It is a quirk of human nature that some events are of such epic proportions that it seems only fiction can make sense of them. The only rationale for this belief is our faith that fiction can humanise the incomprehensible and uncover the deeper truths that mere reportage cannot. And so, almost before the dust had settled, there was an expectation that it would be novelists who would best make sense of September 11 2001.
Writing the “9/11” novel has, at times, seemed like a test (and a race), a cunningly thought-out exercise to try the mettle of some of the brightest and best in the class. Novelists were quick to take up the challenge: Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark, John Updike’s Terrorist, Martin Amis’s “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta”, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ... and more.
There are some decent books here (and some woefully meretricious ones) but, overall, they are not a very successful bunch, the subject being dealt with too obliquely or with a delicacy that stayed the writer’s hand. It is perhaps simply too soon to have grasped the enormity of what happened or indeed, as some have wondered, whether it was quite as enormous as it seemed at the time and if the fall of the twin towers did, in fact, shift the world on its axis. After all, it took decades before America’s other recent national trauma, Vietnam, was properly addressed in fiction by the likes of Tobias Wolff, Denis Johnson and Karl Marlantes.
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, “Jesus fucking Christ! It’s a goddamn 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? When the decision is leaked to the press such niceties hardly matter and the fact that Khan is both an American by birth and an agnostic is irrelevant.
From this coup de théâtre Waldman skilfully spins out an ever-widening cast list as the waves of the decision wash over redneck victim support groups, a vociferous Muslim rights group, the waspish jury chairman who loses control, the governor who manipulates the crisis to help her political ambitions, a scruple-free journalist ravenous for scoops, an illegal immigrant Bangladeshi whose husband, a cleaner, died in the attack: all of US society has a stake.
At the heart of the storm stand Mohammad Khan and Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow and the representative of the bereaved on the jury. With great adroitness Waldman portrays her vacillations as she grapples with the ramification of the decision as those of liberal America itself. Just how far can democracy and the dictates of conscience go when faced with the visceral tug of loss and shock? Mo meanwhile finds himself pushed into intransigence by the furore because he believes that were he white he would never have been asked either to explain or change his design. What Claire and Mo need from each other is a recognition of what they are suffering, of the purity of their motives. Neither can give it.
As the consequences of the memorial decision accelerate towards tragedy the participants have to square the cost of multicultural compromises against the ideal of the US’s self-appointed role as the city upon a hill. It is a struggle Waldman depicts with both intelligence and wit, in accomplished prose. This is a deeply thoughtful and moving account of the myriad ways in which, when the towers came down, the US psyche became a casualty too.
The Submission, by Amy Waldman, Heinemann, RRP£12.99, 299 pages