"Told in three distinct and uniquely compelling sections, Asymmetry explores the imbalances that spark and sustain many of our most dramatic human relations: inequities in age, power, talent, wealth, fame, geography, and justice. The first section, "Folly," tells the story of Alice, a young American editor, and her relationship with the famous and much older writer Ezra Blazer. A tender and exquisite account of an unexpected romance that takes place in New York during the early years of the Iraq War, "Folly" also suggests an aspiring novelist's coming-of-age. By contrast, "Madness" is narrated by Amar, an Iraqi-American man who, on his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan, is detained by immigration officers and spends the last weekend of 2008 in a holding room in Heathrow. These two seemingly disparate stories gain resonance as their perspectives interact and overlap, with yet new implications for their relationship revealed in an unexpected coda. A stunning debut from a rising literary star, Asymmetry is an urgent, important, and truly original work that will captivate any reader while also posing arresting questions about the very nature of fiction itself. A debut novel about love, luck, and the inextricability of life and art, from 2017 Whiting Award winner Lisa Halliday" --
Halliday’s structure shows exquisite control of leitmotif and patterning; each half gradually intensifies in emotion to reach a devastating climax. The weakest note is the epilogue, a transcript of a Desert Island Discs interview, in which Blazer is reported to have won the Nobel Prize, approves of the method of the novel we are close to finishing, and attempts to seduce Kirsty Young, the presenter. I see why it is there: to make it easier for the reader to connect the two narratives that have gone before, but it lacks their lightness of touch. Blazer’s record choices do, however, make for a great playlist, and listening to them will call further attention to the ambitious music of this exceptional debut.
I think Asymmetry may have a tough time finding its audience. It’s a difficult book for the casual reader in some ways: the prose is simple enough, but the structure is entirely a different matter. I think most readers are going to say “what the hell was that about?” while other more astute but critical readers will say “that was hella pretentious.”
The “problem” rests in that Asymmetry is three very distinct stories tied together by the thinnest of threads. “But there’s no thread at all,” many readers will say. There is and there isn’t. You see, it’s all very metafictional and I’m all about the meta. In Part I we have a young woman, Alice, from Massachusetts who works as an editor, dreams of living in Europe, and develops a romantic relationship with a much older National-Book-Award-winning author. The author of Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday, is herself a former editor from Massachusetts who now lives in Italy. Whether truly based on the author's personal experiences or not, it is logical for a reader to assume that Alice is autobiographical. And therein lies the brilliance of Asymmetry because we do not really know Lisa Halliday’s story, we only make assumptions based on the few facts we do know. But then Halliday goes in the opposite direction. In a time when we too often question the writer’s ability to write from any other perspective than their own, Halliday turns the book on its head and writes a very different story.
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 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 a kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.
In Part II, we’re introduced to Amar, an Iraqi-American man who is detained by immigration officers for an entire weekend. He reflects on his back and forth relationship with Iraq and America and with his family, caught between two worlds. It’s natural for the reader to expect some sort of connection to exist between Amar’s story and Alice’s. The reader is busy looking for it and any direct connection that exists is so thin the reader is most likely to miss it: at the end of Amar’s story, we briefly see a woman who may or may not be Alice. That’s it. But the connection goes beyond that, because if that woman is Alice, then she’ll go on to be the writer who writes Amar’s story.
Halliday nails the voice of Amar, proving that a privileged woman from Massachusetts can write from a perspective that she has no first-hand experience with. That's not to say Halliday doesn't understand Amar. Her story is reflected in Alice's as it is in Amar's.
...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.
Yet Asymmetry is so meta that I'm wondering if there's not more to it. For instance, in the opening pages, the young editor is reading a book that itself bears similarity to the novel of Part II, a novel “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 quotation marks?” So is Alice reading the book that she herself has yet to write? Or is Alice not the author? Is the fictional Alice perhaps reading the book that her own creator Lisa Halliday wrote? Only now, as I write this, am I drawing the connection between “Alice” and her “looking-glass.” Am I looking too much into this? I'll just leave it at this and let the reader infer their own conclusion.
As I read this novel, I occasionally caught glimpses of other works and authors I have read, all of them Man Booker nominees: Eleanor Catton, Kamila Shamsie, Ian McEwan, Ali Smith… There’s a strong similarity in the tone and structure of the works. I will not be the least surprised if Asymmetry is not on the longlist to be announced in a few months. It's not a perfect book and it may fail in conveying its message to the vast majority of readers, but Asymmetry is such an intelligently written and relevant book that I'm sure someone will take notice.
Both novellas are spectacularly well written. Halliday writes like an editor, and that is a good thing, The stories are perfectly crafted. There is not a spare word, no sentences that are beautiful as diamonds but which do not advance the story. It is clear that Halliday kills her darlings, and I love that in a writer. I love a painting or a sculpture because of how it makes me feel or see the world, but I can spend an hour enthralled by the brushstrokes or nontraditional perspective of a work that as a whole doesn't move me. I revere the work but I also (and nearly equally) revere the craft. The writing craft here succeeds like nobody's business. It is some of the best prose I have ever read, I can see why she and Philip Roth-one of my favorite literary craftsmen-connected. If it were simply about craft, this would have been for me a 5-star read..
When you wield the editor's pen like a scalpel I imagine you leave more words in the bin than on the page. Maybe that is why Halliday didn't make this into two novels? Maybe the more she wrote the less stayed in the manuscript. There was more I wanted to know. Each novella could have been fleshed out (not padded) and would have been more fulfilling for it. I am sure she felt like she said everything she wanted to say with these in the shorter form, but as a reader she did not say everything I wanted to read. Both novellas felt like they had a spectacular beginning and middle and no end at all. I appreciate a writer who makes me do a lot of the work, but in this case I think she left too much open-ended.
