PUBLIC BOOKS: Bruce Robbins on The Submission
12 March 2011
Why Claire Slams the Door
There’s a scene toward the end of this very rich and very gripping novel that has a strong claim to be thought of as its climax, when Claire Burwell and Mohammad Khan sit together in a small room and Claire questions him about the meaning of his plan for the memorial. She says, “I can’t go on backing the Garden without knowing more.” And “How can I support a memorial when I don’t know what it is?” The assumption she’s making here is that what the memorial is is what Khan intended it to be, and that she can find out by sitting next to him and asking. When I read this scene, I thought, this is going to be a lot like sitting in a room with Amy Waldman and talking about the meaning of her novel. Which will be a little uncomfortable, just as that scene is. The best way of dealing with the discomfort that I could come up with is to declare right away that I’m not making Claire’s assumption. D. H. Lawrence once said, speaking of how Tolstoy wanted us to like Levin but was really in love with Vronsky, “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” Maybe it’s in our professional self-interest as literary critics, since there’s more for us to say about tales than about the intentions of their tellers, but that’s usually our working assumption: trust the tale more than the teller. We give novels credit for meaning a lot more than their authors may have intended them to mean, and also for meaning different things. And that’s also going to be my assumption here.
As you perhaps remember, the scene ends when Claire jumps up and slams the door behind her, and the next time we see her (through Paul Rubin’s eyes) she is speaking at a press conference, flanked by members of the American Muslim community, and asking Mo to withdraw his submission. The most immediate cause of this change of heart, back in the room, is the idea that Alyssa Spier may have been right, that Mo may have seen her husband as “mere collateral damage in a war America had brought on itself.” I take this as the novel’s climactic scene because it’s where Claire backs down from her support for the Garden, and because Claire’s backing down from her support for the Garden seems to me the central “action” of the novel, though there are other ways of describing it. But I also underline the scene because it marks the unspeakability of the idea that America did to some extent bring 9/11 on itself. As it happens, this is not what Mohammad says or what he thinks; it’s merely a moment when Claire fantasizes this position, egged on by the disgusting Alyssa Spier, who has a strange kind of access to her thoughts and feelings. Right after the pages Amy read [pp. 185–190, Ed.], we get this: “For all Claire’s resistance, Spier’s insinuations about Khan had slithered inside to coil around Claire’s own doubts.” Claire’s resistance? Where is that resistance when she needs it? Her lack of resistance to the odious Gummi bear–eating Spier, or one might say the perverse intimacy or unconscious bond between them, seems to me a sort of giveaway. It may not show where the novel’s heart wants to be, but it shows the novel’s “submission”—one more meaning of its multiply meaningful title.
I don’t know how much sympathy Amy Waldman intended us to have for Claire. Perhaps she is not even meant to be central. Perhaps Mo’s intransigent refusal to answer her questions (though elsewhere Mo does in fact declare his abhorrence of the mass murder) is meant to be equally important to the outcome, creating a balance between them. (Paul Rubin seems built up mainly so as to take some of the weight of being central off Claire, but in my opinion he’s too thin a character for his point of view to do this.) In my opinion, Claire is the novel’s central figure, the figure in the middle who is pulled in opposite directions. She is also the female half of the ideal couple—Claire and Mo—that, if it did come together, would represent the novel’s ideal “resolution,” but that the novel of course never does bring together, its failure to bestow coupledom upon them marking its own very realistic, very successful conclusion. I think the novel blames Claire for the fact that things don’t turn out better more than it blames Mo, and I think that’s right. Mo withdrawal, his “abdication,” is clearly not as important to the plot; it comes when things are already decided. It doesn’t really matter, just as the jury’s support wouldn’t have mattered. Similarly, the betrayal of Mo by the “official” American Muslims, who want him to back out, and the anger at him by the fundamentalists who think he’s denied the divine authorship of the Qur’an, don’t really matter; they aren’t fully realized causes of what happens. In terms of causality, the novel puts the weight on Claire. She’s the one who wanted to hold back the wave of nationalism that we see the politicians riding, and she’s the one who might actually have been able to. But this is a weight she can’t bear. And I want to give the novel credit for showing this—for effectively sucking us into Claire’s viewpoint, and then making us see how pitifully limited that viewpoint is, and how genuinely irritating her character is. That may not be what the author intended—she’s here to say—and it may express in part my irritation that the idea that “America brought this on itself” (which is not the same thing as “your husband deserved to die”) remains an unspeakable idea, outside the limits of the sayable as Claire, our figure of liberal good intentions, represents them. Which is to say that it marks a certain limit on what counts as common sense in America. A limit that seems to me a bit too narrow.
