Thursday, March 22, 2012

Polarized pillars

In an alternate New York post-9/11, a committee (representing victims' families, art critics, funders, and politicians) selects an anonymous artist's sculpture garden to be its memorial. The Submission tells the story of what happens when the artist's name is revealed, and it turns out he's Muslim.

Parts of the book were painful to read, because I know it wasn't fiction. The vitriol, the racism, the profiling, the hate, the fear ... it all happened when plans for a proposed Muslim community center met with vicious opposition. And still happens. The talk show soundbites in Waldman's book have all been said somewhere, the articles already printed, the comments uttered repeatedly in real life. But even though it was realistic, it was still gut-wrenching to read.

The characters are assembled right out of a Law and Order episode: the stubborn and egotistical artist who, though agnostic, refuses to answer questions that would not be asked of a non-Muslim; the widow whose role is to represent the interests of the victims' families but finds herself at odds with them; the undocumented Bangladeshi Muslim woman who lost her husband in the towers; the working-class unfavorite son who finds the only meaning in his life in leading an anti-Islam movement.

The cast of individuals in the story spans the wealthy and privileged to the invisible and vulnerable. The changes they undergo as the protests against the memorial mount are, amazingly, unpredictable. Though the community dynamics and identity politics were all uncomfortably familiar (uneasy coalitions, performing for cameras, etc), I was surprised at the twists and turns the characters themselves took.

The book wasn't exactly riveting, nor were the characters especially complicated. Yet I couldn't stop reading because in some way, I was hoping for some minor resolutions in this fictional plot for the mirrored real-life issues and concerns.

Of course, there are none.

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