A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year
An Entertainment Weekly Best Novel of the Year
An NPR Top Ten Novel of the Year
A Washington Post Notable Book of the Year
Esquire Book of the Year
A jury chooses a memorial for the victims of a devastating terrorist attack on Manhattan, only to learn that the anonymous designer is an American Muslim an enigmatic architect named Mohammad Khan. His selection reverberates across a divided, traumatized country and, more intimately, through individual lives. Claire Burwell, the sole widow on the jury, becomes Khan's fiercest defender. But when the news of his selection becomes public, she comes under pressure from outraged family members and into collision with hungry journalists, opportunistic politicians, and even Khan himself. A story of clashing convictions and emotions, and a cunning satire of political ideals, The Submission is a resonant novel for our times.
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About the Author
Amy Waldman was co-chief of the South Asia bureau of The New York Times. Her fiction has appeared in The Atlantic and the Boston Review and is anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010. She lives with her family in Brooklyn. The Submission is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
"The names," Claire said. "What about the names?"
"They're a record, not a gesture," the sculptor replied. Ariana's words brought nods from the other artists, the critic, and the two purveyors of public art arrayed along the dining table, united beneath her sway. She was the jury's most famous figure, its dominant personality, Claire's biggest problem.
Ariana had seated herself at the head of the table, as if she were presiding. For the previous four months they had deliberated at a table that had no head, being round. It was in an office suite high above the gouged earth, and there the other jurors had deferred to the widow's desire to sit with her back to the window, so that the charnel ground below was only a gray blur when Claire walked to her chair. But tonight the jury was gathered, for its last arguments, at Gracie Mansion's long table. Ariana, without consultation or, it appeared, compunction, had taken pride of place, giving notice of her intent to prevail.
"The names of the dead are expected; required, in fact, by the competition rules," she continued. For such a scouring woman, her voice was honeyed. "In the right memorial, the names won't be the source of the emotion."
"They will for me," Claire said tightly, taking some satisfaction in the downcast eyes and guilty looks along the table. They'd all lost, of courselost the sense that their nation was invulnerable; lost their city's most recognizable icons; maybe lost friends or acquaintances. But only she had lost her husband.
She wasn't above reminding them of that tonight, when they would at last settle on the memorial. They had winnowed five thousand entries, all anonymous, down to two. The final pruning should have beeneasy. But after three hours of talk, two rounds of voting, and too much wine from the mayor's private reserve, the conversation had turned ragged, snappish, repetitive. The Garden was too beautiful, Ariana and the other artists kept saying of Claire's choice. They saw for a living, yet when it came to the Garden they wouldn't see what she saw.
The concept was simple: a walled, rectangular garden guided by rigorous geometry. At the center would be a raised pavilion meant for contemplation. Two broad, perpendicular canals quartered the six-acre space. Pathways within each quadrant imposed a grid on the trees, both living and steel, that were studded in orchard-like rows. A white perimeter wall, twenty-seven feet high, enclosed the entire space. The victims would be listed on the wall's interior, their names patterned to mimic the geometric cladding of the destroyed buildings. The steel trees reincarnated the buildings even more literally: they would be made from their salvaged scraps.
Four drawings showed the Garden across the seasons. Claire's favorite was the chiaroscuro of winter. A snow shroud over the ground; leafless living trees gone to pewter; cast-steel trees glinting with the rose light of late afternoon; the onyx surfaces of the canals shining like crossed swords. Black letters scored on the white wall. Beauty wasn't a crime, but there was more than beauty here. Even Ariana conceded that the spartan steel trees were an unexpected touchreminders that a garden, for all its reliance on nature, was man-made, perfect for a city in which plastic bags wafted along with birds and air-conditioner runoff mixed in with rain. Their forms would look organic, but they would resist a garden's seasonal ebb and flow.
"The Void is too dark for us," Claire said now, as she had before. Us: the families of the dead. Only she, on the jury, stood for Us. She loathed the Void, the other finalist, Ariana's favorite, and Claire was sure the other families would, too. There was nothing void-like about it. A towering black granite rectangle, some twelve stories high, centered in a huge oval pool, it came off in the drawings as a great gash against the sky. The names of the dead were to be carved onto its surface, which would reflect into the water below. It mimicked the Vietnam Veterans Memorial but, to Claire, missed the point. Such abstraction worked when humans could lay their hands on it, draw near enough to alter the scale. But the names on the Void couldn't be reached or even seen properly. The only advantage the design had was height. Claire worried that some of thefamiliesso jingoistic, so literal-mindedmight see the Garden as conceding territory to America's enemies, even if that territory was air.
"Gardens are fetishes of the European bourgeoisie," Ariana said, pointing to the dining-room walls, which were papered with a panorama of lush trees through which tiny, formally dressed men and women strolled. Ariana herself was, as usual, dressed entirely in a shade of gruel that she had patented in homage to and ridicule of Yves Klein's brilliant blue. The mockery of pretension, Claire decided, could also be pretentious.
"Aristocratic fetishes," the jury's lone historian corrected. "The bourgeoisie aping the aristocracy."
"It's French, the wallpaper," the mayor's aide, his woman on the jury, piped up.
"My point being," Ariana went on, "that gardens aren't our vernacular. We have parks. Formal gardens aren't our lineage."
"Experiences matter more than lineages," Claire said.
"No, lineages are experiences. We're coded to have certain emotions in certain kinds of places."
"Graveyards," Claire said, an old tenacity rising within her. "Why are they often the loveliest places in cities? There's a poemGeorge Herbertwith the lines: 'Who would have thought my shrivel'd heart / Could have recover'd greennesse?'" A college friend had written the scrap of poetry in a condolence card. "The Garden," she continued, "will be a place where wewhere the widows, their children, anyonecan stumble on joy. My husband ..." she said, and everyone leaned in to listen. She changed her mind and stopped speaking, but the words hung in the air like a trail of smoke.
