PUBLIC BOOKS: James E. Young on The Submission
12 March 2011
Counterfactual 9/11-Memorial Storm Hits NYC
What happens when fictionalized history weaves itself back into actual history on the ground? At an appreciation dinner for the 9/11 Memorial jurors hosted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg last September, the subject of Amy Waldman’s brilliant counterfactual novel based on the 2003–04 memorial competition came up between the salad and main course. Two of the memorial jury members had read the novel and enjoyed it thoroughly, they said, regaling the rest of us with the novel’s uncannily plausible premise: of 5,201 submissions from 62 different countries, a Muslim-American architect wins the blind competition for the National 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero.
At which point, in Waldman’s novel, all hell breaks loose—first, internally, among jurors who bicker bitterly about what they may have wrought. Then, after someone leaks the Muslim identity of the memorial’s designer, one Mohammad Khan, a political and public firestorm explodes, even before the design or designer is known. Soon after, Khan’s “Memorial Garden” is publicly announced. An “Islamic Victory Garden!” the tabloids howl; “Memorial Paradise for the Killers!” blares Fox news—“stay tuned!” And we do, rapt at the spectacle of 9/11 family members turning on each other, attacking the jury, and demonizing the talented but recalcitrant Muslim architect, known by his American nickname, Mo.
At first, Waldman’s novel seems eerily prophetic for the ways it seems to have anticipated the furious protests greeting Community Board 1’s 2010 approval of an Islamic cultural center at 51 Park Place, just north of Ground Zero. Waldman has an acute ear for the pitch of those battles over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” (neither mosque, nor at Ground Zero), and a profound grasp of the political, ethical, and aesthetic imperatives of the memorial process itself. Would this be a defiant monument to a nation’s resilience? Would Ground Zero remain a gaping wound in the cityscape, even a permanent graveyard in the eyes of the victims’ families? Or would the memorial find a way to formalize both the pain of loss and the need for regeneration? “Weren’t you offended?” one of the jurors asked our lone family member, after hearing her describe her own “portrayal” in the novel. “Not at all,” she replied with a shrug and broad smile. “But what if it doesn’t make you look good?” someone else asked her. “It’s a novel!” exclaimed our family member, widowed with two children when her husband died in the South Tower. “It’s not about us!” Preening jury members that we were, it would always be about us, wouldn’t it? The fact-fiction parlor game continued: “What was Maya Lin’s counterpart like in the novel?” “How about Vartan [Gregorian]’s?” “As long as George Clooney plays me in the film-version,” quipped a male jury member. Then the counterfactual speculations began: “What if we had chosen a Muslim”? Before anyone could answer, someone else chimed in, “Did any of you have any qualms that our choice, Michael Arad, was an Israeli-American?” The question shocked the room into silence, followed by a chorus of guffaws. “Don’t be ridiculous! Of course not!” And then a clinking of glasses to toast the imperfect process that yielded both a great memorial and an excellent counterfactual novel.
Waldman’s storytelling is taut and textured, her deeply complicated characters convincing, but there is also an unexpectedly penetrating critique of the 9/11 Memorial’s aesthetic logic embedded in the brittle exchanges between the jury’s family member, Claire, and the jury’s professional “memorialist,” Ariana (a stand-in for Maya Lin). “The Garden was beautiful,” according to Ariana. “Too beautiful.” Ariana asks whether beauty can compensate for and console terror, as the family members might wish, or whether a memorial to victims of terror must formally articulate pain and loss. Here the novelist captures the essential difference between family members’ need for a place to mourn and the public artist’s need to signify national meaning in the site:
“Graveyards,” Claire said, an old tenacity rising within her. “Why are they often the loveliest places in cities?” “The Garden,” she continued, “will be a place where we—where the widows, their children, anyone—can stumble on joy. My husband…” she said, and everyone leaned in to listen.
“I’m sorry,” [said Ariana] “but a memorial isn’t a graveyard. It’s a national symbol, an historic signifier, a way to make sure anyone who visits—no matter how attenuated their link in time or geography to the attack—understands how it felt, what it meant. The Void [Ariana’s choice to be the winning design] is visceral, angry, dark, raw, because there was no joy on that day… The Garden speaks to a longing we have for healing. It’s a very natural impulse, but maybe not our most sophisticated one.”
Even if none of the real jury’s internal arguments actually unfolded as they do in the novel (we were neither this pedantic nor this provocative), the exchanges Waldman pens eloquently capture the underlying tensions in any memorial between its personal, civic, and aesthetic functions: its role as a mourning site for bereaved loved ones, its role as one memorial node in the matrix of national memory, and its formalization of grief, which demands aesthetic integrity. In fact, the dramatic pitting of a grieving family member against professional memorialists highlights a fundamental tension between the families’ need for closure and the contemporary artist’s need to articulate unredeemable loss.
