Here is another book I actually read last year, The Submission, a 9/11 novel by Amy Waldman. The Submission was very well received and it’s been on my to-read list for a long time. I was looking forward to it. It’s Waldman’s first novel, but at the time she began it, she was already an experienced writer, having been a reporter for the New York Times, on the foreign affairs beat. So it is smoothly written and sophisticated. But I didn’t like it. (I read through the whole book, planning to look at the late D.G. Myers’ blog after I was done, to see exactly why it was that I disagreed with him on this, only to find that he’d actually hated it. I must have gotten it confused with The Believers.) I frankly could not finish this book, and I can’t recommend it.
The Submission describes the aftermath of a contest to find a design for a 9/11 memorial, to be erected on the site where the towers had been. There are three main characters: Claire Burwell, the “family representative” on the selection committee, a well-off and well-connected widow of a wealthy man who had died in the attacks; Paul Rubin, the committee chair; and the American architect of Arab descent whose design is eventually chosen. There are also a couple of regular-person characters, one from each “side” of the situation, both survivors, one Muslim and one not.
The novel has been praised for the way in which it exposes the way things work at high levels, how public discourse operates around these topics, and so on, but it seemed to me Waldman doesn’t say anything a fairly regular reader of the New York Times wouldn’t have known already. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with writing a story from the point of view of the typical New York Times reader or journalist. It’s just that it isn’t necessarily going to tell us anything new. The conflict between Claire and the other widows, over what kind of memorial is what’s wanted, is revealing in its way, but not because it tells us anything we didn’t already know from listening to widows on CNN and NPR. The fact that people might have some problems—irrational though they might obviously be—with the architect of a 9/11 memorial being an (albeit nonpracticing) Muslim isn’t new either.
The fact is that the story is pretty predictable and the characters leave something wanting. Mohammed “Mo” Khan, the architect, is a typical American-born artist, reluctant to settle down with his girlfriend, intermittently curious in a vague way about his family’s religious heritage, proud of his art, slow to see how his ethnicity limits his ability to advance within his firm. It’s entirely believable that he would want to incorporate traditional Islamic architectural forms into his work. It’s equally believable that he would feel constrained and insulted by clients’ desire to put new security requirements ahead of aesthetic considerations, and annoyed that contracts go to firms who happily set considerations of beauty aside. It’s quite a bit less believable that he’d be curious enough about more fundamentalist forms of Islam to approach the defense of jihadis as he does.
Though this is nicely observed:
“Henry began with history—Crusader castles, high atop plateaus; moated cities—then moved to modern times: mammoth planters and giant benches artfully arrayed; a Richard Serra sculpture (“defensive art”); serpentining access roads with subtle security checkpoints; schools whose baffled windows made them look like prisons; false windows. Beauty and safety were not incompatible, he lectured, although he showed few examples to prove it. . . . Would you want buildings that advertised how safe they were or that made you forget your fear? It was easy to laugh off Crusader crenellations and moats; harder to see if they possessed anything adaptable. A barrier of water would make for a more pleasing setback than a concrete plaza. A zigzag approach, with views framed within walls, could make arriving a visual adventure.”
and it would have been nice to have more of this kind of thing.
Claire Burwell, for her part, while reasonably well drawn as a portrait of a professional-class woman with a child, is situated in a story that makes no sense at all. She had married a man who was so incredibly wealthy, she can barely describe it. Since she met him at college (maybe even at law school), and since this was fairly late in the twentieth century, you would expect that he’d anticipate a life for her of frenzied activities outside the home. Women of his class, surely, work. If they don’t work, they have to manage multiple households, charities, family and church obligations, and so on. But it seems that in the world of The Submission—I can’t make sense of it any other way—very rich men are always very conservative, and therefore very traditional, and therefore expect the women in their family to stay at home all day. And so that’s what she does, until he dies and she steps up to the leadership of the memorial committee. She has a small son. I think there may be a babysitter mentioned. There may be a mention of part-time nursery school. But there is, from all the evidence, no fulltime help: no live-in nanny, no housekeeper, no cook. At one point Claire brings home takeout for dinner and does the dishes herself. This is just weird, and it made me wonder why Waldman made the character so wealthy in the first place. It was almost as if she assumed readers don’t like novels about people who aren’t perfect and as rich as rich can be—which is very much not right.
Waldman’s writing is unsurprisingly assured, and for those who aren’t bothered by these things, I guess The Submission is a pretty good read. My notes, up until the point where I typed, “Claire’s story is ludicrous,” aren’t entirely negative. It’s just not for me.
I’ve gone back and looked again at what D.G. Myers wrote about The Submission, and I see I might have been mistaken. It doesn’t seem very clear to me, but it seems he liked the book. His praise might fairly be called “faint,” however. Additionally, the post I most likely misread has the odd title “The Duty of Harsh Criticism,” and ends with a discussion of The Submission, but is actually—it took me a while to find the verb in the sentence in question—an expression of harsh criticism of critics for not being harsh enough, it seems, with regard to Harry Potter and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (both of which are mentioned at the beginning of the article), with the example given that they rightly praised Waldman’s novel but wrongly missed its conservative message. Well, this is the kind of thing I initially went to Myers to look for. He’s much subtler at finding conservative messages in novels that don’t overtly have such than I am.
(When I wrote, “read to the end,” also, my fingers were getting ahead of my thoughts. Read it as, “when I read to the end of what I actually read, and finished skimming some of the rest to see if it might be worth picking up again later on.”)