Which Ariana blew away. "I'm sorry, but a memorial isn't a graveyard. It's a national symbol, an historic signifier, a way to make sure anyone who visitsno matter how attenuated their link in time or geography to the attackunderstands how it felt, what it meant. The Void is visceral, angry, dark, raw, because there was no joy on that day. You can't tell if that slab is rising or falling, which is honestit speaks exactly to this moment in history. It's created destruction, which robs the real destruction of its power, dialectically speaking. The Garden speaks to a longing we have for healing. It's a very natural impulse, but maybe not our most sophisticated one."
"You have something against healing?" Claire asked.
"We disagree on the best way to bring it about," Ariana answered."I think you have to confront the pain, face it, even wallow in it, before you can move on."
"I'll take that under consideration," Claire retorted. Her hand clamped over her wineglass before the waiter could fill it.
Paul could barely track who was saying what. His jurors had devoured the comfort food he had requestedfried chicken, mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts with baconbut the comfort was scant. He prided himself on getting along with formidable womenwas, after all, married to onebut Claire Burwell and Ariana Montagu together strained him, their opposing sureties clashing like electric fields, the room crackling with their animus. In her critique of the Garden's beauty, of beauty itself, Paul sensed Ariana implying something about Claire.
His mind wandered to the coming days, weeks, months. They would announce the winning design. Then he and Edith would visit the Zabar's at their home in Menerbes, a respite for Paul between the months of deliberation and the fund-raising for the memorial that would begin on his return. It would be a major challenge, with the construction of each of the two finalists estimated at $100 million, minimum, but Paul enjoyed parting his friends from serious money. Countless ordinary Americans were sure to open their wallets, too.
Then this chairmanship would lead to others, or so Edith assured him. Unlike many of her friends, his wife did not collect Chanel suits or Harry Winston baubles, although she had quantities of both. Her eye was for prestigious positions, and so she imagined Paul as chairman of the public library, where he already sat on the board. It had more money than the Met, and Edith had pronounced Paul "literary," although Paul himself wasn't sure he'd read a novel since The Bonfire of the Vanities.
"Perhaps we should talk more about the local context," said Madeline, a community power broker from the neighborhood ringing the site. As if on cue, Ariana extracted from her bag a drawing she had made of the Void to show how well it would play against the cityscape. The Void's "vertical properties," she said, echoed Manhattan's. Claire arched her eyebrows at Paul. Ariana's "sketch," as she called it, was better than the drawings accompanying the submission. Claire had complained to Paul more than once that she suspected Ariana knew the Void's designera student, a protégé?because she seemed so eager to help italong. Maybe, although he didn't think Ariana had done any more for her favorite than Claire had for hers. For all her poise, Claire couldn't seem to handle not getting her way. Nor could Ariana, who was used to dominating juries without this one's slippery quota of sentiment.
The group retreated to the parlor, with its warm yellow walls, for dessert. Jorge, the chef at Gracie Mansion, wheeled in a cart laden with cakes and cookies. Then he unveiled, with little fanfare, a three-foot-high gingerbread reconstruction of the vanished towers. The shapes were unmistakable. The silence was profound.
"It's not meant to be eaten," Jorge said, suddenly shy. "It's a tribute."
"Of course," said Claire, then added, with more warmth, "It's like a fairy tale." Chandelier light glinted off the poured-sugar windows.
Paul had piled his plate with everything but the gingerbread when Ariana planted herself in front of him like a tiny spear. In concert they drifted toward a secluded corner behind the piano.
"I'm concerned, Paul," Ariana said. "I don't want our decision based too much on"the last word almost lowed"emotion."
"We're selecting a memorial, Ariana. I'm not sure emotion can be left out of it entirely."
"You know what I mean. I worry that Claire's feelings are having disproportionate impact."
"Ariana, some might argue that you have disproportionate impact. Your opinions command enormous respect."
"Not compared to a family member. Sorrow can be a bully."
"So can taste."
"As it should be, but we're talking about something more profound than taste here. Judgment. Having a family member in the roomit's like we're letting the patient, not the doctor, decide on the best course of treatment. A little clinical distance is healthy."
Out of the corner of his eye, Paul saw Claire deep in conversation with the city's preeminent critic of public art. She had seven inches on him, with her heels, but she made no effort to slouch. Dressed tonight in a fitted black sheaththe color, Paul suspected, no incidental choiceshe was a woman who knew how to outfit herself for maximum advantage. Paul respected this, although respect was perhaps the wrong word for how she figured in his imaginings. Not for the first time, he rued his age (twenty-five years her senior), his hair loss, and his loyaltymore institutional than personal, perhapsto his marriage. He watched herdetach herself from the critic to follow yet another juror from the room.
"I know she's affecting," he heard; his eyeing of Claire had been unsubtle. He turned sharply toward Ariana, who continued: "But the Garden's too soft. Designed to please the same Americans who love impressionism."
"I happen to like impressionism," Paul said, not sure whether to pretend he was joking. "I can't muzzle Claire, and you know the family members are more likely to support our design if they feel part of the process. We need the emotional information she provides."