In another exchange between family members grieving a lost firefighter son and brother, the victim’s mother says, “Sometimes I wish Patrick had died in a regular fire. No firefighter dies a private death, not if he dies on the job. But to have all these politics mixed in—I don’t like it, all… the noise.” Throughout the novel, the all-too-real issues of remembrance and the many stumbling blocks for the real jurors are depicted seamlessly in real time. How should such public and political deaths be remembered differently from the more private deaths of office workers? Can we mark the rescuers’ civic deaths without creating a hierarchy of victims?
In a concentrated summing up of the national, collective trauma of watching televised replays of the towers’ collapse, the chair of the memorial jury, Paul, imagines himself pledging allegiance to the devastation of that day in September 2011: “You couldn’t call yourself an American if you hadn’t, in solidarity, watched your fellow Americans being pulverized, yet what kind of American did watching create? A traumatized victim? A charged-up avenger? A queasy voyeur? Paul, and he suspected many Americans, harbored all of these protagonists. The memorial was meant to tame them.” Did the memorial tame or inflame these protagonists? Or do we ask too much of any memorial?
Even Special Master of the Victims’ Compensation Fund, Kenneth Feinberg, makes a cameo appearance, just before a crushing exchange between Claire and a reporter shouting at her as she and other widows leave a meeting with the head of the Fund:
“How do you answer Americans who say they’re tired of your sense of entitlement, that you’re being greedy?” Claire had gripped her purse to keep her hands from shaking, but she didn’t bother to mute the tremble in her voice. “Entitlement? Was that the word you used?” The reporter shrank back. “Was I entitled to lose my husband? Was I entitled to have to explain to my children why they will never know their father, to have to raise them alone? Am I entitled to live knowing the suffering my husband endured?… This isn’t about money. It’s about justice, accountability. And yes, I’m entitled to that.”Imagine what it must have felt like to be designated as the memorial jury’s sole representative of some 2,800 grieving families. This is what Waldman has attempted, and, I think, succeeded in doing beautifully.
Soon we discover that Mohammad Khan is just as interesting and tortured as the rest of the novel’s characters. “Where were you during the attack?” security agents grill him as he attempts to depart LAX for his home in New York City a week after 9/11. “Here, in Los Angeles,” he said, “working on the theater” whose blueprints he has just showed them. And then, the narrator adds: “Working and longing for New York. Southern California was the white dress at the funeral, ill-suited to national tragedy.” After the attacks, Mohammad Khan “realized that the difference wasn’t in how he was being treated but in how he was behaving. Customarily brusque on work sites, he had become gingerly, polite, careful to give no cause for alarm or criticism.”
In fact, it is Mohammad who seems to grasp the ambience and visceral details of the first days after the attack especially well, in his reflections on what might be regarded as the city’s first found memorials of 9/11: “A quilt of the missing—bright portraits of tuxedoed men and lipsticked women—had been pasted on fences and construction plywood, but the streets were empty, and for the first time in memory, he heard his own footsteps in New York City.” Later, he reflects on the World Trade Center towers themselves, in all their unloveliness, and the voids they left behind: “They were living rebukes to nostalgia, these Goliaths that had crushed small businesses, vibrant streetscapes, generational continuities, and other romantic notions beneath their giant feet. Yet it was nostalgia he felt for them. A skyline was a collaboration, if an inadvertent one, between generations, seeming no less natural than a mountain range that had shuddered up from the earth. This new gap in space reversed time.”
With its panoply of victims (including a searing portrait of an undocumented Muslim Bangladeshi and his family and neighbors), careerist reporters and editors, family organizations hijacked by bigots, and politicians attempting to leverage public opinion to their advantage, all thrown together into a climactic public hearing on the merit of Khan’s “Garden Memorial,” it’s no wonder that other critics have called Waldman’s novel the Bonfire of the Vanities of the post-9/11 era. Whip-smart and multilayered, this novel is, like memory itself, never just one thing. The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath also came in pieces, moments, shattered lives, and shards of afterlife. Sometimes fiction and imagination outrun reality; sometimes reality is more imaginative than fiction can ever be.
In the end, Waldman has imagined a brilliant counterfactual result for the memorial process, showing what could have happened if some of the procedural details she invents had been part of the actual 9/11 Memorial competition (e.g., the public hearing, the governor’s threatened veto, a leaking jury). At one point, Waldman’s narrator felicitously observes that the governor’s “ambition kept outflanking [jury chair] Paul’s ambition.” I would add that the novelist’s imagination has certainly outflanked the actual jury’s ambition. This is a masterpiece. Now if only Newt Gingrich’s buffoonish demagoguery in response to the Islamic cultural center had also been nothing but the fevered work of a novelist’s imagination, and not real-world grist for the novelist’s mill. If only.
James E. Young is Distinguished University Professor and Director of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of At Memory’s Edge and The Texture of Memory (both Yale University Press), among other works. In 2003, he was appointed to the competition jury for a National 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero, which selected “Reflecting Absence,” by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, dedicated and opened September 11, 2011.