Holly's Reviews > The Submission

The Submission by Amy Waldman
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Jan 18, 14

bookshelves: 2011-reads
Read from October 19 to 21, 2011

I prefer novels and stories that deal with 9/11 obliquely, like Saturday by McEwan, Deborah Eisenberg's "Twilight of the Superheroes," maybe Netherland by O'Neill, and especially James Hynes's Next. So for me this was not the "9/11 novel we have been waiting for," and which Maureen Corrigan gushed about as being "poetic and polemical."

I thought Waldman's best writing was in the longer descriptive passages. There is a scene near the end in which the reader is taken back to the architect's business trip to Afghanistan where he finds himself alone in the slums of Kabul searching for a restroom, and he happens upon the green garden of a Mogul emperor (a garden, the reader realizes, that did, in fact, in a complicated and non-religious way, inspire his subsequent secular memorial garden design). At this alien-but-familiar place he "had forgotten himself, and this was the truest submission."

I appreciated the painful humor of the architect-character Mohammed Khan's answer to his obviously ignorant interrogator's question about what kind of Muslim he was. A "Shi'a Wahhabist," he answers (a combination that is transparently ridiculous and causes the other man great embarrassment once it's explained). I also liked that a character late in the novel points out the irony of another American man with the name "Kahn" (Louis Kahn) having designed the Parliament building for the Muslim nation of Bangladesh.

I had a problem with the stereotypical characters and situations. It seemed like Waldman chose her characters based on pre-existing stereotypes (the society wife with the art degree, the apolitical ambitious reporter, the aggrieved right-winger, a bombastic radio talk-show host . . . ) and then she put effort into fleshing them out, giving them depth and idiosyncrasies, but they never completely got past their stereotypes. Why not? Maybe because the plot is idea-driven and the dialogue was often stilted and expositional: the characters are mouthpieces who make speeches through their dialogue. For example, a character who appears and then vanishes from the stage at the 2/3 mark gets this soliloquy put in his mouth: "No one's interested in my point of view. Like a lot of Americans, I've felt really helpless the past few years, powerless to stop the change in this country's direction, and bolstering you is a way to do something. Look, I'm not saying it's easy, I know there are all kinds of pressures, but this really matters. You need to be strong. There's no evidence our Muslim population is a threat; why should we make them one?" There was too much of this sort of speechifying throughout the story.

I liked the end of the novel, with the jump ahead twenty years and the characters still searching for answers, and the image of the parallel garden the architect built after the 9/11 memorial was cancelled. The conclusion left a haunting and thoughtful image in my mind.
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