Joining Lin on the jury was a single representative of the victims’ families, along with notable public servants, academics, architects and artists — all charged with the contentious task of memorializing the dead in the void left after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In January 2004, the jury announced its winner: a design called “Reflecting Absence,” by Israeli American architect Michael Arad. Like Lin’s victory, Arad’s was challenged, and several compromises had to be made before his winning design was accepted. Construction began in 2006, and the memorial is scheduled to open on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Now, perfectly timed, comes Amy Waldman’s provocative first novel, an alternative history of the memorialization of the 9/11 victims.
In “The Submission,” Waldman conforms to the allohistorical convention by mutating just one chromosome of history’s DNA and then dissecting the resulting species. Rather than picking Arad’s design, the jury in this novel anoints a project called “The Garden.” When they open the blinded submission dossier, the jurors are disturbed to discover that the winning architect is Mohammad Khan, an American Muslim. Disquiet turns to dismay when the tabloids amp up the result into a national controversy.
The public debate moves from the design’s attributes to its attribution, and thus Waldman unleashes a storm designed to call to mind the ongoing real-life furor over the construction of Park51, the planned Muslim community center two blocks from the World Trade Center site.
The ensuing drama changes the lives of every member of the novel’s ensemble cast. The rich investor’s WASP-ish widow, the dead janitor’s illegal immigrant wife, the demagogic politician, the desperate tabloid hack, the beleaguered chairman of the competition jury, the dead FDNY hero’s low-life brother, the radio shock jock, the Muslim community organizer, the white trash incendiary blogger and, of course, the besieged winning architect are all represented here. It is a mark of Waldman’s skill that she marshals these disparate forces in the service of a coherent, timely and fascinating examination of a grieving America’s relationship with itself.
Waldman, a former New York Times reporter, excels at involving the reader in vibrant dialogues in which the level of the debate is high and the consequences significant. Consider the opening scenes in the jury chamber: It would be a lifeless reader indeed who did not quickly become partisan for one of the two shortlisted designs, or who did not feel the electricity as the entire force of America’s collective memory is routed through one single moment in that room.