A COMMITTEE CHARGED with selecting a design for a 9/11 memorial on the site of the World Trade Center reviews a number of blind submissions and picks a winner; the winning designer, it turns out, is a Muslim. His design, furthermore, seems on examination to have identifiably Islamic elements. How would this play out?
The premise has potential. Imagine it as the given for a novella by Sam Lipsyte, say, or T. C. Boyle, who would be sure to lay bare every species of hypocrisy, folly, fatuousness, and opportunism that would quickly ensue. Going the other way, it could work as the seed for a big, baggy neo-Victorian sprawl like Bonfire of the Vanities, with a cross-section of New York City in the early Ohs.
Waldman's novel is neither quite the one nor the other. She eases up on the satire pedal, seeming to want to be fair to everyone, never going for the jugular as Lipsyte would. At 300 pages, it's not all that compact, yet it does not have the attention to milieu that Wolfe would have brought to bear--if one thinks of what Wolfe might have done with the committee meetings, or the public hearing about the design, or the apartment where the Bangladeshi 9/11 widow Asma Anwar lives, some of the novel's big scenes feel thin.
Waldman is certainly on the money, though, that the circumstance she posits would produce a swirl of controversy, that the media's magnifying-glass would turn that swirl into a tornado of hysteria, and that everyone involved would be much the worse for wear.