Sometimes it feels like we live in a time of perpetual crisis. The war in Afghanistan — the longest in U.S. history — limps toward a distant and dismal end. A global refugee crisis begs moral questions but receives, at best, bureaucratic answers. A decrepit huckster howls from the White House, targeting everyone from teachers to journalists and athletes.
In the midst of such global problems, fiction can seem like an indulgent distraction. Books that touch on topical issues might get a pass — it’s hard to deny the importance of To Kill a Mockingbird or War and Peace — but what about those quiet novels that explore one person’s intellectual development or emotional turmoil?
Taking this question as an entry point, Lisa Halliday has written a slyly ambitious debut novel, Asymmetry, that manages to deliver personal and global stories as if they were one.
Divided into two main parts and a coda, Asymmetry‘s unusual structure produces some surprising effects. The first section, “Folly,” concerns Alice, an editorial assistant at a fictional publishing house in New York, as she begins a romance with a lauded and much older writer — Ezra Blazer, whose similarities to Philip Roth are more than coincidental. The second part, “Madness,” follows Amar — an economist from Brooklyn born to Iraqi parents — during his detention by Heathrow immigration officials.
In “Folly,” Alice’s relationship with Ezra coincides with her progression as a thinker and writer. Their courtship is somewhat typical of a May-December romance — Ezra can be lecherous, charming and wounded all on a single page, and Alice is steadfastly passive.
They become a study in contrasts. Alice complains about her lackluster job and expresses anxiety about her place in the world, and Ezra, comfortable with his outsized position, supplies her with luxurious gifts: fine wine, caviar, cash for coats and air conditioning, and, most importantly, books. Alice wants to be a writer, but when Ezra asks about it, she responds that writing about herself doesn’t seem worthwhile when compared to important things like “War. Dictatorships. World affairs.”
Later, Amar faces these grandiose forces firsthand when he confronts the prejudiced Western eye (and the tumultuous political situation) in Iraq. Sitting in detention, he draws a broad sketch of his life, one that mixes kidnappings, coups, and murder with intimate moments about his brother’s love for the piano, their downstairs neighbors, and a failed romance with an actress-turned-doctor named Maddie.
The book’s two halves are also a contrast in styles. Either section could operate as an intelligent, stand-alone novella, but Amar’s story provides more immediate pleasures. While the prose in “Folly” skims the surface of Alice’s consciousness, “Madness” is filtered more directly through Amar’s perspective. The dialogue-driven scenes in the former give way to a complete lack of quotation marks in the latter.
Beginning with the first page, when Alice wonders, “What is the point of a book…that does not have any quotation marks?” Halliday often reminds us that we’re reading a novel. We always know what Alice is reading: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Eichmann in Jerusalem, an informational pamphlet at an abortion clinic. When she sees a moon and thinks of it as “the received light of the sun,” it becomes “no longer Celine’s moon, nor Hemingway’s, nor Genet’s, but Alice’s.” As Alice enters into conversation with these past writers, Halliday, whose biography often mirrors her protagonist’s, does so as well.
As the shared elements between the book’s halves become increasingly conspicuous, they begin to suggest a shared consciousness, in a twist that the coda makes explicit. By uniting Amar’s and Alice’s stories, Halliday refortifies the differences between Alice and herself, and between autobiography and fiction. Like Alice, Halliday was a twenty-something Harvard graduate who worked in the publishing industry when she began dating an esteemed and much older writer, Philip Roth. But in these pages, Halliday suggests it would be foolish to map Alice’s story onto her own.
With a playful attitude toward her own life, Halliday both embraces the genre of autofiction — practiced by writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard, Sheila Heiti, and Ben Lerner — and shuns any of its supposed restrictions, not unlike Rachel Cusk’s current trilogy, Outline, Transit, and the upcoming Kudos.
Asymmetry doesn’t solve the problem that, as Amar puts it, even “someone who imagines for a living is forever bound by the ultimate constraint…there’s no getting around the fact that she’s always the one holding up the mirror,” but Halliday does suggest that if you think a young woman’s literary development is not important enough to occupy shelf space, or that a Muslim man’s detention requires too much imaginative empathy, then you should probably consider a mirror’s regenerative powers, tilt it, and observe the image anew.
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
Simon & Schuster
Published February 6, 2018
Lisa Halliday grew up in Medfield, Massachusetts and currently lives in Milan, Italy. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review and she is the recipient of a 2017 Whiting Award for Fiction. Asymmetry is her first novel.
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