"Paul, you know there's a whole critique out there. If we pick the wrong memorial, if we yield to sentimentalism, it only confirms"
"I know the concerns," he said gruffly: that it was too soon for a memorial, the ground barely cleared; that the country hadn't yet won or lost the war, couldn't even agree, exactly, on who or what it was fighting. But everything happened faster these daysthe building up and tearing down of idols; the spread of disease and rumor and trends; the cycling of news; the development of new monetary instruments, which in turn had speeded Paul's own retirement from the chairmanship of the investment bank. So why not the memorial, too? Commercial exigencies were at work, it was true: the developer who controlled the site wanted to remonetize it and needed a memorial to do so, since Americans seemed unlikely to accept the maximization of office space as the most eloquent rejoinder to terrorism. But there were patriotic exigencies, too. The longer that space stayed clear, the more it became a symbol of defeat, of surrender, something for "them," whoever they were, to mock. A memorial only to America's diminished greatness, its new vulnerability to attack by a fanatic band, mediocrities in all but murder. Paul would never put it so crudely, but the blank space was embarrassing. Filling in that blank, as much as Edith's ambitions, was why he had wanted to chair the jury. Its work would mark not only his beloved city but history, too.
Ariana was waiting for more from Paul. "You're wasting your time on me," he said brusquely. The winner needed ten of thirteen votes; Paul had made clear he would abandon neutrality only if a finalist was one short. "If I were you, I'd go rescue Maria from Claire."
Claire had seen Maria heading outside, cigarette in hand, and hurried after her. She had been pleadingno other word for itwith the critic, telling him, "Just because we're memorializing the dead doesn't mean we need to create a dead place," watching him roll his head as if his neck hurt from looking up at her. But she also had been scavenging her memory for tidbits from law school: the science of juries. The Asch experiments, what did Asch show? How easily people were influenced by other people's perceptions. Conformity. Group polarization. Normative pressures. Reputational cascades: how the desire for social approval influences the way people think and act. Which meant Claire's best chance was to get jurors alone. Maria was a public art curator who had made her mark placing large-scale artworks, including one of Ariana's, around Manhattan. This made her an unlikely defector, but Claire had to try.
"Got an extra?" she asked.
Maria handed her a cigarette. "I wouldn't have pegged you as a smoker."
"Only occasionally," Claire lied. As in never.
They were standing on the veranda, the lawn spread before them, its majestic trees mere smudges in the dark, the lights of the bridges and boroughs like proximate constellations. Maria ashed complacently over the railing onto the lawn, and although it struck Claire as somehow disrespectful, she did the same.
"A ruined garden within the wallsthat I could get behind," Maria said.
"It would be so powerful as a work of art, would answer any worries about erasing the hard memories. We have to think of history here, the long view, a symbolism that will speak to people a hundred years from now. Great art transcends its time."
"A ruined garden has no hope and that's unacceptable," Claire said, unable to help her sharpness. "You all keep talking about the long view, but the long view includes us. My children, my grandchildren, people with a direct connection to this attack are going to be around for the next hundred years, and maybe that's a blip when you look back at the Venus of Willendorf, but it certainly seems a long time now. So I don't see why our interests should count any less. You know, the other night I dreamed about that black pool around the Void, that my husband's handwas reaching up from the water to pull me down into it. That's the effect the Void has. So you can go there and congratulate yourself on what a brilliant artistic statement you made, but I don't think family members will be lining up to visit."
Her anger was no less genuine for her having learned, months back, its power. On a wintry afternoon, as she and the other widows left a meeting with the director of the government's compensation fund, a reporter in the waiting press pack had shouted, "How do you answer Americans who say they're tired of your sense of entitlement, that you're being greedy?" Claire had gripped her purse to keep her hands from shaking, but she didn't bother to mute the tremble in her voice. "Entitlement? Was that the word you used?" The reporter shrank back. "Was I entitled to lose my husband? Was I entitled to have to explain to my children why they will never know their father, to have to raise them alone? Am I entitled to live knowing the suffering my husband endured? This isn't about greed. Do your homework: I don't need a penny of this compensation and don't plan to keep it. This isn't about money. It's about justice, accountability. And yes, I am entitled to that."
She claimed, later, to have been unaware the television cameras were rolling, but they captured every word. The clip of the death-pale blonde in the black coat was replayed so often that for days she couldn't turn on the television without seeing herself. Letters of support poured in, and Claire found herself a star widow. She hadn't meant to make a political statement, in truth had been offended by the notion that she was grubbing for money and was seeking to set herself apart from those who were. Instead she emerged as their champion, the Secretary of Sorrow Services. Her leadership, she knew, was the reason the governor had picked her for the jury.
On the veranda Maria was eyeing her quizzically. Claire met her stare and took a drag so dizzying she had to grip the railing for support. She felt only a little guilty. Everything she said had been true except her certainty that the hand reaching up was Cal's.
Maria switched first. "The Garden," she said bravely. Claire started to mouth "Thank you," then thought better of it. The critic came next. "The Garden." This gave slightly less pleasure: Claire, studying his bassethound face and poodle hair, had the disappointed sense that he hadchanged his vote because he was tired. Still, the Garden had eight votes now, which meant victory was in sight. But instead of celebrating, Claire began to sink inside. Tomorrow, absent the memorial competition, her life would lose its last bit of temporary form. She had no need of income, given her inheritance from Cal, and no commanding new cause. Her future was gilded blankness.
Aftermath had filled the two years since Cal's death, the surge of grief yielding to the slow leak of mourning, the tedium of recovery, bathetic new routines that felt old from the get-go. Forms and more forms. Bulletins from the medical examiner: another fragment of her husband had been found. The cancellation of credit cards, driver's license, club memberships, magazine subscriptions, contracts to buy works of art; the selling of cars and a sailboat; the scrubbing of his name from trusts and bank accounts and the boards of companies and nonprofitsall of it done with a ruthless efficiency that implicated her in his effacement. Offering her children memories of their father, only to load the past with so much value it strained beneath the weight.
