she spoke of him in qualities — positive, ebullient, smart, principled — that had no texture.” Claire initially loves the design for a rectangular walled garden as a memorial — especially, the fact that it would be composed of both life-affirming greenery as well as steel trees made out of salvaged scraps from The World Trade Center. But, as soon as Khan’s name is leaked to the public, controversy rages about the identity of the architect and his garden design: It seems Islamic to some critics. In fact, Lou Sarge, a Rush Limbaugh-like radio personality, charges that the garden is Mohammed Khan’s sly strategy to construct an Islamic martyr’s paradise on ground zero. Claire finds herself pressured to rethink her support for the garden. At a raucous public hearing in New York, one bereaved father poignantly states his objections: “We, who have carried the weight of loss, are now being asked to carry the weight of proving America’s tolerance …”

Khan himself is an aloof guy who doesn’t play well to the media: He’s outraged that, as an American, he should even be called upon to justify his patriotism. As more and more voices pile into the national debate, the arguments become more complicated. A scholar opines that the World Trade Center Towers themselves contained Islamic architectural features; another Sept. 11 widow speaks out to ask if there will even be a place for her husband’s name on whatever memorial will be built given that he was one of the many undocumented immigrants who worked at the towers, cleaning bathrooms and hallways.

The Submission is sure to generate a lot of discussion in book clubs across the land about the promises of democracy. In so doing, Waldman’s novel itself serves a powerful memorial to Sept. 11 and the struggles of America in its aftermath.

 

Amy Waldman’s debut novel is the most successful yet at making sense of 9/11

By Michael Prodger, The Financial Times

It is a quirk of human nature that some events are of such epic proportions that it seems only fiction can make sense of them. The only rationale for this belief is our faith that fiction can humanise the incomprehensible and uncover the deeper truths that mere reportage cannot. And so, almost before the dust had settled, there was an expectation that it would be novelists who would best make sense of September 11 2001.

Writing the “9/11” novel has, at times, seemed like a test (and a race), a cunningly thought-out exercise to try the mettle of some of the brightest and best in the class. Novelists were quick to take up the challenge: Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark, John Updike’s Terrorist, Martin Amis’s “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta”, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close … and more.

There are some decent books here (and some woefully meretricious ones) but, overall, they are not a very successful bunch, the subject being dealt with too obliquely or with a delicacy that stayed the writer’s hand. It is perhaps simply too soon to have grasped the enormity of what happened or indeed, as some have wondered, whether it was quite as enormous as it seemed at the time and if the fall of the twin towers did, in fact, shift the world on its axis. After all, it took decades before America’s other recent national trauma, Vietnam, was properly addressed in fiction by the likes of Tobias Wolff, Denis Johnson and Karl Marlantes.

Ten years on and a greater sense of perspective as to the meaning of those two aeroplanes in a sunny New York sky is now possible, so the appearance of the best 9/11 novel to date shouldn’t come as a surprise. What is a surprise, though, is that The Submission is a debut novel. In it Amy Waldman deals not with the attack itself but with the knots in which the US has tied itself in the aftermath.

This is a counter-factual fiction that starts with the competition to design a memorial to sit at Ground Zero, a site that is “a memorial only to America’s diminished greatness”. The carefully selected jury argues its way through the anonymous submissions to a winner. It settles on a design for a geometrical garden, with steel trees and a wall inscribed with the names of the dead – something calming, imperishable, regenerative. The jurors’ relief at negotiating the high profile and fractious process is judderingly cut short when the chairman opens the envelope containing the name of the designer: Mohammad Khan. Or, as one juror spouts, “Jesus fucking Christ! It’s a goddamn Muslim!”

That the winner of this most sensitive of all commissions could be a co-religionist of the attackers seems at first a trick of malign fate and then sends the jury into a tailspin. Should they abide by their decision and present it as an example of US democracy, inclusiveness and forgiveness or choose another design to assuage the outrage of not just the bereaved families but of the millions of Americans who would see a Muslim winner as an insult to the dead and a symbol of their country’s ultimate humiliation? When the decision is leaked to the press such niceties hardly matter and the fact that Khan is both an American by birth and an agnostic is irrelevant.