A couple notes about the stories themselves. The first, clearly a roman a clef about Halliday's years as Roth's lover, made me feel like a voyeur, and not in an entirely good way. I really enjoyed it, but I felt a little dirty. I know he gave the book his blessing, and God knows he has shared more intimate details about himself than Halliday does here, but it was still a bit squicky for me. It also bothered me that I never fully understood what drew Alice to Ezra. The basis for Ezra's attraction was clear (and not just because we all know Roth was a dirty old man, even when he was still a young man) as she gave him youth and humor and other things that dwindle late in life, and she was his legacy in a way (his not being a father-sort of - was mentioned a lot). I guess I felt like she was very revealing about him, but did not let us know Alice. If she had done that, she would have had that novel, and the story would have been more successful. One quibble, there is a scene where Ezra teaches Alice how to pronounce "Camus" correctly (she has pronounced it as rhyming with "Seamus.") Really? Alice went to Harvard and worked at a major publishing house. She would have heard Camus' name pronounced aloud dozens if not hundreds of times, and she would know how to pronounce French words even if she had never heard them. If Halliday wanted to convey that Ezra was an intellectual and literary guide to Alice, this was a silly device. I assume it was an inside joke, but it bugged me.
The second novella was really intriguing. I love the idea of entering the memories of this brilliant man, Iraqi but not very, Muslim but not very, defined and limited by others' identification of him as no more than an Iraqi Muslim. I wanted more from this story too, more about Amar's family, more about his friends and his life in America, not just his connections to Iraq. What was here was exceptional, but it was not enough.
The vignette -- I don't know. it was fine. The inside Scottish jokes and a rundown of what I imagine might really have been Roth's desert island disks were vaguely amusing. His stories of his father mirrored in some ways the immigrant tale of Amar's family. Again, I think it was supposed to tie together the stories, and that did not work for me. Actually, this rash of books with dual stories that do not connect at the end in a gratifying way, this book as well as the last Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer books jump to mind, is starting to get on my nerves.
(ETA: It has been pointed out to me that Alice, the character in the first novella is identified as the writer of the second in that final vignette and elsewhere. I completely missed that. Still, this felt like parts of two unfinished novels.)
In the end I enjoyed the read. I thought about things is a way I have not done before. I liked the stories but felt they were incomplete. She left me wanting more, and there are much worse offenses for a writer.
Writing fine, but nothing to write home about.
Looking at the novel as a whole is simply impossible. The three parts differ so much that I simply cannot talk about them in general. I liked the first part about Alice’s and Ezra’s love most. The way it develops is quite classy, you get to know Ezra as an elderly artist who downright courting Alice, on the one hand, by offering small and large presents and introducing her to his world of art. On the other hand, however, he is not only older but also more powerful, he dictates the rules of their partnership; they are never equals, she is dependent on his kindness and willingness to see her. When he comes up with the ridiculous idea of giving her a new name and resenting her just as a woman he works with but not as a friend, she obviously feels offended, but nonetheless accepts his wish. There is a clear asymmetry in their relationship.
This asymmetry in power is also present in the second part where Amar is fully dependent on the British authorities who seem to act rather arbitrarily. He is kept waiting for hours, never knowing what is going to happen next, if he will ever be granted access to the country or what they accuse him of actually. If he started questioning their procedure, he’d only risk setting them against him and thus reducing his chances of leaving the airport. While waiting, Amar is left alone with his thoughts and memories, memories of long gone love stories, but also memories of Iraq and the war that has been raging there for years and the shifting powers depending on who is in charge.
In the last part, Ezra reappears, now in the role as interviewee. Again, he shows his charms in talking to the young female journalist with whom he flirts openly. Interestingly, she has a plan for the interview but has to give it up and to follow his rules. Another case of asymmetry.
Lisa Halliday really knows how to captivate the reader. Her story is exceptionally well constructed; the fine imbalances are never addressed openly but present throughout the narration. She easily enthralled me and kept me reading on.
The second novel takes a different turn, seems totally unrelated, though there are some common denominators. Alice and the looking glass, a mirror by which one sees oneself. But how do these connect? The third is an interview, the interviewee Ezra and it is here we find the connection, though one is never write sure if they are putting this together correctly. I liked the challenge of this. All sections are wonderfully written, the prose quite brilliantly conceived. Every once in a while I find it stimulating to read a book where one has to think, where everything is not apparent. That was this book.
Of course it helped immeasurably to read this with my two amazing reading buddies, Esil and Angela, though our rating varied somewhat with this one. It was nice to have others to bounce ideas and thoughts off of, see if we were all putting this together the same. I think that like Ali Smith, and her writing, this is challenging but worthwhile. The funny thing is that if sometimes I feel frustrated with these novels, not sure where they are going, I also find that these are the novels that linger, that provoke new thoughts, new meanings, even the day after one has finished.
ARC from Edelweiss.
This is an inventive, offbeat novel, that is broken up into 3 sections. The first is a quirky, May-September romance and the second focuses on an Iraqi-American man , being unfairly detained at Heathrow Airport. The similarities slowly begin to reveal themselves, as the narrative advances and it becomes even more interesting, during the unexpected coda.
Obviously this one, is not for everyone, and that is reflected in the mixed reviews it has received. It did work for me and I did admire this author's ambition and craftsmanship. A talent to watch.
I received an arc through a Goodreads giveaway.