When Arthur Koestler wrote Darkness at Noon in 1940, the events he was fictionalizing had just barely moved from the present tense into the past. The Moscow show trials of 1936–38, wherein Leon Trotsky and his associates were accused of assassination plots merely as a way to justify their murders, not only shocked the world, but shocked the Hungarian writer—who had been such a dedicated communist that he went to Berlin in 1933 and Spain during the Spanish Civil War to act as a spy. He saw the deep corruption of the communist movement, turned his back on the political philosophy, and began writing a scathing portrayal of a government that would execute the architects of the revolution’s theoretical structure. By the end of 1940, the manuscript was completed, translated from the German, and published for an English-speaking audience. Now, the book resides securely in the canon.
I kept thinking about Darkness at Noon as I was reading Amy Waldman’s debut novel, The Submission ($26; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) but unfortunately I do not mean that as a compliment. There are problems with Darkness at Noon, problems that frequently plague the journalist who tries his or her hand at fiction. Koestler was able to transcend those flaws, through the ferocity of his writing and the moral struggle of a writer confronting his own mistakes. Waldman, a former journalist and co-chief of the New Delhi bureau for The New York Times, is ultimately sunk by them.
The story behind The Submission could have been ripped from the very headlines that Waldman used to write. A panel of judges selects a tasteful walled garden with trees both real and built out of rubble as the winner of the 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center site—only for it to be revealed that the proposal was submitted by a young Muslim architect named Mohammad Khan. Controversy ensues. Some of the panel members attempt to distance themselves from the decision. The governor finds that pandering to the racist and the ignorant benefits her reelection campaign. Families of the victims take to the airwaves and to the streets to protest the “Islamic martyr paradise” being built at the site of the attack. Khan, a secular, American-born Muslim, finds himself questioning his identity, his religion, and his way of life.
Now, the problem of the journalist-novelist is a product of the fact that journalists deal primarily in information. For a writer in journalism mode, everything in the story services the information that the author believes he or she must convey to the reader. Characters can become stand-ins for the viewpoint they express, and the prose can be merely a method to spit out facts. The prison guards in Darkness at Noon parrot communist propaganda until they seem more like lifeless automatons than human beings. And in The Submission, Waldman’s prose suffers under the weight of all of the facts and figures. In one particularly, although not uncharacteristically, clunky section, she tries to convey how ill-educated your average American is about the ways of the world by writing, “Eighty percent of Muslims were not Arab: this was one of those facts many learned and earnestly repeated in the wake of the attack, without knowing exactly what they were trying to say, or rather knowing that they were trying to say that not all Muslims were as problematic as the Arab ones, but not wanting to say exactly that.” There are many such asides, as Waldman leads the reader into thinking what she wants them to think.
The greater problem of The Submission is that there is not a single character who feels genuine. Waldman’s agenda would be easier to accept if there was someone in the novel who felt like a human being. Each character is playing a type, and that has little to do with believability or nuance. There is the immigrants’ son, a secular Muslim out of touch with his roots. There is the sexy, all-American 9/11 widow, whom every man in the story is inexplicably in love with. There is the other 9/11 widow, the wife of an illegal immigrant working in the buildings as a janitor, who is innocent and pure and good. There is the brother of the 9/11 victim, not well educated and prone to fits of rage and racist slander. There is the politician who has no moral backbone and is swayed only by polling numbers. I could go on.
And then there is the proposed memorial itself. Waldman, not being a designer or an architect, presents a simple design idea for the memorial—a walled garden. This design services the information Waldman wants to convey: Walled gardens appear in Islamic countries throughout time (something she is all too happy to let a character explain, as though giving a history lesson). Once someone in the book realizes that, the tension can explode, and the plot can move along. And yet the author appears to know that this is not a brilliant proposal. She combats any disbelief by the reader that this would ever be the 9/11 memorial by making this design the favorite of the widow, not any of the art experts on the panel. The widow gets her way by flirting and exploiting that incomprehensible love she inspires in men. No one in the book truly believes this is a memorial worth fighting for. The result of this bit of self-deprecation by the author—I’m just a writer, no need to pretend I’m coming up with the best proposal here—leaves readers with no one whose judgment they can trust, and no justification for why all this fuss is being made over such a mediocre design and such a mediocre person (Khan).
There are two real-life reference points that Waldman pulls from heavily for the story of The Submission. One was the controversy over the 2010 proposal to build a mosque and community center several blocks from the World Trade Center, in the former space of a building damaged during the attacks. Much of the rhetoric of the 9/11 victims’ families in The Submission echoes the rhetoric aired primarily on Fox News and on talk radio during the heated protests. Both the real mosque and Waldman’s fictional memorial become symbols of Islamic victory in the eyes of the protesters, as if the ground was razed in the attacks specifically to build a monument to Islamic strength to spite the American infidels. And in both cases, the attacks on the proposed structures were fueled by conservative media, as it became clear that stoking the fury of the public through misinformation and outright fabrication is good for ratings and good for business.
The other reference point is the 1981 selection of Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Lin was condemned by many of the families of fallen soldiers simply for her Asian background, despite the fact that she was of Chinese heritage (and not of Vietnamese). Her struggle after the revelation of her identity, including her testimony in front of the United States Commission of Fine Arts, is merely rewritten into Waldman’s plot line. Khan’s design is selected by the jury in the same way that Lin’s was, and both are pressured to withdraw their proposals to keep the peace. And, should you miss the obvious similarities between the two designers, characters show up at various points in The Submission to state baldly how reminiscent all of this is to the Maya Lin controversy—starting on page 17, as a judge on the panel intones, “It’s Maya Lin all over again. But worse.”
Framing these issues inside a discussion about a memorial was a smart impulse, even if it was poorly executed. They are weighty things, memorials. They are there to give a sense of permanence to the ephemeral, a stony reminder of lives that ended too quickly. Literature based on historical events can act in the same way, from the poets of World War I to modern day 9/11 fiction. But ultimately, where the memorial is reductive—distilling complexity down to an allegorical statement of This Happened, and It Happened Here—novels should be expansive. They should reinstall the humanity behind the facts and figures. Waldman, by sticking with the facts and figures of the case, fails to give the reader the flesh and blood of the events. There is no pathos here, just another stony reminder that the Twin Towers fell. The reason I reach for Darkness at Noon again and again has nothing to do with wanting to remember the show trials of Moscow. It works as a memorial to those men who fell precisely because it takes down their names from the plaque and turns them back into people. It also works as a grand examination of how men are felled by their ideals, and how unmanageable revolutions are after the shooting stops. But reading Waldman is like replaying talk shows from a few years back. Its scope is ultimately so very small. How we choose to remember the day of September 11, 2001, is a foundational issue. It is only a shame that Waldman was not up to building a solid structure on that foundation.