Am I the only one who picked up Asymmetry to read about first time author Lisa Halliday’s relationship with Philipp Roth? My bad, I must have strayed again from the romance section over to literary fiction in search of intellectual stimulation, and girl oh girl, does this book deliver.
Asymmetry consists of three unequal, uneven parts over which the novel’s title looms, asserting a deliberate construction of, that’s right, asymmetry. The three parts consist of two novellas and what in music is called a coda.
The novel opens with Folly, the story of Alice. Set in New York City post 9/11, she is a young editor having an affair with famous and legendary writer Ezra Blazer, who happens to be significantly older than her. The two characters are presumably stand-ins for Halliday and Roth, and as part one explores Alice’s life with Blazer and apart from him, we learn about the writing process – both hers and his. Little do we learn about their true emotions; Alice and Ezra keep their relationship largely a secret as a measure of caution, but most reassurances that they care for each other and not about the age difference remain verbal. We follow Alice all the way down, but her inside remains hidden.
From hints, we can glean that Madness is Alice’s writing. If “write what you know” is the adage and advice old writers pass on the younger generation, this second part couldn’t seem further from Alice’s (or Halliday’s) reality. A young man is stuck in immigration at London Heathrow airport en route to visit his brother in Kurdistan. In a split narrative, we experience his long wait, interrogation and eventual settling in to pass the night in a waiting room, while at the same time we learn about his past, his last visit to Iraq and the relationship with his family.
The coda of Asymmetry is titled Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs, and we see Blazer on a BBC radio show wax about his favorite music he’d take with him on said island. The famed writer shares stories from his past, explains the significance of various musical pieces, and flirts openly and at length with the show’s host.
But then even someone who imagines for a living is forever bound by the ultimate constraint: she can hold her mirror up to whatever subject she chooses, at whatever angle she likes—she can even hold it such that she herself remains outside its frame, the better to de-narcissize the view—but there’s no getting around the fact that she’s always the one holding the mirror. And just because you can’t see yourself in a reflection doesn’t mean no one can.Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry.
That Alice doesn’t reappear as an active character is part of the clever construction, in my opinion. If I have to spell it out: the asymmetry to me is, of course, the oldest one between men and women. Ezra is very much dictating the terms of their relationship, it’s either that or nothing for Alice. The literary references in part one are passed like cutesies between the two, but they enable and serve the established author in his authority, not the young writer.
Write what you know? In part two, I had the feeling that Alice (as well as Halliday) knew exactly what she was writing about. A character being hassled, near harassed, made to wait, being treated as a second-class citizen, with no recourse nor say in their circumstances nor their future – any woman is able to tell that story.
Does the coda serve to show a final asymmetry, that old Ezra gets away with it? Not that he has done anything inherently bad. But his flirting with the host is of no consequence either way. Especially since we don’t know exactly at what point his interview takes place in the story, or in his life. The shortest of the three parts allows him, once more, to be the flirtatious old man who expounds his point of view at length, this time about music. But as Ezra passes away and the old guard fades, maybe so will the power imbalance in relationships, and the asymmetry of women in writing. Maybe I’ve read the ending more hopefully than Asymmetry called for.
The book is a clever construction and well-versed exploration of both relationships and writing. 4.5 out of 5 asymmetrical stars.
Lisa Halliday: Asymmetry. Simon & Schuster.
I did not receive a copy of this book for a review or mention.