In this respect the novel can be classed with most other “9/11 novels.” The 9/11 novel is not necessarily the most interesting category to put it in, and I know Amy Waldman has said it’s not the category she herself was thinking of, but it does share with, say, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close an inability to get beyond the problematic of mourning and moving forward—what this novel calls “healing.” 9/11 novels are sometimes good at capturing the feel of loss, and this one is especially good at capturing the changes in the feel of loss over time. But there’s a lot that these novels don’t try to do that would be worth doing. Healing seems to be the highest value they can imagine. Healing is a good thing: it’s opposed to racism, chauvinism, and vengefulness. All that is very good. But here the idea is still to unite us Americans as Americans—to say that Mo is as American as anyone else, and that we should accept him as such. This is easy piety. There is no idea that this piety might not be enough, that it might be a bit provincial, that the novel might have to make an effort to know and make stories out of what non-Americans think and feel. Which would certainly include opinions on American foreign policy, for example in the Middle East, over the past three or four decades.
Like other 9/11 novels, The Submission makes very little attempt to get beyond this provinciality. Even the Bangladeshi characters are of course Bangladeshis in America, and Asma’s story comes close to the paradigm that American writers seem to fall back on over and over again when they try to get more of the world in. If you look at the rest of the world, what you see is injustice and atrocity. You look at how bad things are over there and you realize, all in all, how much better things are in the US. Women really are better off here, aren’t they? Look at the American Dream. If you’re a woman, don’t you really have to come to America? If you’re an immigrant, don’t you really want to stay? The patriotism gets a bit claustrophobic.
Aesthetically speaking, one of this novel’s virtues is that it has a lot of endings, all of them pretty subtle. The documentary film introduced at the very end makes Mo and Claire into a kind of couple after all—that’s one ending. The pile of pebbles left by Claire’s son in the built-but-not-built-in-America garden is the perfect memorial to her dead husband. That’s ending #2. From one point of view, the flashback to Mohammad’s walk through Kabul offers another ending: a sort of “revelation” that the inspiration for his proposal really was Islamic after all—it was the garden built by the Mughal Emperor Babur in 1526. Which means that Claire was finally right, but also that she was wrong: the inspiration was Islamic, but it was a very positive inspiration, an aesthetic image of peace and order amid suffering and chaos.
After all, how and why does Claire pull back from her support of the Garden? Part of the answer is Claire’s strange vulnerability to the odious Spier, and for that matter to Sean Gallagher and his angry parents. Claire abstains after asking “what makes [Asma’s] voice more authentic than Frank Gallagher’s?” I would speculate, since you can’t do more than speculate, that there is a general principle involved here (which makes more sense than individual psychology) and that the principle is this: the rich elite liberal is vulnerable, and knows herself to be vulnerable, in terms of class, and that means her support for international understanding is soft. She will fall back from whatever cosmopolitanism she has been granted or has achieved, if and when pressured by the have-not class below her. She will therefore accept the necessity of military aggression, as the liberal hawks did in Afghanistan and Iraq, even when she knows better. Or maybe it’s not so much about class as about liberalism itself. The liberal hawks and their ambivalent ten-year-long recantation make up another context into which this book could be productively placed. In a sense, Claire’s last words, eighteen years later, combine with the late flashback to Mo in Afghanistan to make Claire’s withdrawal of support for the peaceful garden into an allegory of how the liberals got behind the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and how they feel about it now. The answer the book gives would be: bad, but not bad enough. Claire can’t apologize, and then, seeing the Arabic characters where the names were to have been in New York, she finds she still can’t apologize. In that sense the novel’s hope leaves her behind and moves on to the next generation. A generation will hopefully read this novel and take from it exactly that moral: the need to overcome the shortcomings of its elders.
Bruce Robbins, Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, works mainly in the areas of nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction, literary and cultural theory, and postcolonial studies. His books include Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress (New York University Press) and Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State (Princeton University Press).