But aftermath had to end. She sensed herself concluding a passage that had begun fourteen years ago, when a blue-eyed man notable less for good looks than for sheer vitality and humor and confidence had stopped her as she came off the tennis court he was taking over and said, "I'm going to marry you."
The comment, she would come to learn, was typical of Calder Burwell, a man with a temperament so sunny that Claire nicknamed him California, even though it was she, having grown up there, who knew the state's true fickle weather: the frost and drought that had kept her grandfather, a citrus farmer, perched near ruin for years before her father plunged straight into it. Of all her anguished, unanswerable wonderings about Cal's deathwhere, how, how much painthe worst, somehow, was the fear that his last moments had buckled his abiding optimism. She wanted him to have died believing that he would live. The Garden was an allegory. Like Cal, it insisted that change was not just possible, but certain.
"It's eleven o'clock," Paul said. "I think someone may need to reconsider his or her vote. How can we ask this country to come together in healing if this jury can't?"
Guilty looks. A long silence. And finally, from the historian, an almost speculative "Well ..." All bleary eyes turned to him, but he said nothing more, as if he had realized he held the fate of a six-acre chunk of Manhattan in his hands.
"Ian?" Paul prodded.
Even if inebriated, Ian wasn't going without a lecture. He noted the beginnings of public gardens in suburban cemeteries in eighteenthcentury Europe, segued into the garden-based reforms of Daniel Schreber in Germany ("We're interested in his social reforms, not the 'reforms' he carried out on his poor sons"), jumped to the horror conveyed by Lutyens's Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, in which seventy-three thousand names"Seventy-three thousand!" Ian exclaimedwere inscribed on its interior walls, pondered the difference between "national memory" and "veteran's memory" at Verdun, and concluded, some fifteen minutes later, with: "And so, the Garden."
Paul, then, would be the tenth and final vote, and this didn't displease him. He had insisted, for himself, on not just public neutrality but internal neutrality as well, so that no design had been allowed to catch his fancy. But over the course of the evening he had begun rooting for the Garden. "Stumble on joy"the phrase had knocked something loose in him. Joy: What did it feel like? Trying to remember, he was overcome by longing. He knew satisfaction, the exhilaration of success, contentment, and happiness to the extent he could identify it. But joy? He must have felt it when his sons were bornthat kind of event would surely occasion itbut he couldn't remember. Joy: it was like a handle with no cupboard, a secret he didn't know. He wondered if Claire did.
"The Garden," he said, and the room broke loose, less with pleasure than relief.
"Thank you, Paul. Thank you, everyone," Claire whispered.
Paul slumped in his chair and allowed himself some sentimental chauvinism. The dark horse had wonhe hadn't thought Claire could trump Arianaand this seemed appropriately American. Champagne appeared, corks popped, a euphonious clamor filled the room. Paul clinked his flute to command their attention for a moment of silence in the victims' honor. As heads bowed, he glimpsed the part in Claire's hair, the line as sharp and white as a jet's contrail, the intimacy as unexpected as a flash of thigh. Then he remembered to think of the dead.
He thought, too, of the day, as he hadn't for a long time. He hadbeen stuck in uptown traffic when his secretary called to say there had been an accident or attack and it might affect the markets. He was still going into the office in those days, not having learned yet that in an investment bank, "emeritus" translated to "no longer one of us." When the traffic stopped completely, Paul got out of the car. Others were standing outside looking south, some shielding their eyes with their hands, all exchanging useless information. Edith called, sobbing "It's falling down, it's falling down," the nursery-rhyme words, then the mobile network went dead. "Hello? Hello? Honey?" all around, then a silence of Pompeian density so disturbing that Paul was grateful when Sami, his driver, broke it to say, "Oh sir, I hope it's not the Arabs," which of course it would turn out to be.
Oh sir, I hope it's not the Arabs. Sami wasn't Arab, but he was Muslim. (Eighty percent of Muslims were not Arab: this was one of those facts many learned and earnestly repeated in the wake of the attack, without knowing exactly what they were trying to say, or rather knowing that they were trying to say that not all Muslims were as problematic as the Arab ones, but not wanting to say exactly that.) Paul had known his driver was Muslim but never dwelt on it. Now, despite all efforts otherwise, he felt uncomfortable, and three months later, when a sorrowful Samiwas he ever any other way?begged leave to return to Pakistan because his father was dying, Paul was relieved, although he hated to admit it. He promised Sami an excellent recommendation if he returned, politely declined to take on his cousin, and hired a Russian.
The trauma, for Paul, had come later, when he watched the replay, pledged allegiance to the devastation. You couldn't call yourself an American if you hadn't, in solidarity, watched your fellow Americans being pulverized, yet what kind of American did watching create? A traumatized victim? A charged-up avenger? A queasy voyeur? Paul, and he suspected many Americans, harbored all of these protagonists. The memorial was meant to tame them.
Not just any memorial now but the Garden. Paul began his remarks by encouraging the jurors to "go out there and sell it, sell it hard," then, rethinking his word choice, urged them to "advocate" for it instead. The soft patter of the minute-taker's typing filled the interstices of his speech, and the specter of the historical record spurred him to unsteady rhetorical heights. He drew all eyes to a gilded round mirror topped with an eagle shedding its ball and chain.
"Now, as at America's founding, there are forces opposed to the values we stand for, who are threatened by our devotion to freedom." The governor's man alone nodded at Paul's words. "But we have not been bowed, will not be. 'Despotism can only exist in darkness,' James Madison said, and all of you, in working so hard to memorialize the dead, have kept the lights burning in the firmament. You handled a sacred trust with grace and dignity, and your country will feel the benefit."
