Monday, March 5, 2012

Amy Waldman's The Submission - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst is On The Same Page

The library in our town, imitating Seattle, chooses a book each year for us to read together – the event is called “On the Same Page”.  The stated intent is simply for us to read together as a community, though many times the book has had a diversity or multiculturally based theme, intending, I think, to help us better understand each other’s perspectives.  The novel this year, The Submission, by Amy Waldman, certainly appears, on its face, to be a multicultural primer.   It is the fictional account of a nominally Muslim architect winning the juried competition to design the memorial for 9/11 and the aftermath of that decision.

The story is told both in third person and in first person from the perspective of each of a half dozen of the major protagonists.  Mohammed Khan – or Mo as he prefers to be called, and Claire Burwell, the wealthy widow of one of the victims, are the central two of these characters, but Alyssa Spier, the ambitious journalist whose tactics spur the heated cultural divisions along, Debbie Dawson, the anti-Muslim divorcee, Sean Gallagher, the Catholic ne’er do well brother of a firefighter who died, and Asma Anwar, the illegal Bangladeshi immigrant whose husband also died in the towers, all take their turns at describing their experience of the events as they unfold, as do others. 

Each time a person’s perspective is taken up, it seems primarily intended to move the plot along.  Unfortunately, from a psychoanalytic perspective, this use of the device kills what I would hope for from a work of this kind – insight into the ways in which people differ.  Instead, the protagonists all sound more or less alike.  Their motives are similar – each is tinged with a certain amount of self-interest and self-promotion.  Each, in strikingly similar ways, struggles to know his or her central motivations and discovers them only as a result of engaging in the activity of the narrative.

The central narrative question of motive – what drove an American Muslim to submit a design for the competition, knowing that his being a Muslim would create divisiveness if his design were accepted - remains opaque.  Not, I believe, as the author might have us think because that is part of the Muslim mystery, nor as the author might have us think because none of us can know ourselves, but because each of the characters seems to be a similar projection of what I presume to be her central experience – the experience that we toss things out into the world to see what happens.  The converse of that – the reporter’s position – is that we will discover who we are (and who others are) by seeing the results of our actions.

While this may be a satisfying and perhaps even useful position for a journalist to take – it allows her to pillory others and to look for the self interest aspect of their motivation in whatever it is she is reporting – it is terribly disappointing in a novel, a place where we turn to understand the idiosyncratic functioning of individuals.  Unlike Kathryn Stockett, the white author of The Help (see my blog on this), who experienced the divide between blacks and whites in Alabama in the 1960s as being so sharp that she refused to allow access to the conscious experience of her black characters – only to her whites, this author, more like Zoe Ferraris, the author of Finding Nouf (again, see my blog), presumes to be able to articulate the internal experience of individuals from a vastly different culture.  While Waldman acknowledges the help of many individuals with Muslim surnames, I side with Stockett; that to know our own consciousness (let alone unconscious) is difficult enough, and to know another’s (something psychoanalysts strive to do) is presumptuous; increasingly so as those individuals differ from who it is that we, ourselves, are.

The submitted entry – the architectural memorial – is a garden.  It is a beautiful and ambiguous design.  It draws on many influences, not the least of which are Islamic, which, in turn, draw on pre-Islamic gardens that existed in the Middle East.  Under the pressure of taunts and heckling, Mo, the architect, strays from his intended strategy of emphasizing the breadth of influences and instead focuses on the Muslim ones, thus intensifying the polarizing quality of his proposal.  By becoming, owning, being who and what it is that he is, he increases the risk of being rejected by, vilified and distanced from those who differ from him.  Being ambiguous may allow him – and us - to hang onto some shred of what makes us distinct.

We are introduced to Mo as he is being frisked at LAX in the wake of 9/11.  He has been singled out because of his name and his looks.  This infuriates him.  He is further infuriated because his architectural talents are exploited by his firm and he is not promoted to partner.  He is also a man without a culture.  His parents emigrated from India and, though he respects them, he no longer belongs to their culture, indeed they no longer belong to their own cultural origins, nor does Mo’s adopted American culture, despite his wearing the trappings of it, completely fit him. 

Waldman seems, at least to my reading, to suspect that Mo’s sense of being disowned by his adopted culture would lead him to have an inherent hatred towards it, a hatred that could be expressed, perhaps unconsciously, in the building of a garden that would evoke the martyr’s garden that the terrorists were promised.  If we buy this premise, we must also buy that this would be one thread in a terribly complicated tapestry.  And Waldman, I worry, is ultimately not able to do that, or to help us do that.  I think she retains a reporter’s mistrust – a belief that others are harboring malignant motives – and that it is the malignant mistrust that is the real story.  Just as early analysts (and I, early in my development as a person and an analyst) took the position that the unconscious motives were the real – or even only valid and important motives.  Perhaps most damning for both is that there is a sense that the real motives are venal.  That the world cannot absorb evil – even something as evil as the attacks of 9/11 - and integrate it into its complexly evolving sense of itself in such a way that there is a greater holistic sense, rather than a more simplistic, and reductionistically easy but false answer to very a complex question – who are we. 

So my concern – despite over reaching into presuming to know Waldman’s thinking – is that this book does not help as much as it might appear to bridge the divide, but in fact might widen it, by creating the other – the Muslim in this case – not as he or she is, but as we imagine him or her to be.  Ultimately, if we are to live in a truly multicultural world, we should get to know our neighbors and be prepared to accept them with all of the complexity that being human, and being human in the context of being a member of another culture, includes.  This is no easy task, indeed it, like the analytic ideal of understanding another’s mind, may not be possible.

Post Script:  After writing the above, I went to hear Waldman talk.  She came to town because of the on the same page event and talked about how she wrote this, her first novel.  She experienced the sameness of the characters as emerging more organically.  As the threads of the story wove together she found that they emerged from herself and tangled themselves in ways that led them to have similarities that she attributed to the story, though I continue to wonder whether they are also partly woven on the same woof – her unconscious.

As I listened to her and reflected on my writing, I worried that I had been as reductionistic with her as I was accusing her of being with Islam and Islamic characters.  She was in New York on 9/11 and reported on the aftermath intensively for the next six weeks.  She was then relocated to a series of posts abroad, mostly in Islamic countries.  Her recovery from 9/11 was complicated by observing America through a Muslim lens – wondering what we were thinking as we tried to figure out with whom to go to war and as we painted all Muslims as extremist.

When I asked her to address the opaqueness of Mo’s character, she clearly had thought a lot about it, and was still puzzling it out herself.  Acknowledging that she drew from her own character to feel her way into his, she created a person who was close enough to be able to build a tentative bridge.  She focused on the rather naïve inspiration for Mo’s garden as something that he wanted to keep hidden.  This made me wonder, too late to follow up with her, if part of what she was saying was that her own naïve wish to be able to bridge the Islamic/Judeo-Christian divide was something that she wanted to keep hidden.  She also acknowledged that she and Mo share anger – at the US (and perhaps at sensationalistic journalism that drives us into weird places)– that is also part of the motivation that she wants to keep hidden.

I left the talk feeling that we still don’t know the Muslim mind from this book, but also feeling less judgmental about that.  The bridge that Waldman is attempting to build may not land solidly where Mo’s mind is, but that does not mean that it isn’t worth the effort.  I now think her primary effort was to heal something inside of her – something that was torn in many complicated and internally inconsistent ways by the events of 9/11.  To do this by wondering about those among us who are hyphenated differently keeps alive both the naïve hopes and the frustrating failures that are so much a part of belonging to this social experiment we call the United States, and that reconnects us with who we were before the attacks.

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