Amy Waldman proceeds from a simple counterfactual premise: what if the memorial for the attacks of 11 September 2001 set off something like the 1981 controversy over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial? The now famous design for the angled black granite walls, carved with the names of the 58,000 US war dead and cut into the ground on the Mall in Washington DC, was selected through a blind competition. Its abstraction offended those hoping for a properly heroic tribute, but more troubling to some was the identity of the designer, Maya Lin, a 21-year-old Yale undergraduate born in Ohio to Chinese immigrants. It was hard for many Americans not to confuse a person of Asian descent with the enemy. Ross Perot called Lin an ‘egg roll’. She was compelled to defend her design before Congress. A Frederick Hart statue of three soldiers was erected next to her memorial to appease the literal-minded.
‘It’s like Maya Lin all over again. But worse,’ a character in The Submission is made to say, without much subtlety, after the winner of the blind competition turns out to be called Mohammad Khan. From there Waldman pursues her conceit through a few weeks in the autumn of 2003. The tabloids portray the selection as a scandal; aggrieved family members of those who died in the attacks protest alongside run-of-the-mill Islamophobes; Waldman orchestrates set piece after set piece – press conferences, closed-door meetings, dinner parties – and uses them to repackage the culture wars of the past decade. As many reviewers, and Waldman herself, have noted, the story has a lot in common with the controversy that engulfed Park51, the Islamic community centre slated to be built two blocks from the former site of the Twin Towers, in the spring of 2010. Right-wing bloggers took to calling it the ‘Ground Zero mosque’, and the name stuck. Newt Gingrich said it ‘would be like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum’. On Twitter, Sarah Palin wrote: ‘Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.’ Polls showed that most Americans opposed it and that most residents of Manhattan, who know that something two blocks away is safely out of sight, didn’t mind it. After the election, the issue dried up.
As Obama pointed out, Park51 is being built on private property; the memorial in Waldman’s novel is a public monument, so her fictional controversy is a little less bogus than the actual one, and she spins it towards a melodramatic climax rather than a political fizzle. A former reporter for the New York Times and correspondent for the Atlantic, she intends a panoramic novel of metropolitan life, like Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, which she mentions on page 6, as if to provide a crib note, although she doesn’t write with anything like Wolfe’s rhetorical excess or his sardonic disdain. Her prose suggests the earnest fact-gatherer trying to figure out what fiction ought to sound like: ‘And always in the background now, today, every day, the insistent whine of the memorial controversy. The encounter with Alyssa Spier was just a few days past, and for all Claire’s resistance, Spier’s insinuations had slithered inside to coil around Claire’s own doubts. This repulsive, reptilian distrust – it never left her now.’ The snakes of distrust, among other metaphors, have turned the city against itself, and Waldman’s novel is an attempt to excuse the muddled liberal reaction to 9/11. In the weeks before the attacks’ tenth anniversary she was hailed as the second coming of Theodore Dreiser. ‘Waldman’s prose is almost always pitch-perfect,’ Kamila Shamsie wrote in the Guardian. ‘Waldman’s fearless dissection of the commodity of public sorrow is to be applauded, along with the brilliance of her writing,’ Catherine Taylor wrote in the Telegraph. In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani praised the novel’s ‘extraordinary emotional ballast’, and Claire Messud added that it was ‘a necessary and valuable gift’.
But a sentence like ‘Southern California was the white dress at the funeral, ill-suited to national tragedy’ is, as Waldman might put it, one of those gifts you want to return to the store. As for ‘emotional ballast’, we hear of a child whose ‘sadness, too big for his tiny frame, was like a shadow stunting a plant’s growth’, and of a woman caught in an awkward conversation whose ‘dread built, crows landing one by one in a field’. Characters are compared to celebrities; a fat man has ‘Pavarottian girth’; another, a good-looking Muslim, ‘resembled George Clooney with darker skin and a neatly trimmed beard’. Pointing out these lines, I feel like the mayor’s aide, ‘a compulsive pessimist, always looking for the soft brown spot in the fruit, pressing so hard she created it’. The soft brown spots aren’t hard to find here.
