Critical Analysis of The Submission by Amy Waldman

The novel chosen for this research exercise is The Submission by Amy Waldman.  Waldman has had a successful career with the New York Times before embarking on this debut novel.  Given her background, the subject of her work of fiction reflects her work as a journalist, centered on one of the most pressing topical issues of our times.  Set in the aftermath of the September 11 2001 terror attacks on America, the story begins with the event of choosing the winning design for the World Trade Center memorial, for which a distinguished jury was assembled in New York.  The jury members are awed and surprised when they open the envelope to know the winner’s identity – he is a Muslim, Mohammad Khan.  In other words,

“The handpicked jury, featuring artists, historians and the personally bereaved, finally – although not unanimously – arrive at a decision. It’s for a walled garden featuring steel trees made of material from the Twin Towers. The names of the victims are to be inscribed on the inside of the wall. The winner of the competition to design the memorial is then revealed as one Mohammad Khan, a Muslim.” (The Mirror, 2011, p.11)

The narrative then delves into how the shocked jury members handle this new reality.  While some of them have no issues with the religious identity of the winner, others take objection.  Hence, despite calls for unity and token expressions of tolerance, the revelation of the winner creates a rift among the jury as well as the general public opinion.  In the backdrop of this dramatic setup, Waldman weaves together a novel that is rich in insight, stellar in character construction and skeptical of human motivation.  In other words, Waldman is able to recognize the tragedy of 9/11 without indulging in sentimentality. (Barrow, 2011, p.59)  A review piece in The Mirror highlights this achievement:

“Finally it’s taken a novelist, and a debutant at that, to give us the clearest view yet of the human, political and cultural cost, and a possible, hopeful postscript on the 10th anniversary of the tragic event…But Waldman, a highly-acclaimed US foreign correspondent, hasn’t just written a ‘political’ novel. Her story, so wonderfully controlled, with pitch-perfect prose, is steeped in raw emotion and grandstanding…At its heart are fully realized characters, and many of them, with their own issues, agendas and flaws.” (The Mirror, 2011, p.11)

One of the jury members is the affluent and attractive Harvard law school alumni Claire Burwell.  Claire loses her husband in the terror strikes.  She came into public attention, though, during her irate rebuttal of accusations that 9/11 families were exploiting the system for pecuniary benefits.  At this point, politicians with ambitions for high office step into the scene to gain political mileage.  The Governor of New York is one such individual; and having been impressed with Claire’s outspoken demeanor, he appoints her to the jury.  It is in the subsequent transformation of characters such as Claire that Waldman’s class as a pedigree novelist comes through. For example,

“Having manipulated the other jurors’ pity and survivor’s guilt to ensure her choice wins the competition, Claire initially is the architect’s strongest supporter. Her liberal husband would not hold his religion against him, she says. Her art-loving husband would want the design to stand on its own merits. But Claire gradually turns on its creator, her doubts about his religion and dislike of his reticence eating away at her as she struggles with loneliness and the fading memory of her husband.” (Daily Herald, 2011, p.37)

The other character that Waldman crafts with detail and depth is that of the winning architect Mohammad Khan.  In many ways he is the tragic hero of the story, who undergoes a personal struggle in the wake of the terrorist attacks.  Despite having grown up in America since his birth, he is suddenly treated as a second class citizen, with ‘random’ airport searches and a lost promotion in career making him feel resentful.  In this context, participating in the competition for memorial design appeared to him as a way to reignite his career and also to pay back for a country that has treated him with unfair suspicion.  The crossing of the destinies of Mo (as Mohammad Khan is referred to in the work) and Claire sets up some interesting sub-narratives.

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