As someone who likes politically engaged art, I very much wanted to like Amy Waldman’s The Submission, a novel about the jury for a memorial to the victims of the September 11 attacks who find themselves embroiled in controversy after choosing a design that turns out to have been submitted by a Muslim architect. There’s no question that Waldman manages to make a debate over the fate of public art and public spaces gripping — I read the novel in one sitting. But the characters frequently read less as actual people and more as vehicles for a carefully selected range of perspectives. And while I appreciate Waldman’s respect for and engagement with immigrants, there’s a self-castigating streak in the novel, a suggestion that Americans by birth make less good use of their freedoms than Americans by choice.
Waldman’s characters have strong streaks of unlikability, and a tendency to marinate in indecision. Claire Burwell, a wealthy 9/11 widow whose husband used his ancestral wealth to support good liberal causes and to act as an art patron, supports the garden designed by a secular Muslim architect, Mohammad Khan, until a vicious gossip columnist poisons her mind against him. She then makes common cause with Muslim activists who have gotten everything they want out of the memorial controversy and sense the point of diminishing returns approaching to kill the design, turning liberal alliances to illiberal and un-aesthetic ends. She’s contrasted with Sean Gallagher a handyman who has defined his life since the attacks by becoming a full-time mourner for his firefighter brother, who he was estranged from when his brother died in the September 11 attacks. It’s a stance that could be entirely repulsive — and Sean certainly doesn’t help, pulling a Muslim woman’s headscarf and inspiring a wave of similar attacks, crashing with a Pamela Geller-like anti-Muslim opportunist in what may be the novel’s deftest satire. Waldman treats that incoherent attempt to build a life out of tragedy with an effective amount of respect. But ultimately, he too, sputters out into incoherence, and Waldman lets his storyline trail off.
Mohammad Khan, the architect who designed the memorial in the first place, acts as a kind of inverse to Claire and Sean. He’s simultaneously resistant to any call to explain himself or his design, and frustrated that he’s not understood, even though he doesn’t entirely understand himself. Waldman’s fair about the expectations that are placed and projected on to him — when Laila, a lovely Muslim attorney Mo starts dating during the uproar tells him that he doesn’t seem like he’s stumbled into this, despite his protestations, she does him a disservice by not believing him. Paul Rubin, the extremely wealthy former hedge-funder (we know he left his firm because of the rise of new financial instruments, but it’s not clear if we’re supposed to admire him for it) who is chairing the memorial commission is similarly invested in the idea that the marketplace of ideas is a meritocracy, a conviction he uses to avoid taking a stand. Rubin cares so much for approval, whether he’s trying to broker a solution to the unbrokerable problem of the memorial or giving money to the gay rights organization that his son runs without actually trying to understand or get comfortable with the issues he’s backing financially, that he ends up standing for absolutely nothing.
The only truly likable person inside whose head we spend time is Asma Anwar, a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh who came to America illegally as part of an arranged marriage that turns into a love match, which ends when her husband dies in the attacks. She’s received compensation from the victims’ compensation fund, but no promises of a path towards citizenship, and lives in secrecy as an unacknowledged widow. No one consults her on the memorial, no one invites her on a cruise for victims’ families. But she becomes a strong advocate for the memorial, despite the enormous risks she faces in doing so, because unlike Claire, Sean, Paul or Mo, she actually understands the value of America. Asma remembers when her husband took her on the very same boat the victims’ families take a cruise on, how “Inam took her picture with a disposable camera and asked a Swede to take their picture together, then a Japanese man asked Inam to take a picture of him and his wife, and so easily they became a part of everything, New Yorkers. They had no worries that day, money and jobs, language and family, all as insignificant at that moment as a bucket of water poured into the harbor.” Of course, having done the decent thing that America won’t and recognized and appreciated Asma, Waldman then does to her character in fiction what she critiques American bureaucracies and birthright citizens for doing: she subjects her to tragedy and then forgets about her, totally failing to resolve an act of violence against Asma after she becomes a symbol.
Other than Asma, we don’t get inside the heads of any characters with strong convictions about the memorial. Artist Ariana Montagu’s presented as an elitist snob. Laila is a saint, rather than a person, a vat-grown Western-acceptable Muslim activist. She doesn’t cover her hair and wears knee-length skirts, but has stronger convictions about Mo’s design going forward than her on-the-make fellow Muslim movers and shakers. She has premarital sex, but also wants to adopt an orphaned child. I’m not saying that realism demands that there be no good people. But it would have been interesting to see what it takes to maintain that goodness under pressure, especially when almost every other character in the novel can’t, won’t, or isn’t remotely interested in doing so.