Some of the reviewers’ hyperbole is no doubt a symptom of a general longing for a good book about 9/11, but it is strange that critics feel the obligation to pay compliments to a writer’s prose when it’s more likely that what appeals to them about this plodding, schematic, unfunny novel is its forgiving version of recent history.
‘I did come to believe that we were in a frenzy, possessed almost, at that time. I felt like little by little I was pushed … until I found myself on the other side of a line I hadn’t wanted to cross.’ These lines come in an epilogue set in 2023, spoken by Claire Burwell, a rich 9/11 widow (and a member of the jury that selected the memorial) whose switch from supporting to opposing the novel’s Maya Lin stand-in is the central drama. She illustrates how a good liberal can forego tolerance and fairness in the face of a ‘frenzy’: should a Muslim be allowed to commemorate your husband when it was Muslims who killed him, especially when newspapers are accusing you of ‘sleeping with the enemy’ and you’re having dreams about kissing him? ‘Her subconscious, dispatched to ascertain his true nature, had instead ferreted out her own buried attraction.’ It’s not that Waldman is implying that Islamophobia is coupled with some repressed sexual desire; she just seems to think this is how novels, with their unlikely romances, are supposed to work.
Reading The Submission, I often had the feeling that the novel was written by the New York Times itself; that Waldman has so thoroughly internalised the paper’s worldview that she can’t see things any other way. The Times tends to flatter its readers in the way it writes about their educations, their ambitions and what they spend their money on, while gently stoking their anxieties – about surly Islamophobes from New Jersey, their children’s safety, or cancer. In newsprint these tropes tend to be submerged under the weight of actual events but they are all too conspicuous in the long march of a novel.
From the start the characters align with various clichés familiar to the loyal reader of the Times. Claire represents the ‘Opt-Out Revolution’, a phrase coined in the title of a Times Magazine article about women with Ivy League educations who abandon thriving careers, and the gains made by feminism, to become housewives because their husbands can afford it. Claire comes from a Steinbeckian California: ‘She, having grown up there … knew the state’s true fickle weather: the frost and drought that had kept her grandfather, a citrus farmer, perched near ruin for years before her father plunged straight into it.’ (Humble beginnings make a wealthy character more sympathetic.) But after going to good schools, and racking up six figures in loans, she married Cal, ‘the scion of a family whose wealth dated to the Industrial Revolution and had multiplied through every turn of the American economy since’. One day Cal drew from this non-specific fortune to pay off her debts and persuaded her to abandon her legal career to stay at home with the children. The conversation is relayed in Waldman’s typically soundbite-ready dialogue: ‘“I didn’t go to Dartmouth and Harvard Law to be a nanny.” “And I didn’t marry you so our kids would have a good lawyer.”’
After Cal’s death Claire’s ‘future was gilded blankness’. Because marriage interrupted her while she was ‘still busy papier-mâchéing her own unfinished self’, her reactions are always framed in terms of what Cal would think: at first she backs the offending design because he would have – as a teenager he left his parents’ country club because it excluded blacks and Jews. But the Times architecture critic writes that the design displays Islamic influences, and so the ‘reptilian distrust’ sets in. Claire has a hard time seeing beyond her son’s hurt feelings (other fatherless boys tease him because his mother likes Muslims) and her own need for ‘comfort’. It’s the prospect of comfort that draws her to the design, a garden, a nice place to bring her children to mourn their father.
