The Great American 9/11 Novel

For the last four months, I have been trying and failing to finish a book gifted me as a Christmas present, The Submission, the first novel by New York Times journalist Amy Waldman, released shortly before the anniversary of 9/11. I had almost completed it this week (grudgingly) before I was made aware of the depth of its popularity. I must confess, I was shocked. The book that I had considered passing to the thrift-store unfinished has in fact received rave reviews from a handful of the nation’s top papers.

The New York Times noted its “limber, detailed prose.” The Guardian stated: “Waldman’s prose is almost always pitch-perfect, whether describing a Bangladeshi woman’s relationship with her landlady or the political manoeuvring within a jury.” In The Washington Post, Chris Cleave wrote that Waldman “excels at involving the reader in vibrant dialogues. Additionally, The Submission was named Esquire’s Book of the Year, Entertainment Weekly’s #1 Novel for the Year, NPR’s Top Ten Novels for 2011 and the list goes on. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan called it “gorgeously written novel” and went so far as to call it the 9/11 novel. High praise, indeed.

In an interview with The Browser, Waldman was asked to define a 9/11 novel.  She responded:

“I guess a 9/11 novel is one that grows out of the attacks in one way or another and uses literature to try to shed some new light. It seems to cover such a wide range of books – from ones that are trying to completely reinvent that day to ones where it’s only a plot device to reroute characters lives. And it includes one where 9/11 isn’t even mentioned – my novel, The Submission.”

According to that same interview 150 works of fiction and nearly 1,000 works of non-fiction have in some way, shape or form been inspired by the events of 9/11. Salon columnist Laura Miller writes that the absence of any great 9/11 literature suggests the banality of death itself. She states: “Life, not death, is the novelist’s subject.” Well, that doesn’t seem to have stopped hundreds of writers, including Waldman. However, The Submission may be a 9/11 novel, but it isn’t the 9/11 novel. It remains simply one of forgettable hundreds trying and failing to meet the strange, insatiable thirst for 9/11 literature.

The Submission tells the tale of half a dozen characters whose lives change after an American-born architect of Indian descent named Mohammed Khan wins a contest to design the  9/11 memorial, provoking widespread outrage and controversy.  (Think the Maya Lin controversy magnified a gazillionfold.) While Claire, a 9/11 widow and wealthy Manhattanite struggles to fight for Khan’s right to remain in the competition, others, like the ambitious New York governor, use the occasion as a vehicle to make political gains. The novel introduces us to a smarmy Muslim American politician, a hapless community of Bangladeshi illegals, a family of angry blue-collar workers who lost a firefighter son in the attack, a radical Islamaphobe and others whose lives have been drastically affected by 9/11.

Waldman, who was assigned to the New York metro desk as a reporter at the Times when the towers fell, likely found herself exposed to many of the factions that arose when the disaster occurred and undoubtedly possess an enormous amount of familiarity with the topic.  As one of the writers who contributed to the Portraits of Grief project, which attempted to chronicle each life lost in the September 11th attacks, she has seen her share of 9/11 firsthand. One wishes she had been able to take that experience to humanize her characters. In an interview shortly after the book was released, she said:

 “As a novelist, I didn’t want to raid details of people’s lives for material. But also, as a reporter, I felt ambivalent about the “Portraits of Grief”. The wordcount left no room for complexity. The project made me ask, how do you avoid reducing the dead to thumbnail profiles? People are much more complicated than can be represented through daily journalism. They deserve to be portrayed and remembered in all their fullness.”    

Clicking through the Portraits of Grief project, which average 200 words apiece, one can see how tempting it would be to delve into the subject in depth and allow an individual narrative to flow on to the 300+ pages Waldman employs. Unfortunately, allowing a novelist to roam untethered poses its own risks. Waldman makes the rookie mistake of trying to do too much where much less would have sufficed.

The novel first appeared as short-story excerpts in The Atlantic, a form much better suited to Waldman’s futile endeavor to encapsulate the entire post-9/11 debacle in a single book. The Submission nobly attempts to stuff the narratives of half a dozen characters into an entire book, but weaves them in a confusing, unsatisfying manner. The biggest failing, by far, are Waldman’s loosely sketched characters, who spew forth earnest, stiff dialogue that serves to stereotype, not humanize. And sadly, Waldman attempts to accomplish a neat, cyclical narrative through the use of convenient plot twists and various ironies. (Along with a heap of wishful thinking and clunky prose.)

Take for example, a passage about the architect Mohammed “Mo” Khan, as seen through the eyes of a skeptical, tabloid reporter. “He had a beard, but it was tastefully trimmed. His suit looked expensive, and his bearing, unlike the grasping, too-eager-to-please Indians in her neighborhood, was haughty. Next to him sat a dark-haired, foreign-looking woman in a cardinal red suit that suggested she was not only comfortable with attention but craved it. Men, some of them in Islamic costumes, and a few women in headscarves, stood stiffly against the wall behind them, looking like a police lineup of terrorism suspects.”

For a book that drives along on the suspense of a single question (Will Khan be allowed to design the 9/11 memorial?), any interest in an outcome dies of boredom 20 pages in.  For example, Waldman’s depiction of Asma Haque, the illegal Bangladeshi immigrant whose husband, a domestic worker, perished in the attacks, represents potential for a powerful narrative about the problems families of undocumented workers faced after 9-11. However, in Waldman’s prose, any elegance a character like Asma may have had falls flat. Seen through a narrower scope, the characters could be compelling. But as a whole, the characters are tiring.

Somewhere out there, people have come up with some fanciful checklist of the quintessential elements a 9/11 novel contains and have decided that The Submission meets this standard (however vague that may be). But the fact remains, a true 9/11 novel would delve deeper into the human complexities that drive the issues surrounding the attack. Ten years after September 11, the nation still reels with the aftereffects of the catastrophe’s reduction of humans into mere keywords. Brown? Terrorist. Muslim? Terrorist. Turban? Terrorist. Sadly, Waldman’s The Submission does much the same thing. It takes the same tired tropes and trots them out for the reader to rally over. Maybe The Great 9/11 Novel exists. Maybe it doesn’t. But either way, the list will not include The Submission.

4 thoughts on “The Great American 9/11 Novel

  1. Turbans just makes me think how many non muslims have also become victims of America’s ignornance of the world

  2. The author specifically disclaims it as a “9/11 novel,” but Netherland is the closest I’ve come to reading anything of that type. It resonated with me because the narrator is like the vast majority of New Yorkers — the most immediate effect of the attack for him is a matter of real estate, and then the attack’s success (the terror his wife says she now feels in NYC) pushes the rest of the novel’s events along. It’s an impressive instance of the cliche “write what you know,” so that instead of trying to imagine himself into the shoes of a firefighter’s wife or a turban-wearer, O’Neill wrote about an upper-class Dutchman who emigrates to London, then to New York. His narrator becomes involved with some brown folks not because WHITE MAN SAVE THEM FROM THE ISLAMOPHOBIA, but because he starts to play cricket and in America, cricket is not a white man’s sport. And as someone who likes NYC and spent several years there but isn’t a New Yorker, I really liked the novel’s sense of place — its clarity of geography and of NYC dynamics like the struggle to get time on public playing fields — without making excessive claims to it.

    You might like the book; it’s really quite unassuming and not presumptuous. Which is normally not the most complimentary thing to say, but after your critique of Waldman it seems apropos. Also it has some nice prose.

  3. For art inspired by 9/11, I don’t hate Reign Over Me. And I like Springsteen’s The Rising.