The set-up: Sept. 11 is still a fresh, raw memory, and a jury of art experts, public officials, and one prominent family member is judging the competition to design a memorial to the victims.
Submissions are anonymous. Only when the jury settles on its choice, a walled garden with a raised pavilion, does it learn the name of the architect: Mohammad Khan, a Muslim-American.
That’s how Amy Waldman’s novel “The Submission” begins. You can guess what happens next: A lot of people go ballistic. Driven by a wolfish reporter-columnist at the New York Post and pundits at Fox News, and aided, rather appallingly, by The New York Times and the New Yorker, a big segment of the public unites against Khan.
It isn’t Fox News but the Times that ties Khan’s design to the faith of the terrorists (“A Lovely Garden — and an Islamic One?”). Once the idea is broached, though, the right-wing press runs with it (“a martyrs’ paradise,” “an assault on America’s Judeo-Christian heritage”). Khan, meanwhile, is too proud, or too arrogant, to utter the I’m-not-a-terrorist disclaimer that his liberal supporters want to hear.
Waldman, a former South Asia bureau co-chief for the Times, has antennae well tuned to the media circus. Perhaps it’s her reporter’s skill that makes her so nimble at sketching in characters; she’s a penetrating psychologist, especially for a first novelist. She weaves together a half-dozen stories, from the top to the bottom of New York’s social strata, and keeps them moving briskly forward; you never want to stop reading.
Her stumbling block is the premise itself. Like any good writer of fiction, Waldman wants to create a morally complex story, but the situation she’s come up with isn’t rich with moral ambiguity. I don’t really think it has any. Once Khan has won the competition, the line between right and wrong, justice and injustice, is clear.
I don’t know to what extent Waldman was inspired — if that’s the word — by last year’s squabble over the Muslim community center and mosque being planned for Lower Manhattan. But it’s all too believable that an angry public might react to a Muslim architect in an ugly way, that the press would pile on, and that conniving politicians would use the controversy to advance their careers.
It’s also clear that the project’s sponsors would feel the need to handle objections coming from the families of 9/11 victims with silver tongs.
But the upper-crust character who argues, “A Muslim country would never let a Jew build its memorial” has lost sight not just of the Constitution but of the very conception of the United States as a land of equality. Americans live in a secular nation where being a Muslim doesn’t (theoretically, anyway) demote you to second-class citizenship.
So instead of individuals caught in a fog of confusing choices, Waldman has given us a group of Muslim haters who differ less on the moral scale than on the economic one: The rich bigots express their prejudice more delicately than their working-class counterparts.
It might have worked if she had allowed her story to turn into the black comedy it verges on being all along. “The Submission” is, at heart, a book about the machinations of a group of opportunists: Khan, the ambitious architect, not least among them. But it would have taken a gutsier novelist than this one to mine its grim humor. Waldman is earnest and nonjudgmental. She needed to be funny and damning.
“The Submission” is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (299 pages, $26).
Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.
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