Sunday, June 03, 2012

With Waldman in the garden of grief

Amy Waldman's novel The Submission is a story about a committee trying to come to consensus. It's full of meetings that inspire more meetings where discussions, disagreements, decisions, and indecisions spread to infect yet more meetings, hearings, rallies, protests, press conferences, and, eventually, mobs. Careers are ruined or enhanced, often accidentally. Threats are issued. A person is murdered. In the end there is submission, although it is not entirely clear who is submitting to whom. And despite its accurate portrayal of the deadening inanity of committee work, I could not put the book down.

This committee, see, is trying to select a design for a memorial to the September 11, 2001 attacks, a matter complicated by the competing interests of artists, politicians, and family members of the victims--and complicated even more when news leaks out that the winning entry was designed by a Muslim, Mohammad "Mo" Khan, who can't recognize himself in the portraits appearing in the press:
Mo began to put psychological distance between himself and the Mohammad Khan who was written and talked about, as if that were another man altogether. It often was. Facts were not found but made, and once made, alive, defying anyone to tell them from truth....He was called, besides decadent, abstinent, deviant, violent, insolent, abhorrent, aberrant, and typical.
The media frenzy disrupts Khan's career and causes him to question his heritage and values, but he is far from the only victim. Claire Burwell, who represents the families of victims on the design selection committee, sees her certainties crumble as she tries to distinguish between the artist and his design. Like Mo, she is isolated, pressured from both sides and uncertain that shared grief is sufficient reason for loyalty to strangers. "Grief was not a country she had chosen to enter," she decides, "but she could choose when to leave, even if joining the diaspora bore the taint of treason."

Among those who consider Claire treasonous is Sean Gallagher, whose brother's death in the attack gave his life new purpose. Even he, though, finds his convictions shaken when he sees how many people are willing to profit from others' pain. Standing before a mob willing to shed blood to protect the memory of those who died by violence, he realizes that "Horrible as the attack was, everyone wanted a little of its ash on their hands." 

Waldman excels at constructing such pithy statements and demonstrates an excellent ear for rhythm and sound. When Claire meets a pesky journalist on neutral territory, Waldman requires only 13 words to create a clear picture: "Its walls were mirrored, its tables marble, its espresso feral, its pastries stale." You could sing those lines--or, better yet, Leonard Cohen could sing them. 

But even better, you could read the book. It's a compelling and thought-provoking novel that maintains suspense despite its mundane subject, and in the end, it leaves you in a garden--with just a little ash on your hands. 

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