Time to put a face on the design, a name with it. Another unfamiliar feeling for Paul: avid, almost childlike curiosityglee, evenat that rarity, a genuine surprise. Best if the designer was a complete unknown or a famous artist; either would make for a compelling story to sell the design. He clumsily punched away at a cell phone that sat on the table before him. "Please bring the file for submission number 4879," he said into the phone, enunciating the numbers slowly to avoid misunderstanding. "Four eight seven nine," he repeated, then waited for the digits to be repeated back to him.
The jury's chief assistant entered a few minutes later, aglow with his own importance. His long fingers clasped a slim envelope, eight and a half by eleven inches, sealed as protocol demanded. "I am dying with anticipation," Lanny breathed as he handed the envelope to Paul, who made no reply. The envelope's numbers and bar code matched those of the Garden; the envelope's seal was unbroken. Paul made sure both the jurors and the minute-taker noted this and waited for the reluctant assistant to take his leave.
Once the door shut, Paul picked up the silver letter opener the young man had left behindhe did have a flair for detailand slit the flap, taking care (again, the specter of history) not to tear the envelope. His caution somehow recalled Jacob, his eldest son, at a childhood birthday party, obsessively trying not to rip the wrapping paper, even then misunderstanding where value lay. An impatient Paul had told him to hurry it along.
Hurry it along: the same message from the room's quiet, in which the jurors seemed to breathe as one. He pulled out the paper, sensing thirteen pairs of eyes upon him. To know the winner's identity before the jury, not to mention the mayor or governor or president, should havebeen a small but satisfying token of his stature. What better measure of how high Paul Joseph Rubin, grandson of a Russian Jewish peasant, had climbed? And yet reading the name brought no pleasure, only a painful tightening in his jaw.
A dark horse indeed.
Copyright © 2011 by Amy Waldman
Reading Group Guide
Reimagining 9/11 and its aftermath, Amy Waldman's provocative novel begins with a resonant scene: a jury gathers in Manhattan to choose a memorial for the victims of a devastating Islamic terrorist attack. After tense deliberations, they select the Garden, which features trees both living and made from salvaged steel. Then the jury discovers that the anonymous architect who created the winning design is an American Muslim.
The revelation triggers both fury and ambivalence throughout New York, making the designerthe staunchly independent Mohammed "Mo" Khana symbol of beliefs that seem foreign to him. His most visible defender is Claire Harwell, the only member of the selection committee who lost a loved one in the attack. Cool and eloquent, Claire grows increasingly frustrated by Mo as he stubbornly refuses to answer concerns about the origins or meaning of his design.
At the helm of the memorial project is Paul Rubin, a grandson of Jewish peasants who has risen to a position of influence and wealth. Paul's idea of America is rooted in tolerance, but he must also take into account the emotions of outraged, grieving family members who want him to quash Mo's design. Within the crowds, two powerful voices come to dominate the debate: the widow of an undocumented worker who cleaned offices champions Mo's design, while the brother of a fallen firefighter calls it the worst kind of disrespect. As the emotional rhetoric escalates, The Submission becomes a mesmerizing meditation on the human experience.
Raising profound questions about the impact of 9/11 on the American psyche, The Submission explores the essence of grief and healing. We hope the following questions will enrich your reading group's experience of this stirring debut novel.
1. What do you think the purpose and message of a national memorial should be? Would you have voted for the Void or the Garden?
2. Reread the epigraph. What do its words suggest about the relationship between nature and human nature?
3. As Claire tries to explain the tragedy to William (and, in a way, to Penelope), what does she discover about her own beliefs and feelings?
4. Mo is under considerable pressure to give the "right" reasons when asked why he entered the competition, but he defies simplistic answers. What does his design communicate on its own? For any creative workincluding novelsshould the author's biography matter to us? Do you think he was obligated to explain himself and his design? Why or why not?
5. Chapter 16 begins with a depiction of Mo's hunger and thirst during Ramadan. We're told, "The truth was he didn't know why he was doing it." How does it affect him, a secular skeptic, to join Muslims worldwide in observing the fast?
6. How did your reactions shift as Sean's story unfolded, especially as he struggled with conflicting feelings after pulling Zahira's scarf? Is bigotry excusable if it's coming from someone whose loved one was the victim of a horrific crime? What are the limits of a survivor's rights?
7. Asma's memories of Inam are her private inheritance, and she must rely on translators to convey her messages in English. Did anyone in the novel have a truly accurate understanding of her suffering? How was her mourning experience different from Claire's and Sean's? What common emotions do all of the novel's survivors share?
8. Many of the characters desperately want someone to blame for their loss. The final line of chapter 22, referring to Alyssa, reads, "She is responsible." Ultimately, who is responsible for the tragedies depicted in the novel?
9. What would you have done in Paul Rubin's situation? Was it courageous or insensitive of him to permit Mo's submission to move forward?
10. A journalist, Amy Waldman had special insight into Alyssa's world. What does the novel tell us about the role of the media (exploited by all parties involved) and the impact of a free press in the information age?
11. How does Claire's sense of self change when Jack reappears in her life? Did Cal, despite his wealth, cost her an important part of her identity?
12. Discuss the novel's title. To what (and to whom) must the characters submit? Who are the novel's most and least submissive characters?
13. An uproar erupted in 2010 when Park51, a community center housing a mosque, was proposed for construction two blocks from Ground Zero. What does this conflictand the one described in The Submissionsuggest about how 9/11 might have transformed American society? (Note: Amy Waldman began writing The Submission several years before Park51 was announced.)
14. What makes fiction a powerful way to explore events that shaped our lives? What can a novel achieve that journalism and testimonials can't?
