Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Submission by Amy Waldman

As we sit on the cusp of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I find myself quickly turning the page when I come across an article remembering those who died that day or discussing the lives of the family members who lost loved ones.   It's just too difficult.   On that morning, I watched with confusion from my office directly across the Hudson River from the WTC as the second plane crashed into the Towers, thinking that there was some incredible air traffic control error.  I also watched with shock and disbelief as the Towers fell, first one and then the other.  I anxiously awaited word from my husband that he was safe in his workplace mere steps from the WTC.  And I, like most of the world, watched these events unfold over and over again in the television coverage following the attack.

Despite these lingering emotions, when I came upon a novel at the Book Expo about creating the 9/11 memorial, I felt compelled to take a copy.   And, with the tenth anniversary of that day upon us, I felt compelled to read it.

The premise behind The Submission is that a blind jury representing various constituencies has been put together to select the design for the 9/11 memorial.  After months of deliberations, a design is selected from the thousands submitted, the centerpiece of which is a public garden.  It is then discovered that the architect who created the design is a Muslim-American.  The political ramifications of this decision are tremendous.  One person bemoans, "It's Maya Lin all over again.  But worse."  (Maya Lin is the Chinese-American artist whose design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was chosen in a blind jury competition, with some controversy.  Lin was called before Congress to defend her design, and some modifications were made as a result in an attempt to appease the public.)    And so the stage has been set for an interesting debate.  Would the American public accept a memorial to the victims of 9/11 that was designed by a person with the same religious affiliation as the terrorists?   What message would be sent if the deliberations of the blind jury were overturned solely because of the identity of the designer?

Waldman explores these issues--and many more--primarily through the eyes of three characters.  The first is Paul, a retired Wall Street guy and the Chairman of the jury who had hoped that his involvement with the memorial would be the crowning moment of his public life.  Paul now has to negotiate this politically and emotionally charged situation as he meets with the Mayor, the Governor, the architect and the jury members.  The second is Claire, the jury member who represents the constituency of the families who lost loved ones in the attack. Claire lobbied for the garden design during the jury process and is now deeply conflicted about whether she should continue to support the garden, especially in light of the very vocal and public objections by other family members.   The third is, of course, Mohammed, the Muslim-American architect whose design has caused the controversy.  While Mohammed is Muslim, he is an agnostic who has no connection to the Middle East or to the "religious" fanaticism that motivated the terrorists.  He is also an idealist, though, who wants his design to be accepted on its face without providing explanations about his political views or whether the design drew upon the Muslim concept of the "gardens of paradise" that await Muslims--including Muslim martyrs--upon their deaths.

Somewhat surprisingly, I did not find myself mired in emotion as I read The Submission.  Instead, it was a truly interesting read that gave me the opportunity to consider not only the immediately obvious issues but "peripheral" issues as well such as the role of politics in public art and architecture and the difficulties that face any public personality who has taken a stance that needs to be reconsidered.      
That is not to say that this was an easy read or that it didn't raise some painful memories.  About halfway through the book, I decided to do some research about the actual 9/11 Museum and Memorial.   As I started looking at the design of the Museum, with pictures of each of the victims of the 9/11 attacks and the 1993 attack on the WTC, my heart started pounding and I found myself near tears.  In reading about the design for the Memorial itself, called "Reflecting Absence," I was again nearly overcome with emotion.   You can find information about the Memorial and the Museum at http://www.911memorial.org/   It took me quite some time to work up the nerve to go visit the site of the Trade Centers after 9/11, and I don't know when--if ever--I will have the emotional fortitude to visit the Memorial and Museum.

The book cover for The Submission includes a quote from Richard Price (author of the critically acclaimed Lush Life) that calls the book a "panoramic novel about the politics of grief in the wake of 9/11".   I agree with this description and commend Waldman for writing a book that gives its readers an opportunity to think about some complicated issues and some of the unexpected ways in which the 9/11 attacks impacted people's lives.  

I would be remiss to end this post without extending my continued condolences to all those who lost loved ones in the attacks and my gratitude to all of the responders.  God bless America. 

1 comment:

  1. It's an extremely thought-provoking situation, showing both viewpoints of a tough dilemma. All the characters are Interesting and the text is well-written.'
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