From this coup de théâtre Waldman skilfully spins out an ever-widening cast list as the waves of the decision wash over redneck victim support groups, a vociferous Muslim rights group, the waspish jury chairman who loses control, the governor who manipulates the crisis to help her political ambitions, a scruple-free journalist ravenous for scoops, an illegal immigrant Bangladeshi whose husband, a cleaner, died in the attack: all of US society has a stake.

At the heart of the storm stand Mohammad Khan and Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow and the representative of the bereaved on the jury. With great adroitness Waldman portrays her vacillations as she grapples with the ramification of the decision as those of liberal America itself. Just how far can democracy and the dictates of conscience go when faced with the visceral tug of loss and shock? Mo meanwhile finds himself pushed into intransigence by the furore because he believes that were he white he would never have been asked either to explain or change his design. What Claire and Mo need from each other is a recognition of what they are suffering, of the purity of their motives. Neither can give it.

As the consequences of the memorial decision accelerate towards tragedy the participants have to square the cost of multicultural compromises against the ideal of the US’s self-appointed role as the city upon a hill. It is a struggle Waldman depicts with both intelligence and wit, in accomplished prose. This is a deeply thoughtful and moving account of the myriad ways in which, when the towers came down, the US psyche became a casualty too.

 

Amy Waldman’s exceptional debut novel looks at a changing America

By Kamila Shamsie, The Guardian

Perhaps the representatives of fiction writing and non-fiction writing in America didn’t gather in a smoke-filled room at the end of 2001 and divide territory. Perhaps the fiction writers didn’t claim for themselves the individual tales of trauma around the day itself (signatories include Jonathan Safron Foer, Don DeLillo, Claire Messud) while the non-fiction writers held on to History and Politics leading up to and on from 9/11 (Lawrence Wright, Jane Meyer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran). If it did happen, then Amy Waldman – former bureau chief for the New York Times – simply decided to tear up the contract.

 

While there is no shortage of American writers who bemoan all that has been done to their nation, by their nation, in the name of 9/11, there has been, until now, a dearth of American novels exploring that particular trajectory (there is a dearth of American novelists exploring what has been done to other nations by their nation, too, but that’s another matter). There are, of course, various ideas about why this is so. One of them is this: how do you take the trauma and grief of 9/11 as the starting point of a novel and move on to a tale of suspended civil liberties and prejudice without the former entirely overshadowing the latter? Waldman takes hold of this potential stumbling block and turns it into the bedrock of her novel. The grief surrounding 9/11 – the forms it takes, the claims it makes, the claims made in its name by third parties, the hierarchy which surrounds it (not all griefs are equal), the guilt and anger which are born from it, the gulf between the silence of private grief and the clamour of public grief – is central to this exceptional debut about a changing America.

 

The novel starts in New York in 2003 during a tense jury meeting. The judges must decide which anonymously submitted design will become the September 11 memorial, built on the site of the World Trade Center. Backing a design known as “The Void” is the influential artist Ariana Montagu; in favour of “The Garden” is the beautiful widow Claire Burwell, who represents the families of those who died on September 11. Only when a decision is reached does the chair of the jury open the envelope containing the name of the architect.

 

The astute reader might not be surprised, having read the novel’s title, at discovering the name of the architect. The word “Muslim”, after all, means “one who submits”. The jury lurches into chaos: what should be done? What are the consequences – to the nation, to the jury, to the memorial – of choosing a Muslim architect to commemorate 9/11? Isn’t it important to at least find out what kind of Muslim he is before announcing the winner? Claire Burwell is steadfast in her support of the design – her late husband, killed in the attacks, would have been appalled at the idea of such discrimination. Before the chair of the jury can decide how to proceed, someone (who?) leaks the story to a tabloid newspaper.

 

Enter the architect Mohammad Khan, wholly secular, ferociously ambitious. An American-born-and-bred child of migrants, he can’t begin to understand why his father starts going to the mosque after 9/11. This isn’t to say he’s unaware of what it means to be identified as an American Muslim after the attacks – following a trip to Afghanistan, where he submits a design to build the new American embassy in Kabul, he grows a beard to test the responses of his fellow citizens.