15. In the final "dialogue" between Claire and Mo, orchestrated by Molly and William, is anything resolved? What does the closing image of a cairn show us about the heart of the novel, and the role of future generations in resolving history?
Guide written by Amy Clements / The Wordshop, Inc.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A unique way of re-examining the events following 9/11 through the eyes of a variety of people affected by this tragedy. Stereotypes do us a disservice - this novel reveals real people behind the labels.
This book is set ten years after 9/11. A jury in Manhattan has been assigned the task of selecting a memorial for the victims of the 9/11 attack. Sometimes while reading this book, I felt as though the characters were so real, I should be able to google them and find out more about them. Amy Waldman develops the characters in a heart wrenching and real manner. The conflict of the beautiful submission of an Islamic architect and the jury is only one small conflict. There are conflicts within the families of the victims, between the victim families and within the City of New York. The submission process is questioned, the validity of the jury is questioned, and the strength of American foundation is put to the test. Politicians and journalists cloud the process. This book shows the struggles of people, fighting for their ideals under the urgent quetion of how to remember a national tragedy. This would be a wonderful book club selection.
This is an excellent novel highlighting cultural and religious differences. In a country, and at a time, where many want to impose their own values on different societies, this book improves understanding and shows how unwise and futile those efforts will be. The only negative that I perceived is the author's propensity to use words that require looking up in a dictionary.
Well written, compelling story. On target with the crazies in this country.
This is worth the read. There are a lot of interesting characters and the best and worst of human behavior definitely comes out. I shifted from loving certain characters to despising them by the end. Fascinating and well-written.
Great book. Couldn't put it down
In this thoughtful book, the author tackles a topic that is very important and came to an ugly head while she was probably in the process of writing the book. It certainly makes us think about what kind of a country we want to be and if we can ever get beyond the individual fiefdoms that rule our existence these days and work together as a united people. It would be a great book club book. Lots of discussion value.
This book was very good. I'm wondering still what choice I would make!
This is a book I will have to read again...feel like I missed some points along the way...a fascinating read...
This would be a great book for book clubs.
Good read with complex characters.
Such a compelling story. Definitely opens up a new perspective and once again reminds me that every action creates a reaction. Just a fantastic book
Very well written first novel. Incredibly moving. Naturally, very sad given the subject matter and definitely a book that might make someone close to the 9/11 tragedy (as most who knew people in NYC at the time were) cry a bit, but well worth reading. It's sad to see the truth of the way Muslims were treated after the 9/11 tragedy portrayed so well, but it'd be nice if more people could get the point of the novel. Maybe someday...
Good book, but becomes repetitious. I was able to skip 50 pages in the middle and pick up without missing major elements. Story of the 911 memorial. A jury picks the winner, but does not make the announcement public, only to find that the winner is a Muslim. A reporter gets wind of the story and all hell breaks loose. Ultimately, the woman who was in favor of his design changes her mind and becomes the negative force and ends up dissatisfied with the implemented design. The winner finds himself persona non grata and becomes a very successful architect, but working in Europe and Asia. Periferral damage comes to a number of survivor families.
The premise is intriguing. A contest is held to select a design for a 9/11 memorial where the two towers stood. The winner, a design for a garden, is chosen anonymously, but once it has been selected, they realize the designer is Muslim and there is an immediate outcry from the public. The cast of characters is diverse. There¿s Paul, a Jewish lawyer who is in charge of the jury that selects the design for the memorial. Then we have Mohammad Khan, the architect whose design is chosen. He was born in Virginia and is an American. Asma is the widow of a man who was killed in the two towers on 9/11. She is living in America illegally, but her son was born in the USA. Claire is also a 9/11 widow and is a member of the jury that selects the memorial design and is the garden¿s earliest advocate. Alyssa is a reporter who continually weasels her way into each breaking story, throwing gas on the fire. Sean lost his brother on 9/11, but the tragedy has finally given him some focus in life. He now lends his time and energy to 9/11 causes. The book¿s greatest strength is that it shows the issue from such wonderfully different perspectives. Allowing the readers to see it from so many angles fleshing out the controversy and gives it real weight. We meet a wide variety of people from diverse walks of life. Seeing it through their eyes opens our own. Writing it this way is essential to make the story work. It becomes a stepping stone to open discussions instead of preaching one view point at us. There is no hero or villain, just people struggling with an impossible situation where emotions are raw with grief and everyone is tense. The controversy isn't really about his design, it's about his religion. As one reporter thinks, ¿No one cared about the design, didn¿t her get that?¿ I was really glad that Mo wasn¿t turned into a saint that¿s simply caught in the cross hairs. I thinks it¿s important he feels like a real person, flawed, like anyone else, with selfish thoughts and a flaring temper. He¿s a normal guy with ambitions. The only subplot I wasn't a fan of was Sean's. I felt like his whole story was weak and uninteresting. SPOILERS For me, it was crucial that the book end the way it did. If it had ended in the midst of the pressure and stress of the situation, I don¿t think it would have meant so much to me. I needed to know what the characters felt about the situation once they had some distance from it and they weren¿t caught up in the fury of the events. I wanted to know what happened to Asma¿s son and what he thought about what happened. Ending it 20 years later gave me closure and felt just right. SPOILERS OVER The book makes you wonder what you would do in this situation. It¿s not black and white and there¿s no clear right and wrong because there are so many feelings involved. One New Yorker (in the book) talks about his mind thinking one thing and his heart feeling another, he¿s ashamed to feel suspicious, but he can¿t help it. What is America if not a melting pot that defies labels? When you mix such incredibly different cultures together, you¿re bound to have underlying prejudices based on centuries of feuds. The plot also makes you look at what your own assumptions about people are and it makes you question how easily you are swayed by sensational news coverage. I think this is a wonderful book, one of my favorites so far this year. I don¿t think this is a book that everyone will enjoy. It¿s tense and political. I think you could also say it manipulates your emotions, but for me, it was excellent. ¿`It¿s falling down, it¿s falling down,¿the nursery-rhyme words, then the mobile network went dead. `Hello? Hello? Honey?¿ all around, then a silence of Pompeian density.¿ ¿Jealousy clings to love¿s underside like bats to a bridge.¿ ¿¿ which had seemed so monumental at the time, had turned out to be only a small fragment of the mosaic of his life.¿ ¿Perhaps this was the secret to being at peace: want nothing but what is given to you.¿
