The Submission: A Novel by Amy Waldman--When I reviewed That Day in September, the lovely Wendy mentioned this book as a candidate for a good companion read. I hadn't heard anything about it before that, even though it has garnered quite a bit of acclaim, but I was definitely intrigued. Well, it took a few months, but it did finally make its way to the top of my reading list.
I didn't LOVE this book, but I did find it interesting; and by the time I was done reading I was definitely curious about how closely this fictional novel mirrored the actual events surrounding the design selection for a September 11 memorial. A quick look at The National September 11 Memorial and Museum web site leads me to believe that the general memorial competition and selection process described in the book was probably pretty accurate. In 2003, thousands of designers submitted plans, and a Memorial Jury was in charge of making the final design selection. The book adds a twist though: the winning submission was designed by a Muslim, and, as you can imagine, here is where the trouble begins.
Now, maybe that part happened in real life too and we just never heard about it. If so, then the real-life jury was better at sweeping things under the carpet than the jury in this book. Either that, or they made contingency plans ahead of time for just such an occasion...which brings up the question, what is the proper contingency plan for something like this?
What if a Muslim wins a design competition for a memorial honoring all the people who were killed by Muslim terrorists? Should Muslims have been excluded from the competition? Well, of course not, you couldn't come right out and say that, even two years after the September 11 attacks. Besides, certainly some Muslims lost their lives in those attacks, and their families are surely mourning just as much as anyone else's. What if the designer won't answer any questions about his design, a design that has what some people consider Islamic elements? What if his design is really a memorial to the brave terrorists who died that day? What if it isn't? What if it's just a beautiful design that evoked a sense of healing in the one family member who served on the jury? Should he have to answer questions like this when the same design could have been submitted by a non-Muslim without anyone questioning its "real" meaning?
These questions and more are explored in this book, and it makes for a thought-provoking read. Unfortunately, I also found it extremely frustrating. Many of the characters seemed very one-sided, almost like caricatures; I kept thinking, Is the author trying to annoy the hell out of me with these characters? What idiots! Who acts like this? but then I realized that so many of the people we see in the media act exactly like this. It's the extreme radio shock jocks who will say anything to incite debate, the reporters who will run any story no matter how ill-gotten the information and no matter the potential consequences, the people who will fight based on personal belief, no matter what the actual facts might be, the conspiracy theorists. So, then the frustrating thing started to be that, yeah, this is probably exactly how this would go down.
I have to say that I couldn't come up with a decisive answer after reading this book. As annoyed as I was with a lot of the characters in this book, I could also understand where many of them were coming from. I know that today, not having lost anyone in the September 11 attacks, I would say that, absolutely, the winning design should be the winning design, regardless of who designed it. I can't however say that I wouldn't have felt differently if I had lost someone in that attack. I'd like to say that I would still be able to maintain an objective, all-Americans-deserve-the-same-chance attitude, but I don't know if that's true or not. I don't know if I would have been overcome by my own fears and anger, especially a mere two years out.
So, even though I didn't LOVE this book, I still think it's a worthy read. I'd also recommend checking out the book's web site. I went there looking for more information about the inspiration for this story, and I kept getting frustrated. It took me a liiiitle longer than it should have to realize that you can click on all the pictures that come up on the home page, so let me save you some frustration: you can click on all the pictures that come up on the home page.