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The Submission: A Novel

The Submission - Amy Waldman In trying to assign a number of stars to this book, I was in a quandary. If it was on content, I would probably give it no more than a 3; an engaging quick read, on the surface, it seems to simply be a replay of some old themes surrounding 9/11. However, after completing the book and thinking about many of the issues raised, I decided to give it 4. On every page I turned, I saw the anger, bigotry, jealousy, hubris, and need to find someone to blame, above all else, hiding under the themes of the memorial’s possible more noble, original intent, to rebuild, remember, honor the dead, and demonstrate the need for nationalism, one America, unity, healing, humility, peace. The examination of those themes impressed me. If it encouraged a more thoughtful approach to 9/11 and its aftermath, it became more worthy in my eyes. It is not quite about 9/11, but is more about how people approached the proper way to memorialize it.
The Memorial was designed to be selected in an anonymous contest to create the ideal atmosphere of fairness and equality; it was a liberal idea, to be the most democratic. In the end it makes a mockery of the words, since fairness is interpreted, weighted heavily, on the basis of who is being judged. When the winner is chosen, the controversy begins because he is a Muslim. The overriding disturbing factor is this: can a Muslim design the memorial for thousands murdered by Muslims, even if this particular one is neither a practicing Muslim nor a guilty one?
I was disappointed when the author, in a typical knee-jerk reaction, assumed the anger came from the right, glorifying liberals who were more open-minded. The book became a bit too political then, but, in the end, perhaps the ultimate criminal, the ultimate fiend, was possibly on the left, when an innocent voice was silenced by someone who thought they had the only right message. Like with the Occupiers of today, sometimes a message can be contaminated with irrationality, even though the masses may support it. I don't know the author's intent, but the book made me think about the many misguided, self-righteous people who rally round a message without understanding its ultimate meaning or consequence.
I am certain that some will dislike this book, observing that it is unimaginative and really raises no new issues that have not been explored ad nauseum, but I found that what it did really well was the exploration of the emotions behind the characters' actions. The dialogue made the reader think about the why it happened, not just that it did happen. It did a good job analyzing motives, inner feelings, behavior and end results. What provoked each character to react as he did in each situation? Was it altruism, nationalism, patriotism, egotism, self promotion, professional growth, greed? Were any of the motives pure? Were any of the players ultimately guilt free, with regard to the novel’s conclusion? Is it possible for anyone to be free from outside influences? Is it right for the media to incite the public just for readership when it serves no purpose except to shut down dialogue and perhaps incite fury? Do we need an enemy, even a contrived target, in order to find a solution?
The book made me think about the philosophy of life that motivates each of us and how we each think we are right in a given situation? Are we victims of the press, of our own prejudices, secret and overt. What drives us all? Are we all submitting to our hidden agendas in some way? Would it be better if we always had a cooling-off period before we reacted so our response would be thoughtful not charged or agitated?
The title is a double entendre, which is more apparent as the book evolves. At first it is about the main character who submits a design to memorialize the victims of 9/11, on the site of the original buildings. Is his submission worthy? It also becomes an investigation into the act of submitting, submitting to a religion, submitting to the contest results, submitting to fate, submitting to one's G-d, one's spouse, one's government, to any and all outside pressure. We all engage in the act of submission. When is it acceptable, respectable?
There is one scene which is poignant and revealing, which sums up the act of submission in its varied costumes. A character shows up with his cohorts at the home of the representative of the families on the 9/11 Memorial Committee. There he finds a small heap of stones. He picks them up as he contemplates breaking her windows because he is angry and does not agree with her position about the memorial. In attempting to get his way, to have his wishes pleased, he unwittingly destroys the cairn built as a memorial by her children, to their father. Submitting to his baser instincts, he destroys one memorial in favor of another, which points out the true, tragic failure of the project and the wrongheadedness of the misguided. Vengeance is never the right answer.