When the winner of a design competition for a 9/11 memorial turns out to be Muslim, the backlash is almost immediate.
Anybody who's followed the heated debate over the so-called Ground Zero mosque knows the territory covered by Amy Waldman's propulsive and thoughtful debut novel, "The Submission." Although the fictional anger is stoked by a Manhattan 9/11 memorial, not a community center, the emotional setting is familiar: Here is another noisy battle over hallowed ground, fought in terms of theology, politics and media spin.
Giving the necessary attention to all parties demands a broad cast of characters, but Waldman smartly focuses on a few. The novel's center is Claire, a 9/11 widow who leads the committee responsible for selecting a Ground Zero memorial from a stack of blind submissions. She's consulted with Sean, a hot-tempered victims' advocate whose brother died in the attacks, but their relationship fractures when the architect of the winning design turns out to be Muslim.
Mohammed, the chosen architect, isn't especially religious. His garden-themed design is inoffensive. And he's as assimilated as Americans come -- his friends call him Mo. But his selection still upends the memorial plans. Waldman closely tracks Mohammed's mood shifts, from poised to outraged to prankish. ("I'm a Shia Wahhabi," he tells one committee member, mocking his ignorance of the two opposing Muslim sects.) Mohammed's selection amplifies everyone else's anxieties, as well. Proudly open-minded liberals are suddenly self-doubting; jingoistic radio hosts turn up the volume; a spate of headscarf-pulling incidents fill cable-TV air time; and a timid Muslim woman, also a 9/11 widow, is nudged to speak her mind.
Although Waldman works to be representative, she doesn't place her characters into neat ideological boxes. The head of a Muslim group backing Mohammed, for instance, is as interested in promoting itself as much as tolerance. It's more correct to say she's attuned to how the media create those boxes, simplifying conflicts and exaggerating tensions. As a former reporter for the New York Times, Waldman knows this turf well, and in truth "The Submission" is more a media critique than a study of religious tensions or post-9/11 politics. To the right-wing Post, Mohammed's garden design is a terrorist burial ground, and the Times' more nuanced look at the design's Islamic roots only fuels the outrage. In time, the entire squabble becomes "a car alarm that wouldn't turn off," as Waldman aptly puts it.
Who'd shut it off? There's money and attention in all that noise. But in the sensitive closing pages of "The Submission," Waldman reveals the cost of such willful ignorance: a glimpse into Mohammed's motivations, difficult to publicly articulate yet necessary for common understanding. In capturing Mohammed's innermost thoughts, "The Submission" silences the partisan squabbling, in ways that often seem impossible outside of this smart and sensitive work of fiction.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction. wordpress.com.