Sometime late last year, I read about The Submission. While plot-forward, 9/11 books aren’t my thing (at all), something in the review intrigued me enough to add the title to my wish list. Thinking back, that reviewer must have been a phenomenal salesperson.
After the first few pages, I seriously considered not finishing the book. I had it on good authority that it did not get better. I half wanted to avoid writing the blog post I am about to write, because penning take-downs of young women’s first novels is not something I am apt to do. And yet, I finished. I couldn’t resist taking in the full scope of The Submission‘s world so that I could dismantle it here.
The premise is this: two years after 9/11, a jury of artists, critics, movers-and-shakers and one “family member” is assembled to judge a blind contest for a memorial to the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. A winner, heavily advocated for by the family member, Claire Burwell (this is the kind of book that uses full names, all the time), is chosen and when the slip of paper revealing the architect’s identity is pulled out of the envelope, it reveals the name: Mohammed Khan. A MUSLIM. All hell breaks loose. All martyrs’ paradise breaks loose? All carefully scripted pedantic literal arguments between Muslim scholars and conservative talk show hosts, between blue-collar Brooklyn dudes and scarf-wearing women, between semi-secular Khan and lovely lawyer Laila, between naive but secretly savvy Asma the 9/11 widow of an illegal Muslim floor-washer and a knife-wielding mystery character breaks loose?
So the premise is interesting. But there are upwards of 9million characters to deal with–I couldn’t believe that chapters and chapters in, we were still getting new threads to follow. The world was a strange hybrid of ours and its parallel–real-life names were dropped ad nauseum, such as on page 154 when we get this, at a benefit for the embattled architect:
“You know Bobby, right?” De Niro nodded as if to say that yes, Mo did.
“I’ve been a great supporter of the Palestinian cause,” a British baroness told Mo meaningfully.
“This isn’t about the Palestinians,” someone said, overhearing.
“Always, this attempt to disentangle,” eye-rolled Miriam Said.
Rosie O’Donnell laughed behind him. Sean Penn was drunk.
Leaving, for now, the adverbs, the insane attributions, the over-explaining (Really? Is that why De Niro would nod?!), we are reading in this world where these celebrities exist and yet the mayor and the governor–historical figures that played such a crucial part in the immediate aftermath of 9/11–are invented. Narratively, I get why the political figures would have been fictionalized, but the totally unnecessary inclusion of celebrities, in this instance and others, destabilizes and falsifies the book’s entire context.
Along these lines, on page 124-5, there is an excerpt from “The New Yorker‘s weekly Comment, penned by its editor” that includes the lines:
We should judge him only by his design. But this is where matters get tricky.
Why try to show us the article if you are going to wind up using language that is a hundred times lazier than the New Yorker ever would?
You got a little taste of this next point already, but every character in this book, in every conversation they have, says exactly what they mean. There is no mystery, no ambiguity, no literature. How about this, in which the Muslim lawyer, the super-festishized Laila, tries to get Mohammed to participate in an ad campaign about the normalcy of Muslims.
“But in a way your career has come out better,” he said. “Before you were just an associate in a law firm. Now your profile–it’s so much higher.”
She shot him a disgusted look. “Yes, high enough for people to call me a traitor. You’re missing my point, Mo.” She began to put papers in her attache case. “I was willing to give something up even though I thought it might hurt me. Maybe the ad won’t help your career, but other things matter more. With this ad, you’re defining yourself. You’re saying that you won’t let other people caricature you or other Muslims, whether they’re doctors, or taxi drivers, or accountants.”
“A lawyer, not a terrorist.” His joke earned only a scowl. “Sorry, but why not get one of those doctors or taxi drivers to do the ad?”
“You want someone else to do what you’re afraid to do?”
“I’m not afraid,” he said.
“Then do the ad. Do it as an American, because you don’t like what’s happening in your country.”
Didn’t that seem to go on for a long time? Try reading the whole book–I swear, every conversation is like this. The result of everyone saying exactly what they mean all of the time, and speaking as if they are the living embodiment of an “issue” or “viewpoint,” is that one hundred percent of the thinking, interpreting and dot-connecting is done by the author. I’m sure in book group discussions about this novel people talk about who they agreed with, who they liked most and least, but they don’t argue with what anyone meant or what his or her motivations were. Anyone with a highlighter could flip back to the exact passage where Waldman lets the reader know, in explicit detail, why each character does, says and thinks what he or she does. There is absolutely no room for the reader in this book.
At some point early on, I got the idea that the title of the novel had a double or multiple meanings and I was excited by that. Oh, that’s smart, I thought. I get it! Until, near the end of the book, this somewhat subtle element was illuminated with large flashing lights, just in case we would have missed it. Which I’m confident no one who’d been paying the slightest bit of attention would have.
I do realize that somewhere along the line, before reading this book, I got the false impression that it was a literary novel. It turns out it absolutely isn’t so my judging it on literary standards is very unfair. I know. Maybe this is how commercial books are supposed to be–I am not qualified to speak to that. I will say that it must have been a real feat of research and imagination to deal with these issues in a multifaceted way, and without necessarily privileging any of the viewpoints. I won’t ever read a book by this writer again, but I can see why some people might.