Ten years on and a greater sense of perspective as to the meaning of those two aeroplanes in a sunny New York sky is now possible, so the appearance of the best 9/11 novel to date shouldn’t come as a surprise. What is a surprise, though, is that The Submission is a debut novel. In it Amy Waldman deals not with the attack itself but with the knots in which the US has tied itself in the aftermath.
This is a counter-factual fiction that starts with the competition to design a memorial to sit at Ground Zero, a site that is “a memorial only to America’s diminished greatness”. The carefully selected jury argues its way through the anonymous submissions to a winner. It settles on a design for a geometrical garden, with steel trees and a wall inscribed with the names of the dead ”“ something calming, imperishable, regenerative. The jurors’ relief at negotiating the high profile and fractious process is judderingly cut short when the chairman opens the envelope containing the name of the designer: Mohammad Khan. Or, as one juror spouts, …[“%$%$#$%^%$%] It’s a …[*&^&^%] Muslim!”
That the winner of this most sensitive of all commissions could be a co-religionist of the attackers seems at first a trick of malign fate and then sends the jury into a tailspin. Should they abide by their decision and present it as an example of US democracy, inclusiveness and forgiveness or choose another design to assuage the outrage of not just the bereaved families but of the millions of Americans who would see a Muslim winner as an insult to the dead and a symbol of their country’s ultimate humiliation?