Quick Take: in 2003, a small group of people is tasked with selecting the design for the 9/11 memorial. Finally agreeing upon the Garden, they learn the architect’s name: Mohammed Khan, an American Muslim.
Makes Me Want To: Read it again and have most everyone I know read it. See the Garden.
My Thoughts: This will be one of my favorite reads of the year. I adore Waldman’s prose (see some of my favorite quotes after the jump) and this is a beautiful, thoughtful, thought-provoking-in-a-good-way, amazing novel. I wish we could bring such intelligence and insight to all discourse in our country, be it political, religious, cultural or all of the above.
The third person narrative switches between chapters, so we get a better sense of the events from multiple perspectives. The more prominent characters are Claire, a 9/11 widow selected to represent the families on the jury choosing the memorial, and Mo the architect whose submission was selected. We also go inside the minds of Paul, the politically-appointed head of the jury; Sean, a hot tempered, somewhat lost man whose firefighter brother was killed in the attacks; Alyssa, a journalist (or tabloid muckraker, if you prefer); and Asma, an illegal immigrant whose husband (another illegal immigrant) was killed in the attacks.
It would be easier for a writer to play favorites among her characters and their views, but aside from Alyssa, Waldman evokes empathy and sympathy, if not agreement, for each of her characters and their positions. Somewhere along the way, we lost that ability to understand without agreeing. Asking us to do so again is one of the many reasons I was so moved by The Submission. It also led me to reflect and explore my own beliefs and responses. Here’s an example.
At a dinner with a former boyfriend, Claire explains that she’s trying to see everyone’s viewpoint, even those who are condemning the garden and Mo because of bigotry, racism, religious discrimination, etc. Her companion responds, “Some things don’t deserve to be understood. Apartheid didn’t deserve to be understood, even if the whites who benefited from it didn’t see it that way” (200). My original reaction was yes, absolutely. Apartheid didn’t deserve to be understood, neither should violent anti-Muslim sentiment. Then I thought about it some more. That attitude is what leads some of the detractors to so strongly oppose Mo and his submission. They don’t want to understand the Garden, or him, or even Islam. It’s not worth the time or effort. Do all ideas deserve the same level of understanding? Probably not. But to some extent, we have to understand the opposing viewpoints or we can’t reach a reconciliation. We can’t move forward.
I also love the title and the various interpretations I brought to it. Quite simply, the Submission is Mo’s garden–his design for the memorial. One of the translations of Islam is submission. Submission to god. This is evidenced by the prayers of Muslims in which they quite literally bow their heads and submit to god. I also thought of submission in relation to Mo. It is not his nature to submit. He’s not a religious Muslim, he does not submit to god, but he also does not submit to others. His attitude reminded me of Joan Allen in The Contender. As a nominee for Vice President, she won’t respond to certain allegations because if she were a man, the questions would not be asked. If Mo were not a Muslim, the questions would not be asked. This could be read as arrogance, but as another character muses “maybe arrogance is necessary for greatness” (272).
I don’t know if Waldman is arrogant. I suspect not, since her writing is brilliant yet also subtle, but she is certainly great, and The Submission is a work of greatness.
My favorite quotes about art, Mo, Claire and the Garden itself are after the jump.
“The Garden has order, which its geometry manifests, for a reason, which is that it’s an answer to the disorder that was inflicted on us. It’s not meant to look like nature. Or like confusion, which is what the attack left behind. If anything, it’s meant to evoke the layout of the city it will sit in” (139).
“She had been shaped, was being shaped, not only by those she met on her journey but also by how she lost them” (204).
“He carried his own path within him” (139).
“But sometimes America has to be pushed—it has to be reminded of what it is.” (His response to his father’s question if America can accept Muslims)
“Yet these objects were reflections of faith, meant to express diving principles visibly, and so suggest the invisible. Sometimes, studing them, or the complex geometry he spun from computre algorithms, he would sense himself on the edge of something vast, awesome, infinite. Then the feeling would be gone. He didn’t know whether the makers of these objects were merely executing their patrons’ wishes, or had found their way to God, or were looking with their hands, their minds. He wondered the same about himself. If he was ever to find his way to belief, it would not be through fasting, or even through prayer, but through his craft. In the meantime his creations served the belief of others” (293).
“It’s not about like, it’s about the fate of art in a democracy…They don’t like Khan’s religion or what is design might or might not mean. Empower the public this way, and anything ugly or challenging or difficult or produced by a member of an out-of-favor group will be fair game” (236).
“You look at the creation, not the creator…you judge the paintings as works of art, and Picasso as a man. There’s no inconsistency in loving one and reviling the other” (272).