"When a Muslim architect wins a blind contest to design a Ground Zero Memorial, a city of eleven million people takes notice. Waldman, a former bureau chief for the New York Times, explores a diversity of viewpoints around this fictional event, bringing in politicians, businessmen, journalists, activists, and normal people whose lives--whether by happenstance, choice, or even due to their country of origin--get caught up in the controversy. Incredibly, she manages to keep all the balls in the air without ever fumbling. The story is moving and keeps the pages turning, but there are also bigger themes at work: of individuals versus groups; about the purpose of art, commerce, government, and journalism in society; of how people respond to grief and terror. The result is honest, compelling, and breathtaking."--Chris Schluep, Amazon Best Book of the Month
Claire Burwell is a lawyer who was selected by the governor to represent the families, as her husband, a wealthy businessman, died on that day. She was the most vocal and passionate supporter of the garden, but after Khan's identity is leaked to an unscrupulous and ruthless New York Post reporter, Claire is forced to defend her decision to the families, the right-wing media, and the governor, who sees this crisis as an opportunity to make herself more attractive to Middle America by expressing her opposition to the jury's decision. At the same time, Khan, a proud man who does not practice his religion but is not beneath using the Muslim community to bolster his claim, refuses to withdraw his name from the competition, change his design, or provide assurance to Burwell and those who support him that the memorial is not a "martyrs' garden", one which honors the hijackers instead of those who were killed by them.
Other characters add to the drama and tension, most notably Alyssa Spier, the Post reporter who first broke the story and continues to influence developments through her incendiary and inaccurate columns; Sean Gallagher, an insecure ne'er-do-well whose brother was a firefighter who died on 9/11, who finds purpose in vehemently and violently protesting the jury's decision; and Asma Anwar, a Bangladeshi Muslim woman whose husband also died that day, and vows to honor his memory by supporting Khan's garden.
The Submission is a riveting story, which became progressively better toward its climax. Several of its characters, particularly the lesser ones, seemed stereotypical and were less than fully developed, and the motivations of the two key characters, Claire and Mo, were not well explained, particularly in their key confrontation toward the end of the book, which kept this from being a groundbreaking and outstanding novel. However, this is easily the best book written about 9/11 or its aftermath that I've read, and I would highly recommend it to everyone.
Every one of these characters are familiar, almost a stereotype, but they are also all presented with an impressive degree of sympathy, understanding of their motives, and a presentation of how they are unsure of what they are doing.
Amy Waldman also does an impressive job of taking what seems like a clever concept and turning it into a full novel, as the plot develops and incident builds on incident, culminating in a every effective ending. And she takes what I still think of as a morally black-and-white issue but finds interesting ambiguities and questions and dilemmas that emerge from it.
The Submission has a lot of good writing and interesting phrases, but it is not an exercise in flashy writing or novel storytelling methods, instead it is more about its range of subjects and the dilemmas it presents. It is not meant as an insult to the book to say that it would be a good choice as required reading in high schools where you could picture the endless discussions of the various dilemmas it poses, as well as a lesson in intolerance and bigotry.
In this superbly intelligent novel, Amy Walkman has drawn an amazingly realistic picture of America’s fears and prejudices left by the fall of the twin towers. As a hand picked jury plays out a power struggle to select a proper and fitting memorial for the site, it soon becomes apparent that few are untouched by the tragedy and its backlash. A memorial is essential for both the city and the nation to recover.
But when the news that the winning submission is the creation of a Muslim, the healing process is quickly halted and New Yorkers from all corners take up arms. Families of the victims falter, American Muslims are forced to the fringe and politicians scramble to stay above a growing heap of hostility and xenophobia. It soon appears that the building of cenotaph could create more damage than good.
Waldman has done a brilliant job of casting. She has woven the social populace of New York beautifully into this story, encompassing the top brass right down to the illegals. The social comment is strong and the turn of every page has you pondering the human capacity to reason or not to reason. Our choices are clear, but will we as a global community ever be able to make the right one?
If you like well written, thought provoking fiction you’ll like The Submission.
With a good balance of sociological observation and close depiction of characters' emotions, it's an involving story with an important theme. It's making my best of 2011 list, for sure.
The cast of characters is diverse. There’s Paul, a Jewish lawyer who is in charge of the jury that selects the design for the memorial. Then we have Mohammad Khan, the architect whose design is chosen. He was born in Virginia and is an American. Asma is the widow of a man who was killed in the two towers on 9/11. She is living in America illegally, but her son was born in the USA.
