Who owns a public memorial? How should a nation decide which symbol will express its grief? Should the families of the dead receive special consideration? Does the intent of the artist matter or the work alone? These are only a few of the questions raised in Amy Waldman’s absorbing first novel, The Submission (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which envisions an America looking to commemorate those killed in a 9/11-style attack. The memorial selection process is an anonymous one, yet the winner proves controversial: The chosen design was submitted by a Muslim.
What need is there for a memorial? The head of the selection committee notes several commercial and political reasons for having a concrete symbol. For example, “the developer who controlled the site wanted to re-monetize it and needed a memorial to do so, since Americans seemed unlikely to accept the maximization of the office space as the most eloquent rejoinder to terrorism.” Yet the emotional needs of the population also had to be taken into consideration as they affect the political climate of the times: “The longer the space stayed clear, the more it became a symbol of defeat, of surrender, something for ‘them,’ whoever they were, to mock.” Something is needed to fill the space so the public can either heal or, at a minimum, move on.
Yet, it’s not its discussion of politics that makes The Submission such interesting reading, but the personal perspectives offered by its characters. Waldman creates a group of fascinating, realistic people who are forced to look at their lives and prejudices during the course of a very public and emotional debate. Her complex studies show how public opinion can affect people’s personal desires and thoughts, leaving them wondering what path they should follow. Among the many characters are:
Paul Rubin, the grandson of a Russian Jewish immigrant. The retired banker sees his chairmanship of the memorial committee as a first step into a life of public service.
Mohammad (Mo) Khan, a non-practicing Muslim architect who refuses to defend or disguise his heritage.
Claire Burwell, who became a single parent when her husband Cal died in the attack. At first a defender of the memorial, she starts to second guess her decision when Khan refuses to explain his design choices.
Sean Gallagher, whose brother died in the attack and who looks to redeem himself in his parents’ eyes by opposing the memorial.
Asma Haque, an illegal immigrant whose husband also died in the attack and who seeks to remain in the U.S. for the sake of her infant son.
Alyssa Spier, a reporter who’s always looking for the big story, whether or not its revelations will destroy other people’s lives.
All of these people find themselves being forced to view the world in shades of gray, even as they search for black-and-white answers, those easy answers that no longer exist in contemporary times.
The Submission also looks at how the process of assimilation into American culture has changed. One conversation between Rubin and Khan shows the shift in thought between generations. Rubin notes that “my grandfather — he was Rubinsky, then my grandfather comes to America and suddenly he’s Rubin. What’s in a name? Nothing, everything. We all self-improve, change with the times.” Khan, on the other hand, feels he should be accepted as is, suggesting that “not everyone is prepared to remake themselves to rise in America.” Do people need to change and assimilate in order to be accepted? While many of those who arrived in the U.S. during the 20th century did so without thought, the Muslims in Waldman’s novel feel they can be fully American and fully Muslim at the same time.
Waldman’s greatest success is making readers understand the thought processes of all her characters. She does this by showing their strengths and their weaknesses in a way that makes it easy to empathize with them. Readers may find themselves agreeing with first one point of view and then another as each side of the debate is eloquently portrayed. The Submission is an impressive work, offering readers a view of an America searching to define itself in the 21st century.