¿[...]The attack made everyone afraid of appearing unpatriotic, of questioning government leaders. Fear has justified war, torture, secrecy, all kinds of violations of rights and liberties. Don¿t let it justify taking the memorial away from Khan. Everything these past couple of years has been about abdications. Don¿t succumb to the fear; don¿t mistake the absolutism of Khan¿s opponents for morality¿¿ -from The Submission, page 226 -Two years after the 9-11 tragedy, a group of jurors has been selected to choose a memorial design to occupy the space where the twin towers once stood. The jurors include art critics and one family member still reeling from the death of her husband. The submissions are anonymous to the jurors ¿ they have only the designs and no names to make their final decision. After a contentious process, one design is finally chosen and the name of the designer is finally revealed¿Mohammad Khan, an American born Muslim. Khan¿s selection ignites a firestorm of protest. Should a Muslim be allowed to design this memorial which touches the hearts of so many Americans? Does one¿s religion define who they are? Thus begins Amy Waldman¿s provocative and deeply emotional novel.Told in multiple points of view, The Submission takes a searing look at one of the most traumatic events in American history and examines our prejudices and fears seated in religious ideology, patriotism, and collective grief. Claire Burwell, the lone family member on the jury, is a complex character who initially fights for Khan¿s design. But political pressure and media propaganda work on her emotions, making her doubt her convictions. Khan himself is an enigmatic character ¿ a man who doubts his religion and then discovers it matters not what he believes so much as the label attached to him.What was he trying to see? He had been indifferent to the buildings when they stood, preferring more fluid forms to their stark brutality, their self-conscious monumentalism. But he had never felt violent toward them, as he sometimes had toward that awful Verizon building on Pearl Street. Now he wanted to fix their image, their worth, their place. They were living rebukes to nostalgia, these Goliaths that had crushed small businesses, vibrant streetscapes, generational continuities, and other romantic notions beneath their giant feet. Yet it was nostalgia he felt for them. A skyline was a collaboration, if an inadvertent one, between generations, seeming no less natural than a mountain range that had shuddered up from the earth. This new gap in space reversed time. ¿ from The Submission, page 32 -Waldman includes several engaging characters including a rabid journalist who is willing to twist the truth for a story, a power-hungry politician who finds the controversy is very good for votes, a radical anti-Islamic extremist, and a Muslim woman who is in America illegally and who is mourning her husband who worked as a janitor in the doomed towers.This is an affecting novel which uses one question to propel its complicated plot. I found the title itself to be fascinating as it alludes to not only the design which is ¿the submission,¿ but also examines the process of judgement and the struggle for a common ground which unfurls throughout the novel. Synonyms for the word submission include: appeasement, assent, backing down, giving in, humility, resignation, and surrender. And, indeed, these are words which resonate in the story. Khan is forced to examine his motivations for submitting his design in the face of pressure to step down and give up the commission.Waldman also explores creative inspiration. From where do our artistic renderings come? Is inspiration a simple process, or does it encompass experience, ideology and something less tangible which is difficult to define? Some characters in The Submission insist on labeling Khan¿s design as anti-American and read intent where none may exist. Khan himself seems, at times, to wrestle
This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. The story is very well developed, each character well realized and sympathetic (or not, as the story requires), and the way the plot plays out is very satisfying. I thought the ending was very well done, true to the characters and the story. The book also stands out for the beauty of the language, and the author's ability to find the perfect figure of speech.
There are so many good reviews of this book that I am just going to put down a few thoughts.I thought the book good and I think it would be especially good for a book group or book club as I think it would generate a great deal of lively discussion.I also felt that we were left hanging in a few areas of the story. But it was very thought provoking and insightful. I gave it 3 1/2 out of 5 stars and recommend it.
A lot of things have changed in the world since 9/11, and not much of it good. We are more suspicious of each other, less tolerant, unsympathetic and let¿s face it, more frightened than before that fateful day. Not easy stuff to build a global society on. In this superbly intelligent novel, Amy Walkman has drawn an amazingly realistic picture of America¿s fears and prejudices left by the fall of the twin towers. As a hand picked jury plays out a power struggle to select a proper and fitting memorial for the site, it soon becomes apparent that few are untouched by the tragedy and its backlash. A memorial is essential for both the city and the nation to recover. But when the news that the winning submission is the creation of a Muslim, the healing process is quickly halted and New Yorkers from all corners take up arms. Families of the victims falter, American Muslims are forced to the fringe and politicians scramble to stay above a growing heap of hostility and xenophobia. It soon appears that the building of cenotaph could create more damage than good.Waldman has done a brilliant job of casting. She has woven the social populace of New York beautifully into this story, encompassing the top brass right down to the illegals. The social comment is strong and the turn of every page has you pondering the human capacity to reason or not to reason. Our choices are clear, but will we as a global community ever be able to make the right one? If you like well written, thought provoking fiction you¿ll like The Submission.