Claire is also a 9/11 widow and is a member of the jury that selects the memorial design and is the garden’s earliest advocate. Alyssa is a reporter who continually weasels her way into each breaking story, throwing gas on the fire. Sean lost his brother on 9/11, but the tragedy has finally given him some focus in life. He now lends his time and energy to 9/11 causes.
The book’s greatest strength is that it shows the issue from such wonderfully different perspectives. Allowing the readers to see it from so many angles fleshing out the controversy and gives it real weight. We meet a wide variety of people from diverse walks of life. Seeing it through their eyes opens our own. Writing it this way is essential to make the story work. It becomes a stepping stone to open discussions instead of preaching one view point at us. There is no hero or villain, just people struggling with an impossible situation where emotions are raw with grief and everyone is tense.
The controversy isn't really about his design, it's about his religion. As one reporter thinks,
“No one cared about the design, didn’t her get that?”
I was really glad that Mo wasn’t turned into a saint that’s simply caught in the cross hairs. I thinks it’s important he feels like a real person, flawed, like anyone else, with selfish thoughts and a flaring temper. He’s a normal guy with ambitions. The only subplot I wasn't a fan of was Sean's. I felt like his whole story was weak and uninteresting.
For me, it was crucial that the book end the way it did. If it had ended in the midst of the pressure and stress of the situation, I don’t think it would have meant so much to me. I needed to know what the characters felt about the situation once they had some distance from it and they weren’t caught up in the fury of the events. I wanted to know what happened to Asma’s son and what he thought about what happened. Ending it 20 years later gave me closure and felt just right.
The book makes you wonder what you would do in this situation. It’s not black and white and there’s no clear right and wrong because there are so many feelings involved. One New Yorker (in the book) talks about his mind thinking one thing and his heart feeling another, he’s ashamed to feel suspicious, but he can’t help it. What is America if not a melting pot that defies labels? When you mix such incredibly different cultures together, you’re bound to have underlying prejudices based on centuries of feuds. The plot also makes you look at what your own assumptions about people are and it makes you question how easily you are swayed by sensational news coverage.
I think this is a wonderful book, one of my favorites so far this year. I don’t think this is a book that everyone will enjoy. It’s tense and political. I think you could also say it manipulates your emotions, but for me, it was excellent.
“‘It’s falling down, it’s falling down,’the nursery-rhyme words, then the mobile network went dead. ‘Hello? Hello? Honey?’ all around, then a silence of Pompeian density.”
“Jealousy clings to love’s underside like bats to a bridge.”
“… which had seemed so monumental at the time, had turned out to be only a small fragment of the mosaic of his life.”
“Perhaps this was the secret to being at peace: want nothing but what is given to you.”
At the heart of the story are Mohammed Kahn, the architect and all-American, secular Muslim. Claire Burwell is a wealthy 9/11 widow who was selected to represent the families of victims on the jury. Sean Gallagher is the younger brother of a fire fighter who was killed in the line of duty. Growing up in his brother Patrick's shadow and never able to measure up to him, even before his heroic death, Sean is able to only find meaning in his life by constantly reflecting and agitating about his brother's death. Finally Asma Anwar, also a 9/11 widow, is an illegal alien from Bangladesh, raising her orphaned son in a country she can barely comprehend.
Despite reading many positive reviews about The Submission, I struggled with it. The two main American characters, Sean and Claire were simply unlikable for the most part. They seemed initially sympathetic, but in their own ways were completely self-absorbed. When Sean wasn't fighting on behalf of his brother's memory or to try and prove himself worthy of his mother's love, he was feeling resentful that wealthy Manhattan women wouldn't condescend to sleep with him. Claire Burwell came from a typical middle-class family and had the good fortune to attend Dartmouth and marry well. Initially she seems quite sympathetic, the widow with two small children to raise. But Claire is totally self absorbed. The stereo-typical wealthy New Yorker, who doesn't work, but still employs a full time nanny and baby sitter, she seems to feel superior to and barely tolerates 95% of the people she encounters.
Mo Kahn and Asma Anwar provide the real emotional anchors of the story. What does it mean to be a Muslim in America, especially in the first couple of years after 9/11? Mo struggles with what it means to be born in this country, to feel himself absolutely to be American, only to have his country turn its back on him because of his name and ancestry. Asma hardly speaks English or leaves her tight night community. She is baffled that the religion she had always viewed as peaceful has been stolen by terrorists. Asma struggles to comprehend how it is that some claim that her husband is supposedly dwelling in the same paradise that some say his murders are also in. Mo and Asma's internal struggles are fascinating and it is a shame that the novel did not focus more on them.
