I'd read and listened to a number of pieces about this book before I read it, including an interview with the New York Times Book Review podcast (August 19, 2011 episode). I remembered Waldman mentioning that the words "September 11" never appear in the book, so I'd taken away from the interview that the story involved the aftermath of an event that evoked but wasn't 9/11, perhaps in a generic city. Once I started reading, I immediately found that the setting was explicitly New York, and soon I was sure that the characters were choosing a memorial design to commemorate the same events that occurred in the real world. Everything matched, from the description and location of the destroyed buildings to the fact that the attacks occurred on an "insultingly beautiful morning." It's quite true that the phrases "September 11," "World Trade Center," and "Ground Zero" don't appear in the book, but the details are so unambiguous that it might be possible to read without even noticing the omission.
So I was surprised to listen to the Book Review interview again and hear that Waldman actually used the phrase "a 9/11-like event": "The premise is a fictional and entirely anonymous competition to design a memorial for a 9/11-like event. I say that only because I never use the actual words '9/11' or 'Ground Zero' in the book." It's curious to me that Waldman describes the book that way, though I guess I can see why she would as part of the choice to leave out the specific references.
What's more interesting to me is that she made that choice in the first place, and that she's not the only author to do so. The plot of NETHERLAND by Joseph O'Neill has little to do with 9/11 itself, but the story takes place in New York during the months that follow. Yet O'Neill often seems to resort to vagueness and euphemism in order to avoid naming the events. In this case, since the book has a first-person narrator, the avoidance can be attributed to the character's own general reluctance to communicate, the source of many of his problems. Similarly, the young narrator of EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE by Jonathan Safran Foer tends to avoid direct references to 9/11 even though that's most of what's on his mind, since his father died in one of the towers.
At this point I have to confess that I have no conclusion to draw about any of this, except perhaps that I've spent too much time during the last decade observing the incorporation of 9/11 into fiction. At least I know I'm not the only one.
Now, putting aside THE SUBMISSION's context and premise entirely, what most impressed me about this book is how carefully and swiftly the story unfolds. The term "tightly plotted" is used a lot in reviews, and this novel made clear to me what it means. On just about every page, a new complication appears. Each new obstacle is a natural, believable development, but rarely could I predict what would happen next. Perhaps most importantly, everything that happens in the novel is connected and no scenes feel extraneous. Not bad for a story that follows half a dozen different characters.
The characters themselves are well-developed, complex personalities. Waldman didn't choose any easy portrayals. The Muslim architect who designed the winning memorial is as patriotic as any grieving New Yorker, but he's also arrogant and self-centered. One of the prominent opposers of the design, the brother of a dead firefighter, gets branded a bigot but is really far more conflicted and confused by his own actions in front of the media.
I hope to someday produce a novel as intricate and well-executed as THE SUBMISSION, and I'll be turning to this book again as an example of how it's done.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ Bert Archer asks, What’s wrong with a readable book?: "...the best analogy might be livability and architecture. Can a house be excellent if it is not also livable? If you find yourself stumbling on the stairs because they're not big enough for your feet, or if you get wet when it rains because there are cleverly carved holes in the roof, I would say you have a legitimate complaint against the architect." (Thanks, The Millions!)