It is rare that a mainstream novel is about architecture. But it is also rare that a popular non-fiction is about architecture, and the fight to build at Ground Zero inspired two books of the latter kind, Philip Nobel’s Sixteen Acres and Paul Goldberger’s Up From Zero. What made the non-fiction compelling was the cast of characters, the selfless and the self-interested, the high stakes and the deep emotion surrounding what to do with the “hallowed ground.”
All these qualities also make for a good novel, so I had high hopes for The Submission by former New York Times reporter Amy Waldman. From the jacket copy: “Ten years after 9/11, a dazzling, kaleidoscopic novel reimagines its aftermath.” The Submission is an alternate history of the selection of a design for the 9/11 memorial based on the uncomfortable question, What if Michael Arad had been Muslim?
In the Times Book Review, Emperor’s Children author Claire Messud called The Submission a historian’s book. But it is instead a journalist’s book, each character a tweaked version of some identifiable non-fiction players, the memorial itself a tweaked version of non-fictional architecture. What’s wrong with the book's memorial, called The Garden, points to what’s wrong with the whole book. Particularly in the aftermath of the controversy over Park51 (a.k.a. “the Ground Zero mosque”) the fiction is no more interesting than the reality. Clearly Waldman knows her New York City controversies, but it means the book reads like something you have already read in the paper. Because she writes like a former reporter, piling up details, but without creating atmosphere, we don't get more from the novelization.
The Garden's design, which we are told is profound and beautiful, sounds like over-literal pastiche:
The concept was simple: a walled, rectangular garden guided by rigorous geometry. At the center would be a raised pavilion meant for contemplation. Two broad, perpendicular canals quartered the six-acre space. Pathways within each quadrant imposed a grid on the trees, both living and steel, that were studded in orchard-like rows. A white perimeter wall, twenty-seven feet high, enclosed the entire space. The victims would be listed on the wall’s interior, their names patterned to mimic the geometric cladding of the destroyed buildings. The steel trees reincarnated the buildings even more literally: they would be made from their salvaged scraps.
Let’s see: the names of Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial; the steel trees of artist Roxy Paine; the recycled steel of hundreds of other 9/11 memorials; the enclosing walls of Louis Kahn’s 1974 FDR Memorial, now at long last under construction, at the tip of Roosevelt Island. Plus a grid of live trees, landscape architect Peter Walker’s addition to Arad’s twin pools at the real 9/11 Memorial. It contains the multitudes of an architect grasping at the straws of his predecessors.
The runner-up is simpler, but not even a panel of elitist artists (as Waldman characterizes them) could possibly consider The Void appropriate: a 12-story slab of black granite (calling 2001’s obelisk immediately to my mind’s eye), set in an oval pool. Claire Burwell, the representative 9/11 widow on the jury, says, “The Void is too dark for us.” But it sounds too dark for anyone. No one wants a memorial both depressing and stentorian. And modernist. Waldman never returns to The Void as an option, but it might have upped the stakes had she introduced the primary battles fought over memorials today: between neo-classicism and modernism, and between representation and abstraction. Consider the negative reaction to the recent unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC.
Waldman chooses the flashier religious war over matters of taste, and indeed, many scenes make the point that no one is paying attention to what the memorial looks like. (Only the headline of the Times architecture critic's review of the design is quoted, piling on.) But the lameness of the design creates an emptiness at the center of the novel’s controversy. Perhaps that is true to life, as the design (really just a rendering) of Park51 figured not at all into its opponents' arguments. It wasn’t even a mosque! Pictures and words meant less than the idea of anything Muslim within blocks of Ground Zero, never mind the realities.
But because of the reader's disbelief, Waldman’s characters, too many and too sketchy, pastiches in their own way, aren’t given anything to believe in. Claire Burwell (imagine Christy Ferer crossed with Amanda Burden) seems intended to be the dominant color in the kaleidoscope, but she’s weak. She can’t, and Waldman can’t, describe the memorial convincingly enough for us to feel its beauty. When we finally get to occupy it, it just sounds like Gordon Bunshaft goes to Jeddah. (Which happened. In 1983.)
Other reviewers (the two in the Times, Laura Miller in Salon) seem taken by Waldman’s precision. As a good New York journalist, she has made sure all her characters live in just the right neighborhood, in just the right sort of building. Firefighter’s family: Brooklyn Victorian. Bangladeshi immigrant: Kensington. WASP widow: Chappaqua. She tells us their hair color and what they are wearing. But I still couldn’t see them as any more but remixes: venal journalist Alyssa Spier = Andrea Peyser – age, stararchitect Emmanuel Roi = Richard Meier – hair, the female governor = Hillary Clinton / Kirsten Gillibrand x George Pataki.
Even The Garden’s designer finds himself unable to articulate his motivations, in design or in life. Mohammed (Mo) Kahn is one of the book’s more convincing characters, mostly because he has none. He is the architect as careerist, incapable of great feeling, competitive, callous, with nice glasses. He’s a type I know well, which makes it hard to believe that he would be so inarticulate. He’s a graduate of the Yale School of Architecture, for heaven’s sakes, where Dean Stern makes his students take a class in public speaking. If he were real he would have a million explanations, truthful or not, for why his garden is not for martyrs. He would not be reduced to saying, like a five-year-old, that the design came, “From my imagination.”
But by the end of The Submission I thought that might have been the better choice, to leave the architecture of The Garden up to our imaginations.