 

The uproar that surrounds the newspaper reports that the winning architect is Muslim is only exacerbated when the design becomes public. “A Lovely Garden – and an Islamic One?” reads the Times’s headline the following day; the question in the headline is quickly taken up as fact by a group called Save America from Islam, which declares that Khan has designed “an Islamic garden, this martyr’s paradise … a code to jihadis”. Asked to answer questions about influences and intentions, Khan refuses. If he weren’t Muslim, he says, no one would ask the question. Claire Burwell, his greatest champion, is not the only one to be bewildered by his refusal.

 

How are we to read Mohammad Khan? Is he standing up for his rights, or merely assuming an arrogant position that places him outside history? Should he step off his high horse and try to understand the confusion of those who lost loved ones in the attack and have been surrounded for two years with rhetoric which equates the attacks with Islam itself? Should he see the questions as opportunities to build a bridge, or is he right to believe that once you start apologising for the actions of terrorists you implicitly accept that they represent all Muslims? Is he naive, or brave, or does he have something to hide?

 

These questions are given texture and complexity by the characters who surround Khan and Burwell, all with their competing griefs and/or agendas. There’s Asma Anwar, the Bangladeshi woman whose husband was killed in the attacks, yet who doesn’t quite belong in the official pantheon of Grieving Family Members because she is, as her husband was, an illegal alien. There’s Sean Gallagher, unofficial leader of the Angry Family Members, whose brother was killed in the attacks and who finds himself allied with Save America from Islam, which is not wholly to his liking; Alyssa Spier, the newspaper columnist who ignites and feeds the fire around the winning design; Laila Fathi, the Iranian-American lawyer with whom Khan begins an affair; Lou Sarge, the rightwing radio “shockjock”; the Muslim American Coordinating Council, which agrees by a 12-8 vote to support Khan, but only on its own terms; the governor with an eye on re-election; the chair of the jury with a reputation to maintain.

 

The characters surrounding Khan whose agendas don’t issue from genuine grief are easy enough to reach judgments about. But the novel centres on Khan and the three family members – Asma Anwar, Sean Gallagher and Claire Burwell. Through their stories and interactions Waldman builds a tale of complexity and tension. A gunshot always seems a more likely outcome than a group hug, but it is equally possible that the violent outcome won’t involve bloodshed but the death of already-damaged ideals.

 

Waldman’s prose is almost always pitch-perfect, whether describing a Bangladeshi woman’s relationship with her landlady or the political manoeuvring within a jury. The characters are wholly realised and believable as individuals, but they also stand in for stories and conflicts that go beyond their own lives. Particularly adept is the mirroring of Khan’s growing self-righteousness with Burwell’s crumbling liberal attitudes. If either of them had been less flawed both would have come out of it better. There is, of course, a lesson there – but it never feels like a lesson.

 

The Submission would have been a remarkable response to last year’s Cordoba House/Park 51 debacle in America, with its Qur’an burnings, its editorials about the difference between what is legal and what is acceptable, its reminder that not all post-9/11 conflicts were taking place outside America. In fact the novel was conceived – and its first draft written – before the explosive arguments around the proposals for a Muslim cultural centre near Ground Zero. Those oft-repeated claims about the novelist’s need to take “the long view” and wait years after an event to write convincingly about it overlook the fact that novels can also anticipate what is yet to come – even if “what is yet to come” overtakes the publication of the novel. (It’s worth mentioning here Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the first draft of which was finished before 9/11.)

 

The final section of the novel takes place 20 years after the main events, and more than a decade into our future. Waldman’s imagined America of the future has “self-corrected” away from its mood of paranoia, the suspicion between its Muslim and non-Muslim citizens a thing of the past. From another writer this might sound like unwarranted optimism, but Waldman has been so sure-footed until now that it would be churlish not to hope that she is right about this, too.

 

A new novel about the media circus surrounding a 9/11 memorial is political fiction at its most powerful

By Laura Miller, Salon

The premise of Amy Waldman’s powerful first novel, “The Submission,” can be distilled readily enough: Two years after New York City is struck by a catastrophic terrorist attack (essentially identical to 9/11, although never identified as such in the book), a jury selects a design for the memorial in an anonymous competition. Then they discover that the architect of their choice is a Muslim American.

