Amy Waldman, a former co-chief of the South Asia bureau of The New York Times, had an interesting idea for an novel: What would happen if the winner of a competition for the 9/11 Ground Zero Memorial design turned out to be Muslim?
The novel begins with the jurors debating the merits of the anonymous submissions, finally settling on the design of a garden. Only when Paul Rubin, the patrician, former CEO of a major bank and responsible for the competition's management, opens the envelope that identifies the garden's designer does anyone involved realize they've chosen one Mohammad Khan's design.
Khan is an entirely secular, American architect, raised in Virginia, an employee of a top New York architectural firm (that did not know he was entering the competition). He is in his mid-thirties, single, and with a best friend in the firm is already planning to establish his own practice. Winning such a prestigious commission, of course, will make his name.
Awarding a Muslim's design for the Ground Zero memorial would also—in the view of many good Americans—desecrate the memories of those who died in the tragedy. In fact, some can see the garden as honoring the Muslim terrorists. It's a situation in which no one can be neutral.
And in The Submission, they're not. Waldman has a large cast and tells her story from several points of view: Mohammad Khan who entered the competition in good faith, won fairly, and is now being attacked for being the child of immigrant parents who are almost as secular as their son. Claire Burwell, the wealthy widow of a senior executive killed on 9/11, who fights for the garden's design. Rubin, friend of the governor and mayor, trying to control and maintain reason in a uncontrollable and unreasonable situation. Sean Gallagher, brother of a Brooklyn fireman who was killed, and for whom stopping the garden becomes a quest. Alyssa Spier, a young reporter on the make, who breaks the story of the Muslim's design and becomes a tabloid star. Asama Anwar, an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant, whose husband died in the attack. Mix together with a female NY State governor with her eye on national office; a Fox-news-style talk show host; a very modern, very secular, very sexy female lawyer with an Iranian background; a paternal Bangladeshi who can interpret American life and English; a Muslim American Coordinating Council, and more, and the stew is almost too rich.
The situation is interesting, the writing is professional, the ending is a stretch but plausible, but I found I was able to put The Submission down and felt no real compulsion to pick it back up. Part of the problem may well be my reading habits and taste. Part of it may be that 9/11 is so traumatic that no book can deal with it adequately. Part of it may be the challenge of making such a diverse cast of characters be both compelling individuals and representatives of the difference forces at play in the situation. While Mohammad Khan is hardly a cardboard symbol around which the others revolve, I don't feel Waldman gives us enough to make him live off the page.
Nevertheless, The Submission is a better-than-average novel. Waldman devotes herself to important questions and themes, one of which is that frightened people do terrible things. A lesson about which it's worth being reminded.