The Submission by Amy Waldman
FSG • $26 • ISBN 9780374271565
Published August 16, 2011
(Paperback on sale March 27, 2012)
Now that 2012 is in full swing, I know many of you are making plans for the year’s book club meetings. What’s coming out in paperback this year? What would make for a good discussion? Here’s one recommendation for your group: The Submission by Amy Waldman, one of our Best Books of 2011. If your book club reads only paperbacks, you can choose this one for April or after.
The premise of the novel is simple: Two years after 9/11, there is an anonymous competition for a memorial design. There are 5,000 entries, and a jury is selected to choose the winner. Their choice, most supported by a woman whose husband died in the attack? A garden that, turns out, was designed by a Muslim architect named Mohammad Khan.
The story is told from multiple narrators: the chair of the jury; the widower on the jury; the architect himself; an undocumented Muslim woman whose husband also died in the attack; a ruthless journalist covering the competition; and the brother of a firefighter who died on 9/11, who is also the leader of an anti-Islam group.
The book is fascinating for its different points of view. You’ll confront stereotypes and be forced to consider different perspectives. Ultimately, the big question is: Is it insensitive for a Muslim to design a 9/11 memorial? Is it a gesture toward inclusiveness in the United States (and a powerful symbol for America’s freedom of religion)? Does the identity of the architect matter at all?
Here’s an excerpt from the book. The jury has just looked up the name associated with the winning design. As you will see, his name immediately triggers some sharp reactions. Paul is the chair of the jury.
The piece of paper containing the winner’s name was passed from palm to palm like a fragile folio. There were a few gasps and “hmmms,” an “interesting,” an “oh my.” Then: Jesus f**king Christ! It’s a goddamn Muslim!” The paper had reached the governor’s man.
Paul sighed. It wasn’t Bob Wilner’s fault they were in this situation, if indeed they were in a situation, but Paul resented him for forcing them to confront that they were, possibly, in a situation. Until Wilner spoke, no one had voiced what was written, as if to do so would bring the problem, even the person, to life before them.
“Ms. Costello.” Paul addressed the minute-taker in an almost musing tone, without meeting her eyes. “That will be expunged, naturally. We’d like to keep the record free of—of profanity.” He knew this sounded ridiculous: What New York City body cared about profanity? What minute-taker bothered to transcribe it? “Perhaps you could step out for a few minutes. Go help yourself to some more dessert.” [ . . . ]
The door shut. He waited a few seconds before saying, “Let’s stay calm here.”
“What the f**k are we supposed to do?”
“We know nothing about him, Bob.”
“Is he even American?”
“Yes, it says right here under nationality, American.”
“That actually makes it harder.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“How did this happen?”
“What are the odds?”
“I can’t believe it.”
“It’s Maya Lin all over again. But worse.”
“What are the odds?” the mayor’s aide kept repeating. “What are the odds?”