A high concept, indeed, yet it’s all too easy to imagine how film studio executives might pick apart “The Submission” if it were, say, a screenplay. “Whose story is this?” they’d ask. “Who are we supposed to identify with?” Is the main character the juror chosen to represent “the families,” Claire Burwell, a cool, rich blonde whose husband died in the towers and who champions Mohammed “Mo” Khan’s design from the start? Or is it Mo himself, an elegant secular Muslim who refuses to address the predictable controversy that soon billows around the jury’s decision? Or is it Asma Anwar, the widow of a Bengali janitor also killed in the attack, but, as an illegal immigrant, shut out of the rituals of public mourning? Or could it be one of the dark horses in the story — jury chairman Paul Rubin, in charge of the whole project, or family-member activist Sean Gallagher, a one-time working-class screw-up who in a single day lost a brother and gained a cause? Could it even be Alyssa Spier, the tabloid reporter who parlays the news of Mo’s selection into a columnist gig at the New York Post?

“The Submission” clicks through the points of view of each of these characters like a carousel slide projector, each time offering a different perspective tinted by a different fall of light. Furthermore, the characters’ own thoughts and feelings about the memorial — should Mo and the jury insist on pushing his design through? Should the public be allowed to override them? Should Mo withdraw in the interests of national “healing”? — are constantly shifting. Whoever gets charged with turning this book into a movie (that is, if it ends up being as successful as it deserves to be) cannot be envied. As a popular entertainment, “The Submission” lacks heroic focus and a decisive notion of who’s right and who’s wrong.

These are also the qualities that make “The Submission” so satisfying as a novel. Waldman does what only a novelist can do: provide her readers with access to the protean inner lives of a half-dozen conflicted individuals, each with his or her own peculiar history and partial perspective on the world. In direct, uncluttered prose (there’s no time to be vague or allusive with so much psychic territory to cover), Waldman charts the evolution of the memorial controversy, a media circus in which each participant’s position is simultaneously understandable and untenable.

In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani favorably compared “The Submission” to the ostentatiously “social” novels of Tom Wolfe. That’s reasonable, but a more fitting bookend would be last year’s “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen; Waldman, unlike Wolfe, is no polemicist, and her theme and title are the shadows of Franzen’s freedom. The submission is both Mo’s entry in the design competition — a geometrical garden that his critics interpret as a “martyr’s paradise” — and the derivation of the word “Islam,” which signifies surrender to the will of God.

Each of the novel’s characters must decide what he or she will submit to. Sparring with a snooty jury member who initially rejects the garden as “too soft … Designed to please the same Americans who love Impressionism,” Claire doesn’t hesitate to call upon the emotional authority of her own loss. But, having done so, how can she then disregard the objections of family members like Sean’s father, who tells the New York Times that he objects to Mo’s design because “They killed my son. Is that reason enough for you? And I don’t want one of their names over his grave.” Should she serve the constituency she supposedly represents on the jury, or the memory of her husband, who she believes would want the garden? For his part, Mo is compelled to choose between the dictates of his ambition and his own bristly pride — “Why should I be responsible for assuaging fears I didn’t create?” he demands of Claire. And as for the jury, they’ll have to decide between commitment to the process and bowing to public opinion.

Ambivalence about democracy lies at the heart of Waldman’s novel. For New York’s politicking governor (determined to ride this thing to the White House), that’s not a problem. Initially vetoing a jury consisting entirely of family members (“We don’t want a bunch of firefighters deciding to put a giant helmet in Manhattan”), she smoothly switches to demagoguery when it suits her ends. Alyssa, likewise, never wavers from her shabby sense of vocation: “A tabby all the way — that’s what she was. She had no ideology, believed only in information, which she obtained, traded, peddled, packaged and published.” (Waldman, a former New York Times reporter who covered 9/11, can be hard on her former colleagues.)

But if Waldman’s pragmatic characters are often contemptible, the impassioned ones are worse. Waldman has a magpie tendency to tuck scraps from real news stories into her fiction. One of her most absurd characters is manifestly based on the garish anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller. Sean soon has cause to regret linking his group with hers, a brigade of dementedly energetic, slogan-chanting women who carry around copies of the Quran with the inflammatory passages marked out with orange highlighter. More unnerving is the transformation of Sean’s mother from grieving parent to implacable matriarch as she prosecutes the campaign against Mo’s design as if it were a blood feud.

