Amy Waldman: “The Submission”

08/16/2011 § 2 Comments

Interestingly enough, due to the publishing schedules of The Atlantic, Amy Waldman’s novel of the same name was released first. That’s probably for the best, for Waldman’s story has been so successfully adapted that it may discourage readers from picking up the full-length version, even though the short is about as far from a slog as it gets. Ten years after 9/11, stories dealing with that infamous day are no longer rare, but ones that find such a simultaneously provocative and passive subject to wind around are. (And remember, Waldman wrote this novel before the kerfuffle over the proposed Ground Zero mosque.) In the course of just under eight pages, Sean Gallagher rises, falls, and most importantly changes — and yet his character’s motivations remain convincing. Characters throw out broadsides and screeds one moment, but are humanized the next — Sean’s fellow crusader, Debbie, seen through her daughter’s love/hate college essay. Without judgement from the author, they are humbled: Sean, who with a clear mind has irrationally protested the winning design for the 9/11 memorial (the anonymous winner turns out to be Muslim), goes temporarily mad — for rational reasons — after seeing a counter-protestor with the sign “BIGOTS = IDIOTS,” whose head scarf he attempts to pull off. Everyone, including the victim, Zahira Hussain, “a Columbia University student double-majoring in literature and economics,” is more than they seem.

This is impressive work, tightly plotted and neatly structured, filled with reveals that reverse opinions we arrived at only moments before, as well as smooth flashbacks that establish Sean as the rudderless black sheep of his family, grounded only by the loss of his heroic eldest brother, a firefighter. Consider:

Catastrophe, he had learned, summoned his best self. In its absence, he faltered.

The decade before the attack had been a wild lurch through the white space of adult life. Each bad choice had fed off the last. He dropped out of junior college; started, absent other options, a handyman business, then drank because he detested bending beneath the sinks of people he’d grown up with. And because he liked to drink.

When he gives his memorial speeches, he talks about a seven-month depression in which “I lost my marriage, I lost my business, I lost my home, but that’s nothing. My brother–my only brother–lost his life.” Uplifting for all the wrong reasons, as Sean observes wryly of the people who awkwardly applaud this statement. And also a lie: the very next paragraph opens with “Returning to live with his parents after bailing on his wife” and ends with “Eileen, who’d always given Sean, the youngest of six, a threadbare mothering, warmed.” And yet, the third-person narrative never seems deceptive, any more than Sean is delusional or unreliable. (He knows, deep down, what’s up, and that kills him: “‘Do you know who I am?'” he wanted to scream at her, but the true answer burned: he was a handyman living with his parents.”) The result is a fluid tone, the animated patter of a man who is so afraid that he will collapse if he settles that he flings himself forward, sometimes before his feelings can catch up. Or to quote Waldman again: “In life, redemption was walking up the down escalator: stop to congratulate yourself, and back you slid.”

Waldman is blessed with material, and while some of it may be a condensed form of her novel, it allows nearly every paragraph to pack a punch. The pace is so quick — so much ground to cover in these few pages — that there are constant surprises, and as with the best authors, they do not seem planned: instead, it feels as if the author has invested so heavily in Sean that he has genuinely surprised her; she’s just been strong enough to go along for the ride. The only apparently authorial “intrusion” is in the cleverness of her descriptions, in which the SAFI (Save America From Islam) protestors are described as “the professional wrestlers of activists”:

Their leader, Debbie Dawson, looked like a poorly weathered Angelina Jolie. She had to be close to fifty, but her blog, The American Way, showed her in a see-through burka with only a bikini beneath. Today she was wearing a custom-stitched T-shirt that said INFIDEL, and a rhinestone-encrusted PEACE around her neck.

Insightful, funny, and compact all at once, these descriptions are all the more appreciated as slight pauses on the rip-roaring adventure that takes Sean from the ashes of 9/11 to his attempts to honor the fallen (his brother among them), to his emotional response to the Islamic architect, his subsequent protest, the homelessness this causes (after threats of Islamic vengeance for his scarf-pulling), his unexpected roommate in Debbie, and then — though any one of these moments could be slowed down enough for a whole short-story on its own — all the way to his decision to meet his “victim,” and his unplanned apology, something he’s as surprised by as she is. Nor, of course, is the story content to end there, with some amicable resolution, some “mutual respect” bullshit that embodies the American Ideal in which we respect all of our neighbors. No: the final surprise is that despite his regret for violating this earnest woman’s personal space, her religious choice, he’s still against the principle of an Islamic architect building a shrine to the victims of Islamic violence. We, as readers, find ourselves torn, too, and the story’s final image is haunting, for it is a close-up on Zahira Hussain’s face, once again in anguish.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on the Munro-quality title, in which “submission” refers to the 9/11 memorial contest itself (submissions from designers) to Sean’s tendered (though not tender) apology, to the inanity of protests in which participants must submit their names to the police in advance (if they plan to be politely arrested), to the images of burkas and bikinis (both arguably forms of submission), to say nothing of Sean’s whole history as a failed handyman who cannot stand to be fixing other people’s sinks . . . . In short, “The Submission” is a terrific submission, and I can only hope the novel’s half as rich.

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