It seems appropriate that given the approaching 10 year anniversary of 9/11, Amy Waldman gives us the perfect novel to make sense of it and the world that followed.
In the Age of Hysteria that succeeded 9/11, most Americans have populated their worlds with flat, two-dimensional characters. What do I mean by that? That we are inclined to pre-judge people on single word epithets: Republican, Christian, Liberal, Commie, Feminist, Blogger, Lawyer and so on. Certainly, one can argue that we do this more and more because we are encouraged to by the arbiters of power: by the government, by the media, by community leaders, and so on.
In "The Submission," Waldman aims to challenge this tendency, to show that it's not useful, that it reduces humans to even less than the sum of their parts. Not only that, these oversimplifications warp our very insides until we barely resemble the humans we imagine ourselves to be.
The story is simple: there is an anonymous submission process to build the 9/11 memorial, and at the end of the search, the winner is revealed to be an American-born Muslim by the name of Mohammad Khan.
I don't need to tell you that this is controversial. Waldman, in what must have been a tremendously masochistic act, delves deep into the implications for the widows, for the firefighters, for non-violent Muslims and for the media. All receive the sharp end of her pen, but perhaps no one more than the media establishment, with its NY Post hysteria and Glenn Beck-a-likes.
When the novel introduced its central conceit, I thought I knew what the right answer was. It was very easy for me to say that the identity of the artist is irrelevant, it's the art that matters. But Waldman is not content to let my armchair liberalism lie undisturbed.
Let's return to the core truth of the Age of Hysteria, that it's easy to make decisions about people if you reduce them to single attributes. If you see Mo Khan as a Muslim, and not as a human being with the same hopes, dreams and frustrations as any other American, then it becomes easier to deny your own stated values to make a politically expedient decision.
But Waldman chooses to deepen all of her characters, not just Mo, not just the grieving widow, but even the bureaucratic flaks who usually get blamed for screwing this stuff up. In fact, as Waldman filled in the characters, my frustration with the situation at hand deepened more and more until I faced the same dilemma as all of the characters: what exactly is the right thing to do in this situation? And this in spite of my earlier certainty: that the identity of the artist is irrelevant.
As you work through all the different concerns, represented by different players in the novel, you find yourself judging every aspect of every character, their moral righteousness, their ethics, the legality, how willing they are to undermine "the process," the purest considerations of politics, and then, fundamentally, is each character's stated opinion even true to their own values? It becomes nearly impossible to judge certain characters' actions apart from their motivations, apart from the circumstances that brought them to the decision.
And so, when the jury is steered by pathos to what I would consider the right decision in this instance, I couldn't help but hate them for being so easily manipulated by a sensational act. I may not agree with, and probably despise, the characters who stand on the other side, but at least they've come to their decisions with considerable soul-searching and genuine pain.
This tug-of-war between a character's inner-life and their actions can be complicated for an author to bring to life without turning the character into a bunch of hypocrites. But Waldman largely succeeds in doing so.
She seems to have written the novel the way that David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest, constructing it like a Sierpinski gasket.
The large triangles are the broad stereotypes she uses as her playthings: the ambitious governor, the secular Muslim, the 9/11 widow, the angry firefighter, and so on.
But small details sell the story; they set up the expectations. For instance, intrepid reporter Alyssa Spiers is introduced a sort of real-life Veronica Mars, a Nancy Drew for the post-9/11 age. But little things mar her character: we learn that her ambition lacks grounding in honor or ethics, we learn that she is racist in subtle ways (like when she calls Curry Hill "Curry Hell" because of the resident Indian community).
Even Claire Burwell, the 9/11 widow the story focusses on, eventually succumbs to her prejudices in spite of being introduced as the only character with a conscience. Watching her give up on her ideals is heartbreaking, but Waldman skillfully navigates us through Claire's dis-enlightenment, to the point that you can't help but wonder if you'd fall prey as well.
But no matter what expectations you brought with you into the book, the last 1/4 will bely all of them. That there would be violence is perhaps to be expected, but not like this. That Waldman makes so definitive a statement in the end about who the villain is was also unexpected. But it's certainly possible that it only seems definitive to me.
Part of me believes that this novel ought to be required reading for all Americans, as the ultimate test of how strong their belief in the imagined construction of the United States really is, about how truly they hold the values of the Constitution close, about freedom of speech, about freedom of religion, about the very relevance of values.
But part of me believes that the Age of Hysteria is the wrong time for these values to be tested.
All this is a long-winded way for me to say one basic thing; I believe that Amy Waldman has written one of the Great American Novels. I do not come to praise Waldman, but to bury this era of hate and intolerance that was born of 9/11. I'd like to think that if more people were aware of the contradictions within themselves, of their very complexity, of the very real fears that guide their outward prejudices, then perhaps they can be better people.
Can a novel really cause such intense self-reflection? I can't say for sure, but I think if any novel can, this one will.
P.S. Don't let me put you off the novel by discussing its importance. I have no shame in saying that it made me cry (not just tear up, but full on bawl) on 4 separate occasions. It made me laugh out loud twice as many times.
Let me know what you think of it!