The setting of this novel is Manhattan, America after 9/11 has happened. A competition has taken place to design a memorial to honour those who died in the terrorist attack. Entries are to be anonymous and a committee, including family member Claire, who lost her husband in the attack, has been formed to choose the winner. What a shock it is to them when the winning entry turns out to be a beautiful garden designed by an ambitious Muslim architect Mohammad Khan. Claire likes and supports his entry. The book follows the ramifications when the committee's decision is accidently leaked to the public. Claire is under pressure from the different sections of the community to change her mind. The perspectives of all of the sections of the community, the jurors, the news reporters (only after a good story), the activists and the family members are all very well portrayed. This book is a great read. Unfortunately beleivable and very thought provoking.
Amy Waldman's "The Submission" is set two years after 9/11. The committee tasked with selecting a memorial design has chosen, and when the designer is revealed he is a Muslim. The committee then grapples with what to do, as the city becomes embroiled in a controversy about whether or not a Muslim should be "allowed" to design the Memorial. The novel examines our prejudices and the dark underside of American society.I had a hard time getting into and appreciating this novel, mainly because it's central theme was so close to the negativity and conflict that surrounds us in America on an everday basis. I believe the novel was believable and well written, it just wasn't a topic that I felt a good connection with. I also felt like most of the characters were unlikable and flat, which made it hard for me to empathize with them. Perhaps I'm just not a good reader for a ripped from the headlines type novel since I pay so much attention to current affairs.
The Submission, Amy Waldman¿s debut novel, is a straight forward look at the raw emotion and political scheming generated by the mass murder that rocked this country on September 11, 2001. The novel, set two years after that event, begins just as a jury is to vote on the design of a national memorial for the victims of the terrorist attack that claimed their lives. Each of the designs has its backers, and the vote is a close one, but the jury unites behind its choice until the winner of the ¿blind vote¿ turns out to be an architect by the name of Mohammed Kahn.Outrage, skepticism, and confusion quickly surface even within this jury composed of artists, prominent business people, a relative of one of the victims, and several politically influential citizens. It helps little that Mohammed Kahn prefers to be called ¿Mo¿ or that he drifted away from his religion years earlier ¿ his motivation for entering the contest and the influences on his winning design are going to be questioned. Members of the jury hope to find a solution before the winner¿s identity becomes public, but when Kahn¿s name is leaked to the press, public outrage at the jury¿s choice is immediate and loud.The plot of The Submission is more concerned with how individuals respond to, and are impacted by, a situation like this one than with what the jury will ultimately decide to do about their Muslim winner. Waldman tells the story primarily through the eyes of two main characters: Mohammed Kahn and Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow with two small children to raise. Burwell, who was the chief advocate for Kahn¿s winning design before the jury members knew his identity, is initially his strongest and most vocal defender. But when Kahn stubbornly refuses to answer the frank questions asked by the jury, she begins to doubt his avowed reason for having entered the competition.Readers who have kept up with recent controversies such as the building of a ¿World Trade Center Mosque¿ will not be much surprised by what Waldman has to say in The Submission. They will have already heard from people in the real world like Kahn, Burwell, and Waldman¿s cast of less developed characters that includes a ruthless newspaper reporter, wild-eyed talk show hosts, apologists who hold America responsible for the 9/11 slaughter of its citizens, and politicians milking America¿s new found patriotism for personal gain. Importantly, however, the book tells a good story that makes it easy for its readers to consider points of view they may otherwise have never taken into account.My one disappointment with The Submission involves its rather contrived (and convenient) ending. Because I do not want to spoil that ending for others, I will only say that, for me, the story¿s resolution detracts from its realistic tone and lessens its emotional impact. That said, I do recommend The Submission ¿ particularly for discussion by book clubs- because it requires its readers to think for themselves a little.Rated at: 4.0
Started slow, but ended up as a compelling story, as well as an interesting examination of some of the issues and emotions sparked by 9/11. Set two years after 9/11, the novel posits an architectural competition set up to choose the design for a memorial at the sight. The entries are anonymous, and when the envelope is opened -- lo and behold, the winner is a Muslim. An American Muslim, yes, but still a Muslim.The novel looks at the reaction to this event from many different perspectives -- those of politicos, those of relatives of the 9/11 victims, those of American Muslims of several different stripes, and those of the architect himself. Some of the motivations are a little vague, and some of the characters a little flat, but the author has rejected the temptation (with her major characters, at least) to provide characterization in lieu of characters. Some reviewers have noted that it is hard to like any of the characters very much, but I did get more and more interested in them as the novel proceeded -- particularly in the character of the architect. Some of the difficulty in liking the characters may be because this is in large part a novel of ideas, rather than a novel of characters pure and simple. The characters aren't simple, and the issues are still very much alive. This week, I went to an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York on New York Activism. The last section is devoted to post 9/11 anti-Muslim and pro-Muslim activism, and it is very clear that the issue has not yet been resolved.
Amy Waldman's debut novel about a Muslim architect whose design is chosen for New York's 9-11 memorial is tailor-made for book discussion groups, but it's more subtle than a didactic "issue" novel. In brief, the (blind) selection of a Muslim's design causes a political and cultural firestorm, and while some of the players are predictable, others are presented with interesting complexity. The politicians and journalists are mostly odious, and provide some of the black comic relief. The architect, Mo Kahn, is secular, apolitical, ambitious and depending on your view, either principled or stubborn. His counterpoint is Claire Burwell, a 9-11 widow on the memorial jury, whose early defense of Kahn and his design falters when the media trumpets an Islamist conspiracy theory pretty much out of wholecloth.With a good balance of sociological observation and close depiction of characters' emotions, it's an involving story with an important theme. It's making my best of 2011 list, for sure.