By Bruce Jacobs

“The Submission”
By Amy Waldman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26.00, 299 pp.)

“It’s complicated.” So goes the ubiquitous rejoinder to inquiries about most everything from the war in Afghanistan to the Eurozone meltdown…even to a difficult marriage. But as The Submission, the debut novel by Amy Waldman about a memorial design competition for New York’s 9/11 site, so remarkably illustrates: it really is complicated.

In an all-inclusive political environment, New York’s Governor appoints a special jury of representative constituents to select a design from blind, unattributed open submissions. To chair this diverse group she selects the well-respected and practical retired bank president Paul Rubin. He is a conciliatory sort with aspirations to rise to the Chair of the New York Public Library Board and other distinguished civic positions in his senior years.

Rubin is apprehensive of the process. “History’s great monuments and memorials – from the Sistine Chapel to the St. Louis Arch – had been elite commissions, not left to, in Edmund Burke’s apt phrase, ‘warm and inexperienced enthusiasts.’ Only in America did those enthusiasts reign, enthroned by politicians who feared nothing more than appearing undemocratic.” Still he embraces the challenge and is particularly sensitive to Claire Burwell, the wealthy, middle-aged, attractive suburbanite who lost her husband in the towers that day and is on the committee to represent all the families who lost someone. When she argues to select a dramatic garden design over the objections of the artist in the group, Rubin is supportive and pleased when her opinion is confirmed by a vote of the jury.

Opening the Envelope

With obvious, even explicitly stated, reference to the Maya Lin controversy over Washington’s Vietnam Memorial, Waldman’s real story then launches with the opening of the envelope containing the architect’s name: Mohammed “Mo” Kahn. “The piece of paper containing the winner’s name was passed from palm to palm like a fragile folio. There were a few gasps and ‘hmmms,’ an ‘interesting,’ an ‘oh my.’ Then: ‘Jesus fucking Christ! It’s a goddamn Muslim!’ The paper had reached the governor’s man.”

Other than being born into a Muslim family, Kahn is as American as they come. Born in Virginia, educated at Yale, religiously agnostic, handsome and single, living the Yuppie life in New York City, he entered the contest to test his creative vision against the best architects in the world. When he is selected, however, all hell breaks loose.

The carefully secretive deliberations of the jury are leaked (by the politically ambitious Governor’s shill?) to a shameless tabloid reporter Alyssa Spier who, like any good Post wannabe columnist, fans the flames of controversy, creating news as much as exploiting it. “Like a junkie’s, her addiction had progressed from reading the news, to reporting it, to breaking it, then – the crack cocaine of her business – to shaping it. Being it.”

A Political and Social Octopus

The tendrils of the political and social octopus of post-9/11 American hysteria touch a large cast of characters including an undocumented Bangladeshi widow of a janitor lost in the towers’ fall, the violent younger brother of a lost firefighter, American Muslim action groups, “Save America from Islam” fanatics, and, of course, a radio talk show nutcase. Waldman weaves them all into her increasingly complicated story with a deft touch for details and a compassionate understanding of all sides. The Submission is Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities without the snarky disdain and excess.

Claire and Mo, however, are at the heart of the drama. Trying to be a sincere representative of the mostly angry families of the dead yet sensitive to the innocence of Kahn, she finds herself torn in a manner described by another liberal Manhattanite: “It just makes me uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable makes me even more uncomfortable.” On the other hand, Mo knows that although resigning the commission would best quell the volatile uproar and give him his life back, having done no wrong except showing ambition, he feels compelled to stand firm for his design and his rights just like those of any other American.

Waldman builds this crescendo of strong emotions, death threats, citizen meetings, and political manipulation without any clear resolution in sight – until a moment of mob violence finally convinces Kahn to walk away.

Twenty Years Later

In the final chapter that takes place twenty years after the controversy, Waldman presents us with a very successful Mo, now living in Mumbai – still single, still hurt by the rejection of his country – and a Claire who has only visited the replacement memorial once: “With all the infighting, picking a whole new jury, soliciting new designs – by the time it got built I’m not sure anyone cared…and so many more Americans ended up dying in the wars the attack prompted than in the attack itself that by the time they finished the memorial it seemed wrong to have expended so much effort and money.”

The world Waldman so effectively creates exposes much of the anger and inflexibility that seem to underlie today’s American political and social dysfunction. As she suggests: it’s complicated. But her coda chapter in the future also suggests that we are not in a hopeless decline: “The country had moved on, self-corrected, as it always did, that feverish time mostly forgotten.” Would that she were right.

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