Asymmetry is Lisa Halliday’s debut novel and she is clearly a writer to watch.
The novel begins with a meet cute. Alice is a recent college graduate who works in publishing in New York. She is reading in the park when a man, much older, sits down beside her with an ice cream cone from the Mister Softee truck. Alice knows immediately who he is: Ezra Blazer, Pulitzer-but-not-yet-Nobel-prize winning writer of a series of famous and influential books. (Blazer is clearly modeled on Philip Roth, with whom Halliday was at one time apparently involved. The most preposterous thing in the book is that people whose lives his books have changed keep recognizing him; surely that doesn’t happen even to Roth.)
Blazer tells her a middlingly funny joke and invites her over. In no time at all they are having just-a-little-bit-disappointing sex (gingerly because of his back), and watching baseball (it is 2004 and Alice is a Red Sox fan, much to Ezra’s disgust). Alice is something between personal assistant and girlfriend, running by Zabar’s to get Ezra’s favourite brand of preserves. He gives her things, some little (a sheet of stamps with the portraits of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters he introduces her to, various CDs, a wallet), some not (he pays off her student loans). He invents a persona for her (complete with fake business cards), passing her off as Samantha Bargeman, his research assistant, so that she can join him at his summer place. He gives her books to read.
It’s a May-December romance. Well, not really. She is part caretaker, part lover. He is on the verge of failing health, all colonoscopies and forgetfulness. It’s a bit tender and a bit not. It’s a Pygmalion story. Alice is lucky. Alice is put upon. Alice is being used. Alice is some kind of man’s fantasy:
Sweetheart,” he said. “I can’t wear a condom. Nobody can.”
“So what are we going to do about diseases?”
“Well, I trust you, if you—“
“You shouldn’t trust anyone. What if you become pregnant?”
“Oh don’t worry about that. I’d have an abortion.”
Before too long, in other words, readers are likely to feel disquieted, indignant, uncomfortable, or worse about the relationship. Ezra is kind of funny and kind of wise but he’s also kind of insufferable. In the hospital after being beset by chest pains, Ezra watches spellbound as a couple across the cubicle lay hands on each other and pray to Jesus: “he could never get enough of humanity, so long as it slept in another room.”
This tart observation is Alice’s—the first third of the book is focalized through her. Clearly, Alice isn’t just a push-over. In fact, the book is more complicated and stranger than I’ve made it out to be. Take the opening. I said Alice was sitting on a park bench, reading. Here’s how it actually begins:
Alice was beginning to get very tired of all this sitting by herself with nothing to do: every so often she tried again to read the book in her lap, but it was made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have any quotation marks.
That opening clause carries the suggestion that Alice is restless, ready for something to happen. Is she waiting for someone like Ezra? Has she conjured him? The preciousness of Alice’s impatience with literary pretension sounds like something from a beloved, twee, almost certainly English children’s book. If Alice’s name weren’t clue enough, the epigraph to the first section—revealingly entitled “Folly—is from Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice. (Her last name is Dodge, too, pretty close to Dodgson.) From the beginning, Halliday is taking us down a rabbit hole. But it takes a long time to figure out just how intricate are its twists.
I can’t talk about the book anymore without revealing some secrets. They aren’t crime-fiction-whodunit secrets, but they explain what makes the book unusual and interesting. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
When Ezra plumps down beside her, she is wondering—“somewhat foolishly, for she was not very good at finishing things”—“whether one day she might even write a book herself.” And Alice does.
But we don’t know that until the end of the book, in a short section that is a transcript of Blazer’s appearance on the BBC radio program Desert Island Discs. Asked whether he has ever suffered from depression, Blazer starts riffing on how nations and economies can suffer depression, finding his way into a screed about the complacency of American power. Then he says:
A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel about this, in its way. About the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass [WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT ALICE?] and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own. It’s a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author, but in fact is as kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.
This information is slipped into a section that serves to amplify whatever reservations we have may had about Ezra. With increasing desperation and lack of self-consciousness he attempts to seduce the radio host, and his chutzpah sheds itself of the last vestiges of any charm. But readers of the book—as opposed to listeners to the program—will seize on the information, because it explains the second part of the book, titled “Madness”, which seems to have nothing to do with what’s come before and what comes after. “Madness” tells the story of Amar Jafaari, an Iraqi American, an economist, who is held by immigration officials at Heathrow on his way to visit his brother, a doctor, in Kurdistan. Amar reflects on his childhood visits to family in Iraq, in the schism in the family caused by his brother’s decision to return to Iraq, and his despairing feelings, shared by everyone in his extended family, of how much worse and less safe American intervention has made life. Halliday works brilliantly on our latent prejudices. The authorities refuse to allow Amar to enter the UK, and we keep wondering, despite all the evidence to the contrary, whether they know something we don’t. Could this intelligent, polite, and thoughtful young man be a threat? Is he part of some kind of terror plot?
