Amy Waldman said at a special lecture at Kalamazoo College that she is interested in “fiction wrestling with the times we live in.” In her debut novel, The Submission, Waldman wrestles with the xenophobia heightened in the aftermath of 9/11.
The story revolves around the selection of memorial to be designed for the victims of the terrorist attacks. But when the architect of the anonymous submission turns out to be a Muslim man, latent prejudices rise to the surface. An emblem intended to unify a broken nation serves as a catalyst that instead deepens personal and political wounds.
Waldman interweaves the stories and perspectives of different characters including the architect Mohammed Khan, the reporter who broke the story, and family members of different victims of the attacks. Setting up these various threads takes up nearly half of the book, and makes for a sluggish start. Not until the narratives begin to overlap does the reader decide to fully invest in the characters and their stories.
However, investment should be used as a loose term; curiosity more so than genuine emotional interest in the characters’ fates propels the reader forward. This is primarily due to Waldman’s style of disaffected prose. A former correspondent for the New York Times, Waldman proves she is a good journalist, but not necessarily an effective novelist. She reports their personal histories and comments on her characters’ feelings, offering readers more of a profile than a person to relate to.
The conclusion of the novel would have done well to occur before the epilogue, which seems to diminish any resonance gleamed from the resolution of the conflict. The added material tidied up the mess that made the book at all interesting in the first place. Waldman already broke decorum writing about religion and politics, but seemed afraid of complicating these notions with a more ambiguous ending.
Writing about any sort of large-scale tragedy is a daunting task and requires an acute balance of emotion and reverence. Waldman, it seems, tipped to the side of the ladder, forgetting that when it comes to “wrestling with the times we live in,” it’s the blood, sweat, and tears that make it a fight worth fighting…or at least a book worth reading.