What Just Happened?

Illustration by Jeffrey Decoster

Amy Waldman’s The Submission is a curious literary cryptogram, a novel that genuinely seems not to know how novel it wants to be. Not a nonfiction novel, not a documentary novel, neither a historical satire nor a memoir that flirts with fiction, it’s more like a simulation, a simulacrum, of our very recent history—a work of fiction that constructs, with painstaking plausibility, an only slightly altered version of the past decade. This plausibility is so complete that—in a kind of perfect irony, for a book so consumed with the mechanics of news cycles and the pitfalls of modern media—it has been comprehensively scooped. Written largely before last summer’s Park51 ground-zero-mosque fiasco but published a year later, it accomplishes the rare feat of being prescient after the fact, a counterfactual novel that turns out to be accurate in all the details that matter.

The Submission begins two years after September 11, at the moment a fictional memorial jury selects, in an anonymous competition, a design submitted by an American-born architect named Mohammad Khan. Once this news reaches the press, what follows is so familiar, so pre-scripted, it could be predicted by anyone who reads the paper: Families are outraged, screechers descend, the mayor defends, the governor attacks, the power brokers attempt a compromise. Khan’s design, a garden featuring etchings of the victims’ names, is labeled “Islamic,” a “martyr’s paradise,” a “victory garden”—interpretations he refuses to deny.

Waldman was a New York Times reporter who covered September 11 and its aftermath, in New York and South Asia, and her greatest asset here is her ability to walk through walls. She’s as convincing in an apartment full of Bangladeshi immigrants as she is among the martini-quaffing suits in midtown. Every player in The Submission gets equal time: Muslims argue over what it means to be Muslim; victims argue over their grief; liberals wring their hands over tolerance, compassion, patriotism, and civil liberties; and reporters scurry around pouring gasoline on the flames. Only in its neat conclusion does the novel begin to strain our credulity. A Muslim woman whose undocumented husband was one of the invisible victims of the attack speaks out at a public hearing and is later stabbed to death, presumably by an Islamophobic madman. Negotiations between Khan and the jury fall apart, and Khan goes into voluntary exile, becoming a success designing buildings for emirs in the Middle East, and a kitschy Garden of Flags is put up in his wake.

One might think, reading this description, that Waldman is pursuing what the critic Vladimir Shklovsky famously admired in Tolstoy and called “defamiliarization”—showing the reader a dance, a battle, a man riding a horse, as if for the first time. But Waldman’s uncanny ability to re-create the immediate past in fact achieves the opposite effect. Her worldview so perfectly mirrors the Manhattan Zeitgeist—dramatic and newsworthy conversations at every turn, layered with sound bites and op-ed-ready digressions—that The Submission reads like a perfectly achieved magazine feature. That is, not defamiliarization but refamiliarization, i.e., kitsch, like visiting a wax museum and contemplating how much effort, how much human skill, went into making those uncanny replicas.

This is particularly true of Mohammad Khan, the architect at the center of the drama, who enrages everyone by refusing to answer their questions—any of them. It’s a persuasive and admirable portrait in ways but, in the end, a deeply unsettling one. Waldman never raises the possibility that Khan, like so many other players in the drama, might simply be too insulated by his own privilege, and too protected by his place within the aristocracy of global taste, to grasp the paradoxical nature of memorializing a calamity so soon afterward, and in the midst of two ongoing wars. The architect fits so neatly into the book’s puzzle that we begin to suspect he has been assembled, Frankenstein-like, out of press clippings, as a Perfect Muslim any guilty liberal can love. A New Yorker might well read The Submission before bed and wake up the next morning believing it actually happened. If the book were nonfiction, it would belong on a shelf of the most celebrated reporting of the era.

Of course, The Submission is not nonfiction, however much it mimics it; it’s a novel, and we have to ask, simply, Why? The Submission carries with it some of those Aaron Sorkin–esque pleasures, familiar from The West Wing and Charlie Wilson’s War and delivered too by The Informant! and Frost/Nixon and W: the burnished gloss of the writing, the elaborately choreographed scenes, the feeling of being present in an inner sanctum where Important Things are happening. Re­enactments, that is, that recapitulate recent history as comforting melodrama—or farce. What’s most disturbing about this recapitulation is how little it reveals about the atmosphere of life in New York, and the nation, in 2003. The fast-ticking clock of the narrative hardly allows Khan or anyone else to survey the streets, ride the subways, stroll through the parks, or get drunk and watch Seinfeld reruns. In this novel about political gamesmanship, actual politics hardly ever intrudes. We hear no one speculating about how to drive Bush out of office, or where Cheney is hiding in his secret bunker; nothing about Alert Level Orange or sealing the windows with duct tape.

This inability to step outside its own pressure chamber explains why The Submission, while finely crafted and expertly designed, fails the test Ezra Pound proposed last century: that literature be news that stays news. (It’s an especially stark test for a novel about memorialization.) Instead, it illustrates how easily we are seduced—in fiction or, more chillingly, in “fact”—by the familiar; how easy it is to mistake detail for depth and plausibility for insight. In the last pages of the novel, a documentary filmmaker asks Mohammad Khan to interpret some lines from the Koran etched into a new version of his garden, and Khan instructs us: “Use your imagination.”

Correction: This article originally mischaracterized a sequence of events in the novel: It was not a day after speaking out at a public hearing but several days later that a Muslim woman was stabbed to death, and her killer was never identified in the book as an Islamophobe.

The Submission
By Amy Waldman.
FSG. $26.

What Just Happened?