In the subsequent years of post-9/11 America, it is perhaps too easy to point out that so-called “Islamophobia” that followed was rampant and fueled by a myriad of inflammatory sources. Amy Waldman’s The Submission takes this simple premise with a hypothetical scenario, and she runs with it, seamlessly blending politics, media, and, most importantly, public opinion in an attempt to illustrate the complexities of race and religious politics.
The city of New York is faced with building a memorial to the terrorist attack, and it is left to a panel of jurors to decide the winning design. However, when the final pick is revealed to be Mohammad Khan, the city is faced with its most vitriolic war of rights since the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Given the historical context, it could happen. It is in Waldman’s “show, not tell” approach that takes her first novel above self-righteous high thought, demonstrating the complexity of every issue through dynamic character interactions.
It is the characters themselves that make the novel a compelling read. Each one is uniquely written, as if Waldman brought her interviewing experience as a reporter in force; each character, however minor, is his/her own being, which pounds the premise of individuality in the novel home. Waldman also uses her powerful command of the English language in every sentence, guiding the reader smoothly through every encounter and every description.
However, this only works up to a point. As tensions increase over the course of the novel, Waldman results to using a one-by-one public account of each potential issue of using Khan’s design. Although it was probably meant to give the illusion of depth in the fictional trial, it ended up feeling cheap and contrived. The other large hole was the character Alyssa Spier, the journalist. The media did play a large shape in public opinion, but Spier’s presence generally resulted in an article by her that plodded the plot along if things got slow. Everyone loves a little drama, but it grew tiresome astoundingly fast.
Even with the occasional stumble, Waldman pulls off a thought-provoking tale on one of the most controversial topics of the last decade. The novel flows organically in most cases, with the occasional Spier appearance to push things along at the speed of plot. Waldman’s first foray into fiction proves to be a success, even if it is slow at times.