Monday, September 12, 2011

The Submission by Amy Waldman

The Submission: A NovelThe Submission, a first novel by Amy Waldman, deservedly has received a lot of attention because of the book's timely theme: 9/11.  I enjoy reading books that thematically tie to life events: The Hunchback of Notre Dame while sitting next to the gargoyles in Paris;  The Decline and Fall of Roman Empire while sitting in the Forum in Rome; Moby Dick while on Martha's Vineyard.  The right book can add a lot of meaning and texture to an experience.  The Submission has mostly succeeded at fulfilling that need for me as we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Amy Waldman, a former New York Times reporter, has written a book that is worth considering in our post-9/11 world.  The novel opens in the aftermath of an unspecified Islamic-fascist terrorist attack.  A committee has been created to consider submissions in an open, blind process for a memorial for the victims of the attack.  The committee is chaired by a stately former bank chairman and includes artists, architects, political representatives and a widow who represents the victims' families.  As the novel opens, the committee has completed its selection process and chosen a geometric, memorial garden.  When the chairman opens the envelope, to the committee's shock, it realizes that the winning selections was submitted by a Muslim architect, Mohamed Kahn.  Kahn is an American born, non-religious Muslim.  Kahn and his submission become a wrenching political and emotional flash point for the committee, the victims' families, the politicians and the nation.  The characters must decide whether to allow the result of a democratic process stand, whether it is appropriate to allow a co-religionist of the terrorists to design the memorial and whether tolerance should trump fear.  Making matters worse, Kahn will not denounce the terrorists (I'm an American like you; why should I have to denounce them), Kahn refuses to pander to the fears and concerns of the committee, the politicians and the victims' families.  Further, his design appears to be inspired by Islamic victory gardens.  The story, which Waldman began prior to the Ground Zero mosque controversy, challenges the characters and readers to consider how our values have changed as a result of the attack.

As a novel, The Submission was very good, fast reading, relevant and well constructed.  Kahn's motivations for submitting the garden could have been explored more.  While the dialogue was believable, a few of the characters could have been developed a bit better.  Given the timing of the release of this novel and the writer's background (NYT), the novel has received a fair amount of attention, perhaps a bit more than it deserved on its merits alone.

If you are like me and enjoy reading timely books, I would strongly consider The Submission.  If this does not sound quite right to you, Commentary Magazine has issued a list of 9/11 literature.  Click here.  Many of them use 9/11 as background (e.g., a marriage being pulled apart in the aftermath of the attacks) rather than deal with the attack or its aftermath head on.

Click here for a very good interview of Waldman with the NYT.

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