Sean’s scenes are among the novel’s best. If Franzen is the more accomplished stylist, Waldman is a keener social observer, and this is nowhere more evident than in her handling of the class friction that underlies Sean’s interactions with Claire and Paul. The four pages in which Paul, finally consenting to meet in a power-broker hangout, succeeds in making Sean feel comprehensively impotent, “a no-name worthy of addressing but not worthy of knowing … An audience, not a player,” are an acute précis of 21st-century America’s political resentments. Blundering into bad company and booby-trapped political stances, Sean never entirely falls out of the reader’s sympathy. He means well enough: That’s his tragedy.

“Sometimes,” Mo tells his father, “America has to be pushed — it has to be reminded of what it is.” Waldman’s novel doesn’t push — what novel can, these days? But it does explore, shrewdly, persistently and compassionately without resorting to easy answers or cheap heroics. And that makes it the best reminder of all.
The Right Architect With The Wrong Name

By Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“A decade after 9/11, Amy Waldman’s nervy and absorbing new novel, “The Submission,” tackles the aftermath of such a terrorist attack head-on. The result reads as if the author had embraced Tom Wolfe’s famous call for a new social realism — for fiction writers to use their reporting skills to depict “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping baroque country of ours” — and in doing so, has come up with a story that has more verisimilitude, more political resonance and way more heart than Mr. Wolfe’s own 1987 best seller, “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

In “The Submission” Ms. Waldman, a former reporter for The New York Times, imagines what would happen if a jury in charge of selecting a ground zero-like memorial were to choose, from among the many anonymous submissions, a design that turns out to have been created by a Muslim-American architect.

Though this may sound, in summary, like a contrived, high-concept premise, Ms. Waldman not only captures the political furor and media storm that ensue, but also gives us an intimate, immediate sense of the fallout that these events have on the individuals involved….

Writing in limber, detailed prose, Ms. Waldman has created a choral novel with a big historical backdrop and pointillist emotional detail, a novel that gives the reader a visceral understanding of how New York City and the country at large reacted to 9/11, and how that terrible day affected some Americans’ attitudes toward Muslims and immigrants….

Ms. Waldman does an affecting job of showing how people who have lost relatives in the terrorist attack are trying to grapple with their own confusion and conflicting emotions, even as they find themselves caught up in a political conflagration. Indeed, it is Ms. Waldman’s ability to depict their grief and anger — as well as Mo’s dream of creating a beautiful memorial, and his subsequent disillusion — that lends this novel its extraordinary emotional ballast, and that reminds us how inextricably linked the personal and the political, the private and the public have become in our post-9/11 world.”

Read the full review

 

By Chris Cleave, The Washington Post

In 1981, Maya Lin, a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale, won the competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The starkness of her design, as well as her ethnicity as an Asian American, fueled controversy over her victory. Politicians, art critics and veterans excoriated her, and she was forced to defend her work before Congress. A little more than two decades later, when a jury convened in New York City to decide which of more than 5,000 submissions would become the winning design for the 9/11 Memorial, Lin’s presence on the panel served as a reminder of the difficulties of aligning public art, private grief and main street opinion in the wake of a national tragedy. Joining Lin on the jury was a single representative of the victims’ families, along with notable public servants, academics, architects and artists — all charged with the contentious task of memorializing the dead in the void left after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In January 2004, the jury announced its winner: a design called “Reflecting Absence,” by Israeli American architect Michael Arad. Like Lin’s victory, Arad’s was challenged, and several compromises had to be made before his winning design was accepted. Construction began in 2006, and the memorial is scheduled to open on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Now, perfectly timed, comes Amy Waldman’s provocative first novel, an alternative history of the memorialization of the 9/11 victims.

In “The Submission,” Waldman conforms to the allohistorical convention by mutating just one chromosome of history’s DNA and then dissecting the resulting species. Rather than picking Arad’s design, the jury in this novel anoints a project called “The Garden.” When they open the blinded submission dossier, the jurors are disturbed to discover that the winning architect is Mohammad Khan, an American Muslim. Disquiet turns to dismay when the tabloids amp up the result into a national controversy.

The public debate moves from the design’s attributes to its attribution, and thus Waldman unleashes a storm designed to call to mind the ongoing real-life furor over the construction of Park51, the planned Muslim community center two blocks from the World Trade Center site.

