Near the beginning of Amy Waldman's strong novel, one of the characters admits that "he wasn't sure he'd read a novel since THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES." Waldman has obviously read many other things before and since, but she is also clearly influenced by Tom Wolfe's cornucopian novel of race and class in New York City. THE SUBMISSION is equally a New York novel, though its fault lines are religious rather than racial, falling between the Moslem population and the Judaeo-Christian majority. Her premise is that the competition for a 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, anonymous submissions judged by an independent jury, is won by an architect named Mohammed Khan. A news leak is picked up by a tabloid reporter and the predictable outcry ensues.
Amy Waldman is a cooler writer than Wolfe, less flamboyant but equally intelligent. There is an impressive restraint in the way she follows the ramifications of her theme, not avoiding outsize characters and bigoted viewpoints, but producing subtly nuanced variations of attitude as the various forces come into play. The irony is that the winning design, a peace garden with trees and water (not unlike the design chosen in real life), is an oasis of calm compared to the defiant basalt obelisk that it beat out. But once the garden has been described as a model of the Islamic paradise that the terrorists themselves hoped to attain, even those peaceful qualities now seem a liability.
While the memorial is officially declared to be for the families of the lost ones, only one family representative is selected for the jury: Claire Burwell, a wealthy connoisseur who actually lives outside the boroughs. The jury hopes it can make the decision on aesthetic grounds alone, but of course it can't. The cause of ordinary people is taken up by Sean Gallagher, a Brooklyn rabble-rouser who takes his message to street corners in a desperate attempt to live up to the memory of his firefighter brother. Talk-show hosts and civic leaders chime in. The Governor, Geraldine Bitman, latches on to the controversy as a way of furthering her presidential ambitions. The affair becomes a referendum on American values that is as distressing as it is believable. As one of the more reasonable family members (thank you, Ms. Waldman!) says at the public hearing: "We, who have carried the weight of loss, are now being asked to carry the weight of proving America's tolerance."
And Mohammed Khan himself? Known as Mo, he is an ordinary American, entirely secular, talented but unassuming. But he has an inner core of pride, and the more he is asked to explain or compromise, the less he is willing to do so. This is entirely believable, but it has the unfortunate effect of writing him out of the story too early as an active participant, making the ending a slight disappointment after such magnificent development. But, as she almost always does, Waldman shows the effect of Mo's principles in human terms, transforming political polemic into a genuine novel of feeling: "Sorrow swelled in him, seemed to press against his lungs. He knew he couldn't bend himself to fit her shape. But he didn't know how he could live with the hollow where hers had been."
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