PUBLIC BOOKS: Rebecca L. Walkowitz on The Submission
12 March 2011
The Submission is a novel about character. This is in some ways surprising. The thematic register of public deliberation, political haggling, and urban acrimony suggests a work devoted not to the minutiae of consciousness but to the mechanisms of narrative action. Plot should rule the day.
But at the heart of Amy Waldman’s plot is a debate about the character of artworks. Where does the meaning of a sculpture, a film, or a novel come from? Do these creations, like their makers, have personalities? And how can thinking about the character of artworks help us think about the character of persons?
These questions take us directly to the novel’s eponymous artwork, the architectural design that Mohammad Khan “submits” to the memorial jury. Politicians, victims’ families, journalists, everyday New Yorkers, and indeed readers find themselves asking whether Khan’s “Garden,” because it may have been inspired by Afghanistan’s Islamic gardens, pays homage to a history of martyrdom that they consider continuous with the contemporary history of terrorism. They ask whether a Muslim artist’s artwork will be itself Muslim, and whether Muslim culture and history have an identifiable message that the artwork cannot help but communicate. The ensuing debate generates a striking meditation about the relationship between art and culture.
Critics have treated The Submission as a historical novel about the aftermath of September 11. This judgment has sometimes implied a critique of Waldman’s artfulness as a novelist. Wedded to history, albeit a counterfactual history, Waldman is said to give less attention to—and have less to say about—the formal and epistemological concerns we associate with literary fiction. In fact, as I’ll suggest below, Waldman engages seriously with the theory and philosophy of art as well as with the history of the novel. The questions of character she attaches to Khan’s submission fan out to encompass other artworks within the text as well as The Submission itself.
We should note, for example, that Waldman’s narrative is full of memorials but that it too is a memorial: it was published less than a month before the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. The title is telling. While The Submission refers to Khan’s creation, it can also refer to Waldman’s, and the overlap calls for comparison. What do these artworks have in common? What is the appropriate context for understanding these memorials?
In addition to being a historical novel, The Submission can be understood as yet another contemporary novel of multiculturalism. Its themes of social conflict and cultural stereotyping evoke this genre—as does an explicit reference on the novel’s fourth page to Tom Wolfe’s 1987 blockbuster. The jury chairman Paul Rubin, not as “literary” as his wife thinks he is, “wasn’t sure he’d read a novel since The Bonfire of the Vanities.” We’re meant to understand that there’s something a little thin about multicultural fiction; Paul’s deficient literariness is a matter of poor quality as well as low quantity. Waldman seems to share this view. She aligns her work with the likes of Bonfire and at the same time disavows the connection. Why?
Multicultural fictions imply a kind of rigid exemplarity, in which social categories are doled out among the principal actors and in which those categories govern to a large degree what those actors think and do. Culture seems to determine character. In Waldman’s novel, we have the Irish firefighter’s brother, the undocumented Bangladeshi immigrant, the wealthy WASP widow, and the secular Jewish philanthropist. Each character has a categorical point of view—a point of view generated demographically—and those viewpoints, aggregated, suggest the irreducible mosaic of the novel’s community. In the typical novel of multiculturalism, that mosaic is to be found within a large metropolis: for example, the London of Zadie Smith or Alan Hollinghurst, the San Francisco of Karen Tei Yamashita, and the New York City of Tom Wolfe, Colum McCann, or Richard Price.
At first blush, Waldman’s fiction seems to follow the scheme I’ve sketched, in so far as characterization is tied to identity. The Jewish politico, Paul Rubin, seems motivated by a family history of economic and religious marginalization; he wants to keep the power he’s earned and can now take for granted. Asma Anwar, the Bangladeshi immigrant, is pregnant when her husband is killed in the terrorist attack; she wants to delay her deportation so that she can give birth to “an American citizen.” The Jewish philanthropist seems intent on secularization; the “illegal” immigrant seems intent on Americanization. Sean Gallagher, the brother of an Irish firefighter killed in the attack, pits his family’s patriotism against Kahn’s “Muslim” design. Each of these personae appears, at least initially, typical rather than distinct.
Yet things get more interesting when the problem of character migrates from persons to literary and visual art. Some members of the memorial jury wonder whether Kahn’s use of arches and canals that feature in Islamic architecture means that his design will also be Islamic. They imagine that the terrorism they associate with Islamic fundamentalism might permeate Kahn’s work. Can an arch or a canal support terrorism?
Claire Burwell, the wealthy WASP widow who initially champions Khan’s work, worries that his memorial “quotes” (this is his word) details from architectural gardens in Afghanistan. Because those gardens celebrate an Islamic paradise, she asks, is his “Garden” also a paradise? Khan responds by drawing two intersecting lines and then holding his paper at two different angles. Claire sees a cross; then she sees an X. Khan adds more lines, and Claire sees a window, a checkerboard, or a grid, perhaps Manhattan. “It’s all of those things, or maybe none of them. It’s lines on a plane, just like the Garden,” Khan explains. “Lines on a plane. Geometry doesn’t belong to a single culture.”
In this exchange, histories of circulation and reception add a new dimension to the question of character. If an arch was used to convey Islamic paradise in sixteenth-century Afghanistan, does this feature carry the same meaning when it reappears in mid-twentieth-century New York or twenty-first-century Mumbai? What happens to an artwork’s meaning when it is adapted into new artworks and when it is read, viewed, or experienced by new audiences?