Mohammad Khan stands in for what the Times Styles section would call ‘creative-types’, rootless careerists revitalising our cities. For all the furore over his design, Mo, as he’s called, is an assimilated and deracinated yuppie in his late thirties with shoulder-length hair, a beard and a string of ex-girlfriends of various ethnicities. He tends to think about things in an architectural argot lifted from industry trade magazines like the Architect’s Newspaper and Metropolis, which Waldman has the grace to name. He doesn’t really think of himself as a Muslim, but Waldman thrusts the identity on him: when he is smeared as a crypto-jihadist by the tabloids and Fox News, which suggests his garden is an attempt to sneak a ‘martyrs’ paradise’ into ground zero, Waldman has him seek a more authentic connection to the religion he doesn’t believe in – the sort of spiritual quest American liberals enjoy reading about. First, he has an affair with his Iranian American lawyer, Laila, who chides him for playing the ‘safe’ Muslim (‘Next you’ll shave for them’); then he fasts for Ramadan, a practice he finds hard to square with life in a Manhattan office, where everyone is constantly talking about food.
It’s Laila who connects the novel’s other symbolic widow, Asma Anwar, to the story. Asma’s is the plight of the invisible illegal immigrant rescued by the impassioned middle-class advocate: Laila gets her and her toddler, Abdul, a $1.05 million settlement for the loss of her husband, a janitor in the towers. Waldman relates her travails – evidence that Muslims were victims of the attacks too – with the dutiful earnestness that reporters reserve for the objects of pious liberal pity. The portrait is as conscientious as the tone is maudlin. Asma doesn’t have a lifestyle in the manner of Claire or Mo; she has a situation, a story that belongs in a different section of the newspaper. Perhaps for that reason, she is kept at a remove from the scandal over the memorial design, hearing it talked about at the grocery store and seeing reports on television, until Waldman puts her into play near the end as a sort of moral trump card.
To the rich white widow, the poor Muslim widow and the striving Muslim architect, Waldman adds the dead hero’s aggrieved and bigoted little brother. Sean Gallagher is from a working-class Irish-American Brooklyn family that lost its eldest son, a fireman, on 9/11. The Gallaghers aren’t the type of people who differentiate between terrorists and mild-mannered irreligious architects: ‘They killed my son,’ Sean’s father tells a reporter. ‘And I don’t want one of their names over his grave.’ Sean is a reformed alcoholic who volunteered in the Ground Zero clean-up, which gave his life its first purpose. He has an adolescent crush on Claire: he ‘projected Claire like a movie onto the ceiling of his bedroom, where he’d once tacked posters of Victoria’s Secret models … [and] took her every way he could think of’. Apparently, crude political attitudes go along with creepy fantasy lives. Sean also leads an anti-memorial rally, where he sees a counter-protester carrying a sign reading bigots=idiots. He pulls off her headscarf, which, in one of Waldman’s more outlandish turns, inspires a string of copycat incidents nationally, leading to the mobilisation of Muslim self-defence squadrons in urban neighbourhoods.
Around these four, dozens of more or less cynical minor characters – a governor with her eye on the White House, a talk-radio host, the head of a Muslim-American organisation etc – try to manipulate the situation to their own advantage, and a reporter for the New York Post pushes the plot along with fear-mongering scoops. But it’s Claire’s judgment about Mo – as an allegory for liberal America’s relationship with Islam – that matters most. As she twists this way and that, for him and against him, and frets about the purity of his intentions, we see what a difficult business it is maintaining liberal ideals and making rational decisions in the face of angry nationalist mobs goaded by the craven right-wing media.
Perhaps to lend a very provincial story an air of universality, Waldman makes some deliberate omissions: she avoids ‘9/11’, ‘World Trade Center’, ‘Osama bin Laden’, ‘Saddam Hussein’ and ‘George W. Bush’, who is alluded to as ‘the president, who had once owned a baseball team’. There’s only a glancing mention of dead Iraqis, which is striking, since the novel takes place around the time it was becoming clear that the quick invasion would turn into a long war. Identity politics surrounding Ground Zero were a sideshow. In one of several fictitious quotations from real-life media institutions, a New Yorker piece casts doubt on Mo, accusing him of ‘coyness’ for not answering questions posed by victims’ families. ‘It wasn’t my fault. The New Yorker didn’t trust him!’ Claire, now dying of cancer, says in the epilogue, ‘What was I supposed to do?’ Well, the New Yorker said invading Iraq was a good idea too.