Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that Maya Lin defended her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial before Congress. Lin’s testimony was to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. This version has been corrected.
In 1981, Maya Lin, a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale, won the competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The starkness of her design, as well as her ethnicity as an Asian American, fueled controversy over her victory. Politicians, art critics and veterans excoriated her, and she was forced to defend her work before the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.
A little more than two decades later, when a jury convened in New York City to decide which of more than 5,000 submissions would become the winning design for the 9/11 Memorial, Lin’s presence on the panel served as a reminder of the difficulties of aligning public art, private grief and main street opinion in the wake of a national tragedy.
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.
Winningly, in the midst of high-pitched cerebral dialogue, Waldman finds space for some zesty one-
liners. On the subject of why Ground Zero should be memorialized rather than simply redeveloped, she writes, “Americans seemed unlikely to accept the maximization of office space as the most eloquent rejoinder to terrorism.”
And when her politician is asked why an elite jury, rather than a public vote, should select the winning design, she replies: “We don’t want a bunch of firefighters deciding to put a giant helmet in Manhattan.”
Aware that her novel is built on sacred ground, Waldman rations these exuberances carefully. Counterbalancing the wit and philosophical forays is a recurring scene of genuine pathos where a child builds his own smaller, humbler memorial to a father lost in the attacks. Personal rather than political, impulsive rather than intellectualized, the scene is reprised to devastating effect in Waldman’s moving epilogue.
It is in this epilogue, set many years after the completion of the memorial, that the extent of Waldman’s literary accomplishment becomes apparent. In presenting us with a world that is recognizably our own, despite her tweaking of one of its variables, the author subverts the central dictum of alternate history: namely, that the single historical switch should precipitate multiple and major consequences.
Instead, brilliantly, Waldman gives us back our own world. In so doing, she makes the most eloquent case for the relegation of all public memorials of 9/11 — including literary ones — to their proper place: as an adjunct to the real and personal suffering that lingers, invisibly and unconsoled, in individual lives.
The lineage of post-9/11 novels is illustrious. Coming to prominence in 2003 with Frederic Beigbeder’s “ Windows on the World ,” by 2005 the form had evolved through the twin strands of Jonathan Safran Foer ’s urgent and heartfelt “ Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ” and Ian McEwan ’s universalized and reflective “ Saturday .”
By 2006, distance permitted the satire of Jess Walter’s “The Zero” and the subversion of Jay McInerney’s “The Good Life,” and the next year brought Don DeLillo’s definitive and artful “Falling Man.” It is by her clever shift of focus from the events of 9/11 to their commemoration that Amy Waldman takes this literary line forward, and it is through her respect for history — her own act of submission in choosing a humbler stage — that her novel stands so proudly within it.
Cleave’s most recent novel is “Little Bee.”