The answer is no (though that doesn’t stop British officials have detaining him in airport immigration limbo until he can get on a flight to Turkey), but the point is that we’ve wondered. The epistemological uncertainty of this moment is encapsulated in a bizarre scene in which Amar is forced to undergo a medical examination even though there is nothing wrong with him. Everything in the immigration scenes feels threatening, deadening boredom adding to rising indignation. Even more amazing than these scenes in the airport are those set in Iraq and Kurdistan, in which Halliday shows the increasing despair of Iraqis, the way they begin to take precautions like never taking the same route home or to work; to this she adds the surreal parallel life of foreign reporters and NGO officials, where drunken pool parties manifest the heartbreak and cynicism that comes from reporting on others’ suffering.
Amar’s section—which resonates with Alice’s in all kinds of small ways: remember that exchange between Ezra and Alice about what would happen if she got pregnant? Well, Amar remembers accompanying a college friend to get an abortion—feels vivid, relevant, and plain old interesting. I feel like I know Ezra’s history (he explains it to the BBC radio host). And I feel like I know Alice’s world, and can imagine it intersecting with Ezra’s. But I don’t know much of anything about Amar’s (though I understand, in a much milder, safer, and more privileged way, Amar’s frightening and frustrating experiences with immigration officials).
Because Ezra and Alice’s worlds were familiar to me, I was able to note something a little destabilizing in Halliday’s portrayals of them—the way we were meant to see how Alice wasn’t only undermined or oppressed by Ezra, for example. But I don’t have a comparable seismograph for reading Amar’s story. Which is part of the point. My readiness to find Amar’s story not exotic—Halliday is too sophisticated for that—but fascinating because foreign is built into the novel. Maybe I find Amar’s story so fascinating and plausible because it fits with little snippets of things I’ve heard on NPR or read in the New York Times. Maybe I’m just congratulating myself on encountering foreignness, on expanding my readerly horizons.
Literature is good at introducing us to foreign worlds. But I think what Halliday is doing here is asking us to think about what we mean when we say that. In that sense, her book can be taken as an intelligent contribution to the anxious debate about cultural appropriation: as Ezra puts it, it suggests we can “penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own.” (The specific looking-glass here is the one-way mirror Amar knows is there in the immigration holding area but which he cannot see.) Ezra goes on to add that this portrait of the other, no matter how convincing and flattering to our liberal sensibilities, is really a disguised portrait of the self, such that any encounter with otherness might be deemed impossible.
That’s a compelling reading, but Ezra is shown to be such a fraud, or at least, such a pain in the ass, that I don’t think we should take it at face value. I think Halliday believes we can learn something from the stories of others as long as we don’t start congratulating ourselves for it, as long as we don’t forget that what we are seeing as the other might just be a version of what we’ve been told to see (which isn’t quite the same as seeing only ourselves).
In this way we come to see the justness of Halliday’s title. She isn’t just referencing the odd, unbalanced, only tangentially connected structure of her narrative. Asymmetry inheres not just in art but also in life. The relationship between the west and the rest, and between those who have and those who don’t is anything but balanced. The connection between art and life arises, for this novel, in the idea of storytelling. Whose story gets to be told? Whose stories are finished and whose are left hanging?
The other asymmetrical relationship important to the book is the one between men and women. If anything is clear in this slippery book it is its indictment of white male privilege. Ezra isn’t as charming as thinks: his avuncularity is a mask for a pretty ruthless narcissism that requires that he fascinate women all out of proportion to the quality of his character. Halliday deftly makes us turn against Ezra.
But even as I admired her skill here—she never casts aspersions on his work, for example; too many people are doing that these days with Roth—I was troubled by her example of insufferable male privilege. Ezra doesn’t just happen to be Jewish; his Jewishness is at times part of what the book finds irritating about him. It’s true that a disproportionate number of the most prominent abusers who have come to light in the past year or so are Jewish. And in my opinion Jewish men need to have a reckoning about their masculinity and how it’s tied to some dangerous ideas about authority. But I don’t think this book is enabling that conversation. I don’t think it’s interesting enough about Jewishness, except to tie it in a careless way to Ezra’s (and by extension, through his friends and acquaintances and the cultural institutions they are shown to have built, to his generation’s) carelessness and entitlement.
That aspect of the novel disturbed me. But I liked how it kept evading my grasp. When we say a book is slippery we often mean it is confusing or that it is cutely self-referential. But this slipperiness is as thorough going as it is thought provoking. I’ll read her next book with interest.