Here are the three most interesting ways that Waldman’s novel interferes with character as usual.
First, Waldman questions the relevance of character by asking us to imagine right away that the work of art we are reading extends beyond the object in our hands and beyond the identity of its author. She does this by framing her novel ambiguously, beginning with an epigraph attributed to “an unidentified Pashto poet” and ending with an author’s note that directs us to the book’s “sources of information and inspiration.” Like the speaker in the epigraph, the novel is “not bound by its attachments.” Its origins seem to be various and to some extent “unidentified.”
Yet, what is the epigraph telling us? That origins don’t matter? What about the origins of the epigraph itself? When one sees on the copyright page that the untitled fragment of uncertain “Pashto” origin in fact comes from a specific poem by a named poet of precise origin—“The Afghans, by Mohammed Ali, Kabul, 1969”—it becomes clear that the abstraction, withholding, display, and proliferation of origins is crucial to the novel’s project. Waldman is interested in the difference between categories and individuals, between the “Pashto poet” and the individual writer publishing in Afghanistan. The architect Kahn argues that sources are not at all relevant. But Waldman’s novel doesn’t dismiss sources so quickly. Instead, it suggests that sources enlarge the meanings of art; instead of defining the work, once and for all, sources can help us see how an artwork’s meanings are established, and how those meanings might change in the future.
Waldman interferes with character in a second way by aligning her fiction not only with the contemporary novel of multiculturalism but also with several of its precursors. These include the novel of urban bureaucracy (think Charles Dickens’s Bleak House) and the modernist novel of colonial anti-Semitism (think James Joyce’s Ulysses). These are related traditions, and both present us with social worlds of overlapping interests and partial allegiances.
The imprint of Ulysses is especially notable. When Paul Rubin first sees the name of the winning architect, he says to himself, “A dark horse indeed,” echoing the phrase used to describe the uncircumcised Irish-Jewish Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. By having the Jewish chairman apply this epithet to the secular Muslim-American architect Mo Kahn, Waldman asks us to compare anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic prejudice. She asks us to notice, as Joyce did, that being victimized does not preclude victimizing others. She also asks us to consider that racism tends to assign definitive identities. How Jewish is Bloom? How Muslim is Khan? Most interestingly, Waldman’s use of a well-known literary allusion gestures to the idea—so central to Ulysses—that the circulation of objects, including phrases, through citation and appropriation generates meanings far in excess of the original source. In this way, too, The Submission suggests that we can’t judge the character of the artwork by the implied character of the artist.
Finally, Waldman takes on character by suggesting that narrative, because it develops over time and integrates different moments of remembering, interrupts the potentially stagnant quality of position-taking and position-keeping. Monuments fix, narratives unfold; this novel turns monuments into narratives. The most effective memorial for the terrorist attack, we learn in the novel’s final chapter, is a documentary film. Twenty years after the architectural competition, Claire Burwell’s son William and his girlfriend Molly are producing a film about the events that occupied the first 280 pages of the novel. Their documentary breaks from the traditional mold. Instead of editing and collating separate interviews, they are creating what we might call a “living” documentary, in which subjects watch and respond to each other’s interviews. An effective memorial, Waldman suggests, solicits audience participation.
Yet it is part of the brilliance of Waldman’s novel that the documentary, which seems to trump the site-specific sculpture as a medium of memorialization, actually echoes Kahn’s design. William and Molly fly to Mumbai to interview Kahn, who left the US after withdrawing from the New York competition and has made his fortune building towers and gardens all over the world. He has built a version of his Garden, which the filmmakers include in their video. As William tours the grounds, we see that the Garden is a kind of narrative, both because its living materials grow and because it is used as well as observed.
We see, too, that William’s reception of the Garden constitutes a new production. He adds to the artwork by placing in one corner what his mother calls a “cairn,” the Celtic term for stones used to mark and remember. A small pile of stones placed in remembrance invokes many traditions, including the Jewish custom of placing small stones at a grave. It also registers William’s memorial to his father, who had taught him about cairns when he was a child. The stones’ significance is visible to William and to his mother, who sees the video, but perhaps to no one else. The cairn appears as the novel’s final reminder of form’s resistance to character and of reception’s effects on the meanings of art.
Because Waldman asks us to question whether a Muslim artist produces a Muslim artwork, we might also find ourselves asking whether a Jewish novelist produces a Jewish novel. The Submission responds to both of these questions by insisting that the work of art is not reducible to the artist’s geographic location and biographical history, in part because those locations and histories draw on traditions from many cultures, in part because artworks live in the future as well as the past. For all its irony about the multicultural novel, The Submission doesn’t leave it entirely behind, and yet Waldman updates the genre by emphasizing points of contact rather than points of view. Instead of distinguishing among categories, she shows how they overlap, share histories, and develop into something new. The Submission believes in character, but it is the kind that art makes, not the kind that makes art.
Rebecca L. Walkowitz is Associate Professor in the English Department at Rutgers University. Her research focuses on the intersections between cosmopolitan aspirations and modernist aesthetics, and on transnational approaches to literary history. She is the author of Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation (Columbia University Press) and the editor or coeditor of several additional books including The Turn to Ethics with Marjorie Garber and Beatrice Hanssen (Routledge).