When is history alternate?
Posted by Niall Harrison
24 August 2011
Over the past couple of weeks, I have been interestedly following the reviews of Amy Waldman's The Submission. The Publisher's Weekly thumbnail:
Waldman imagines a toxic brew of bigotry in conflict with idealism in this frighteningly plausible and tightly wound account of what might happen if a Muslim architect had won a contest to design a memorial at the World Trade Center site.
Pretty much all the reviews I've seen have been filled with praise, although praise for precisely what varies; Claire Messud asserts that it " remains a novel about the unfolding of a dramatic situation — a historian’s novel — rather than a novel that explores the human condition with any profundity"; Kamila Shamsie, on the other hand, suggests that the questions the book asks "are given texture and complexity by the characters who surround Khan and Burwell, all with their competing griefs and/or agendas". But as much as anything else what interests me about the book, in the context of scanning the UK publishing horizon for books that could be considered for this year's Clarke Award, is the assertion made in passing by Chris Cleave
Now, perfectly timed, comes Amy Waldman’s provocative first novel, an alternative history of the memorialization of the 9/11 victims.
In “The Submission,” Waldman conforms to the allohistorical convention by mutating just one chromosome of history’s DNA and then dissecting the resulting species.
Cleave's review is probably the best I've seen so far, as it provides useful context in the form of the controversy over Maya Lin's 1981 selection as the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (since the novel, as Shamsie notes, was drafted before the Park 51 controversy, this seems a more likely inspiration), and because it sketches the lineage of post-9/11 novels (contra Shamsie's rather odd assertion that there isn't one). But is The Submission alternate history?
Usually, when deciding whether something is alternate history, the key point is how far from our reality the novel's world travels. It's hard to judge that question for The Submission without reading it; there seems to be the potential for larger-scale political effects, and Shamsie's review notes that the story does continue a decade or so into our future; but at the same time it could just be a small change within our history, like most novelistic changes. But there's another issue with The Submission, which Abigail raised when I was discussing the book with her, namely that 9/11 is still very recent history. Abigail argued that alternate history requires us to know what the history is that is being altered, that The Submission's change is too much about our present to be alternate history. And I can see where she's coming from -- the Bush/Gore election, for instance, feels a lot more "like history" to me than 9/11 does -- and I think it's interesting to think about history as arranged by influence rather than by date, if only because it opens up many more possible narratives. Still, I don't know that I'm entirely convinced. And I think I do want to read The Submission to find out for myself what it's like.