Waldman recreates the mood of post-9/11 New York City without pulling her punches. Numerous sides get their share of the story-telling: the widow who tries to be fair-minded; politicos who try to pander to all sides without, of course, ever appearing to; the brother of a firefighter who has made being anti-Islam his personal cause; other anti-Islamists who aren't afraid to piggy-back on the fear of the time, even though they didn't lose anyone in the attacks; the reporter who get the leak about the story of the Muslim who won the anonymous competition to design the 9/11 memorial. If some of these sides are presented more as caricatures than fully fleshed-out characters, that's almost beside the point too as this is a not a character-driven story.
This book has other flaws, perhaps the biggest one being that too many things seem to be beside the point, including things like the motivation of the person who leaked the news about the designer of the memorial, and whether anyone ever found out who it was. But Waldman does well to keep her story focused on what does matter - the conflicts, internal and external that arise in a situation like this. Overall, this is a very well written and thoughtful piece of fiction that could all too easily have been non-fiction, which is something we would all do well to remember.
The novel looks at the reaction to this event from many different perspectives -- those of politicos, those of relatives of the 9/11 victims, those of American Muslims of several different stripes, and those of the architect himself. Some of the motivations are a little vague, and some of the characters a little flat, but the author has rejected the temptation (with her major characters, at least) to provide characterization in lieu of characters. Some reviewers have noted that it is hard to like any of the characters very much, but I did get more and more interested in them as the novel proceeded -- particularly in the character of the architect.
Some of the difficulty in liking the characters may be because this is in large part a novel of ideas, rather than a novel of characters pure and simple. The characters aren't simple, and the issues are still very much alive. This week, I went to an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York on New York Activism. The last section is devoted to post 9/11 anti-Muslim and pro-Muslim activism, and it is very clear that the issue has not yet been resolved.
Two years after the 9-11 tragedy, a group of jurors has been selected to choose a memorial design to occupy the space where the twin towers once stood. The jurors include art critics and one family member still reeling from the death of her husband. The submissions are anonymous to the jurors – they have only the designs and no names to make their final decision. After a contentious process, one design is finally chosen and the name of the designer is finally revealed…Mohammad Khan, an American born Muslim. Khan’s selection ignites a firestorm of protest. Should a Muslim be allowed to design this memorial which touches the hearts of so many Americans? Does one’s religion define who they are? Thus begins Amy Waldman’s provocative and deeply emotional novel.
Told in multiple points of view, The Submission takes a searing look at one of the most traumatic events in American history and examines our prejudices and fears seated in religious ideology, patriotism, and collective grief. Claire Burwell, the lone family member on the jury, is a complex character who initially fights for Khan’s design. But political pressure and media propaganda work on her emotions, making her doubt her convictions. Khan himself is an enigmatic character – a man who doubts his religion and then discovers it matters not what he believes so much as the label attached to him.
What was he trying to see? He had been indifferent to the buildings when they stood, preferring more fluid forms to their stark brutality, their self-conscious monumentalism. But he had never felt violent toward them, as he sometimes had toward that awful Verizon building on Pearl Street. Now he wanted to fix their image, their worth, their place. They were living rebukes to nostalgia, these Goliaths that had crushed small businesses, vibrant streetscapes, generational continuities, and other romantic notions beneath their giant feet. Yet it was nostalgia he felt for them. A skyline was a collaboration, if an inadvertent one, between generations, seeming no less natural than a mountain range that had shuddered up from the earth. This new gap in space reversed time. – from The Submission, page 32 -
Waldman includes several engaging characters including a rabid journalist who is willing to twist the truth for a story, a power-hungry politician who finds the controversy is very good for votes, a radical anti-Islamic extremist, and a Muslim woman who is in America illegally and who is mourning her husband who worked as a janitor in the doomed towers.
This is an affecting novel which uses one question to propel its complicated plot. I found the title itself to be fascinating as it alludes to not only the design which is “the submission,” but also examines the process of judgement and the struggle for a common ground which unfurls throughout the novel. Synonyms for the word submission include: appeasement, assent, backing down, giving in, humility, resignation, and surrender. And, indeed, these are words which resonate in the story. Khan is forced to examine his motivations for submitting his design in the face of pressure to step down and give up the commission.
Waldman also explores creative inspiration. From where do our artistic renderings come? Is inspiration a simple process, or does it encompass experience, ideology and something less tangible which is difficult to define? Some characters in The Submission insist on labeling Khan’s design as anti-American and read intent where none may exist. Khan himself seems, at times, to wrestle with the origins of his work – what exactly was the inspiration?