The ensuing drama changes the lives of every member of the novel’s ensemble cast. The rich investor’s WASP-ish widow, the dead janitor’s illegal immigrant wife, the demagogic politician, the desperate tabloid hack, the beleaguered chairman of the competition jury, the dead FDNY hero’s low-life brother, the radio shock jock, the Muslim community organizer, the white trash incendiary blogger and, of course, the besieged winning architect are all represented here. It is a mark of Waldman’s skill that she marshals these disparate forces in the service of a coherent, timely and fascinating examination of a grieving America’s relationship with itself.

—Chris Cleave, The Washington Post

 

“Amy Waldman has performed a rare and dangerous feat, writing an airtight, highly readable post-9/11 novel. When a Muslim wins a blind competition to design a Ground Zero Memorial, a city of 11 million takes notice. The result is honest, compelling, and breathtaking.” –Amazon Best Books of August; Top Ten Editors’ Pick for Fall

 

Masterful . . . [A] scathing, dazzlingly crafted indictment of the messes people make when they mistake ideology for morality and bigotry for patriotism . . . Waldman, an ex-New York Times bureau chief, unspools her story with the truth-bound grit of a seasoned journalist and the elegance of a born novelist.” —Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly

 

“In her magnetizing first novel, replete with searing insights and exquisite metaphors, Waldman…maps shadowy psychological terrain and a vast social minefield as conflicted men and women confront life-and-death moral quandaries within the glare and din of a media carnival. Waldman brilliantly delineates the legacy of 9/11; the confluence of art, religion, and politics; the plexus between the individual and the group; and the glory of transcendent empathy in The Bonfire of the Vanities for our time.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

 

“Waldman fluidly blends her reporter’s skill . . . at rapid-fire storytelling with a novelist’s gift for nuanced characterization. She dares readers to confront their own complicated prejudices steeped in faith, culture, and class. This is an insightful, courageous, heartbreaking work that should be read, discussed, then read again.” —Sally Bissell, Library Journal (starred review)

 

Addictively readable . . . Not unlike The Wire’s David Simon, Waldman… has an eye for the less sound bite–worthy but crucial ways in which ideology and influence make their imprint on the world . . . as well as the ability to dramatize how the abstract choices made by elites in a conference room have unfathomable repercussions for others with narrower options….A frank exposé of American bigotry—and a nuanced examination of the way in which a national tragedy brings out the best and worst in its citizens.” —Megan O’Grady, Vogue

 

[A] gripping, deeply intelligent novel . . . Panoramic in scope but thrillingly light on its feet . . . Waldman does a masterful job of getting into the heads of New Yorkers . . . [A] dazzling tapestry of a grieving city.” —Kimberly Cutter, Marie Claire

 

“A quietly brilliant story . . .The genius of Waldman’s novel is that it captures the manner in which a member of a group that has become part of an ideological tussle will often come to be stripped of his humanity and viewed as a symbol . . . A searing personal saga.” —Rayyan Al-Shawaf, New York Press

 

“[A] poised and commanding debut novel . . . A remarkably assured portrait of how a populace grows maddened and confused when ideology trumps empathy. A stellar debut. Waldman’s book reflects a much-needed understanding of American paranoia in the post-9/11 world.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

 

“Fiction about 9/11 often reeks of exploitation, but there’s not a whiff of it in this dynamic, emotionally evocative novel about a contest to design a New York City memorial….Empathetic about grief yet astute about opportunism, former reporter Waldman’s first novel is a sure-footed, sensitive triumph.” —Caryn James, MORE

 

“Frighteningly plausible and tightly wound . . . Waldman addresses with a refreshing frankness thorny moral questions and ethical ironies without resorting to breathless hyperbole.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

 

“Amy Waldman’s The Submission is a wrenching panoramic novel about the politics of grief in the wake of 9/11. From the aeries of municipal government and social power, to the wolf-pack cynicism of the press, to the everyday lives of the most invisible of illegal immigrants and all the families that were left behind, Waldman captures a wildly diverse city wrestling with itself in the face of a shared trauma like no other in its history.” —Richard Price, author of Freedomland and Lush Life

 

“Amy Waldman writes like a possessed angel. She also has the emotional smarts to write a story about Islam in America that fearlessly lasers through all our hallucinatory politics with elegant concision. This is no dull and worthy saga; it’s a literary breakthrough that reads fast and breaks your heart.” —Lorraine Adams, author of Harbor and The Room and the Chair