Waldman's 'Submission': Ground Zero drama

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THE SUBMISSION, by Amy Waldman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 299 pp., $26.

Set in post-9/11 Manhattan and published to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the attacks, this debut novel by a veteran New York Times reporter is a morality tale about intolerance and ambition. It opens at a meeting of the jury impaneled to choose the design for a memorial at Ground Zero. Along with art-world hotshots, the group contains one representative of the victims' families -- Claire Burwell, a soignée widow with a blond chignon and two newly fatherless children. Claire is a passionate advocate of a design that features a walled garden with both real trees and steel ones, and a pagoda at the vertex of intersecting canals. When her horse wins, and the envelope is opened to reveal the identity of the designer, the trouble starts. His name is Mohammed Khan.

Born in Virginia, Khan is a secular Muslim and an architect at a prestigious firm. That won't matter to those who see the idea of a Muslim-American creating this monument as sheer blasphemy. Those people include Sean Gallagher, a troubled schmo who lost his firefighter brother and has used the tragedy as steppingstone to a more meaningful life as a leader of the victims' families' activist group. But eventually, even the Muslim American Coordinating Council urges Kahn to withdraw his design, after rumors that it is meant to be a "martyr's paradise" send anti-Muslim sentiment soaring to higher levels than ever.

Strongest and cruelest are Waldman's portraits of politicians and the media. A photo of opportunistic governor Geraldine Bitman after she has learned of the faux pas committed by her commission has the "glow of a woman in love, or one who has just found an issue that could catapult her to national prominence." The most obvious villain of the story is an unethical, desperately self-seeking reporter named Alyssa Spiers, who leaves the Daily News for the New York Post when the latter won't run her early scoop on the "Mystery Muslim." "Alyssa had always looked down on the Post," Waldman writes, "just as she knew the Times reporters looked down on her." But she is soon to exploit the power and influence of tabloid reporting to its fullest extent, creating tragedies for which she shares responsibility.

Waldman doesn't dump all the blame at the Post's door. The New York Times Arts section runs a front-page story headlined "A Lovely Garden -- and an Islamic One?" The article explains that the four quadrants, the water features and the pavilion of Khan's design are similar to gardens in Spain, Iran, India and Afghanistan -- all over the Islamic world. "Some might say the designer is mocking us, or playing with his religious heritage," it goes on to suggest. The Weekly Standard and The New Yorker have their own doubts and criticisms to air; the media parodies, including wicked New York Post page-one headlines, are one of the lighter pleasures of the book.

With all these villains, who is the hero? No one, really. Mo Khan is an interesting, intelligent guy, but -- as his original supporter Claire Burwell comes to feel very strongly -- there's something disturbing in his stonewalling when he is asked over and over again to clarify the inspiration and meaning of his design. He, too, seems to be mainly out for himself and his career.

Waldman gives the most heart to Asma, an illegal immigrant who lost her husband, a janitor, in the attacks, and is given a secret settlement by the reparations commission. Her struggles buying rice and getting along with her neighbors are portrayed with more sympathy than, say, the loneliness of the widow Burwell on her 40th birthday. Asma's courage in standing up at a public hearing to become one of Khan's sole supporters provides the one stand-up-and-cheer moment in the narrative.

The book ends with the kind of tragedy that books about prejudice often end with, a bloody one, followed by an epilogue that jumps 20 years into the future to give a look at how it all turned out, a none-too-cheery "where are they now?" "The Submission" is a very readable book, and Waldman has an insider's understanding of the media and of politics. The hopelessness at the heart of this tale seems to come from observing those two vicious animals for too long.


EXCERPT: 'The Submission' by Amy Waldman

"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 course -- lost 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 been easy. 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 touch -- reminders 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 the families -- so jingoistic, so literal-minded -- might 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 poem -- George Herbert -- with 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 we -- where the widows, their children, anyone -- can 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 visits -- no matter how attenuated their link in time or geography to the attack -- understands 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 honest -- it 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.

Excerpted from "The Submission" by Amy Waldman, to be published in August 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Amy Waldman. All rights reserved.

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