The Submission is compelling fiction and would be a terrific book club choice. It was recently nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction and I believe it deserves that nomination. Waldman writes with clarity and passion and challenges readers, especially Americans, to look deep within themselves about essential questions related to religion, politics and fear.
Outrage, skepticism, and confusion quickly surface even within this jury composed of artists, prominent business people, a relative of one of the victims, and several politically influential citizens. It helps little that Mohammed Kahn prefers to be called “Mo” or that he drifted away from his religion years earlier – his motivation for entering the contest and the influences on his winning design are going to be questioned. Members of the jury hope to find a solution before the winner’s identity becomes public, but when Kahn’s name is leaked to the press, public outrage at the jury’s choice is immediate and loud.
The plot of The Submission is more concerned with how individuals respond to, and are impacted by, a situation like this one than with what the jury will ultimately decide to do about their Muslim winner. Waldman tells the story primarily through the eyes of two main characters: Mohammed Kahn and Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow with two small children to raise. Burwell, who was the chief advocate for Kahn’s winning design before the jury members knew his identity, is initially his strongest and most vocal defender. But when Kahn stubbornly refuses to answer the frank questions asked by the jury, she begins to doubt his avowed reason for having entered the competition.
Readers who have kept up with recent controversies such as the building of a “World Trade Center Mosque” will not be much surprised by what Waldman has to say in The Submission. They will have already heard from people in the real world like Kahn, Burwell, and Waldman’s cast of less developed characters that includes a ruthless newspaper reporter, wild-eyed talk show hosts, apologists who hold America responsible for the 9/11 slaughter of its citizens, and politicians milking America’s new found patriotism for personal gain. Importantly, however, the book tells a good story that makes it easy for its readers to consider points of view they may otherwise have never taken into account.
My one disappointment with The Submission involves its rather contrived (and convenient) ending. Because I do not want to spoil that ending for others, I will only say that, for me, the story’s resolution detracts from its realistic tone and lessens its emotional impact. That said, I do recommend The Submission – particularly for discussion by book clubs- because it requires its readers to think for themselves a little.
Rated at: 4.0
It's sad to see the truth of the way Muslims were treated after the 9/11 tragedy portrayed so well, but it'd be nice if more people could get the point of the novel. Maybe someday...
I had a hard time getting into and appreciating this novel, mainly because it's central theme was so close to the negativity and conflict that surrounds us in America on an everday basis. I believe the novel was believable and well written, it just wasn't a topic that I felt a good connection with. I also felt like most of the characters were unlikable and flat, which made it hard for me to empathize with them. Perhaps I'm just not a good reader for a ripped from the headlines type novel since I pay so much attention to current affairs.
So many thoughts about this one. On one hand it's a great book -- I was invested in what happened. But at the same time, the topic is almost TOO current and TOO raw.
Waldman did a wonderful job of presenting many different perspectives and opinions believably. There were a few that seemed as if they were caricatures. Just too over -the-top, but at the same time it's possible I just hope people like that don't exist.
My copy is filled with notes and underlined passages...a fantastic book for discussion.
The premise is thus: what if there were a jury assigned to choose a memorial for the 9/11 attacks, with the process for choosing the memorial completely anonymous, and in the end the jury selected a Muslim architect? No doubt building on the public's reaction to a mosque being built near the WTC site, Ms. Waldman creates an unforgettable cast of characters. You have Mohammad Khan, the architect who does not pray but does not make any attempt to disclaim himself as a Muslim or explain his selection; Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow and juror who supports and champions Khan's design until she finds she can no longer trust him; Sean Gallagher, a brother of a deceased 9/11 firefighter who feels compelled to fight against the project but at the same time conflicted over how to do this, and that's just for starters.
At the bottom of this book is a tale about what happens when ambition, whether it be the governor's, a reporter's or even the architect's, collides with a collective conflicted intolerance and our human sense of decency. Ms. Waldman makes it perfectly clear how each of these characters feel about their own actions and explains them in a perfectly reasonable way, which is quite a feat considering many of them have polar motivations. I sympathized strongly with Khan, who feels under attack but out of principle does not want to go out of his way to deflect these attacks, but I also felt for Claire Burwell, who is struggling to find a way to mourn and be true to her dead husband while also withstanding the onslaught of controversy that she finds herself in. I even understood the reporter and the governor who were simply trying to make the best of the situation for their own careers. These are all people we hear on the news and experience in our lives, and each of their perspectives feels organic and true.
In no other book, or any other medium, have I felt the issues of 9/11 addressed with such an understanding of each perspective. For this I applaud Ms. Waldman, and I wonder how she can possibly follow up this excellent first effort.