Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Granta Books, March 2018, 275 pp

Granta Books, March 2018, 275 pp

It is rare to encounter a novel that has such a subtle undercurrent as Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry has. Critics and readers seem to be bewildered by it. Its two tales are in stark juxtaposition: the first of them, called “Folly,” follows Alice’s love affair with a much older man called Ezra Blazer, a highly regarded novelist, whose real-life counterpart is Philip Roth. The prose, as well as the subject matter, is light and smooth, with occasional comedic elements. The second story, “Madness,” is in deep contrast to its predecessor: told in denser language and in longer paragraphs, it is an account of Amar, an Iraqi American, detained at Heathrow Airport. While waiting for the decision on whether he is allowed to enter the United Kingdom, he reminisces his past experiences in Iraq and elsewhere, stories with great emotional resonance. Then, as a coda, the novel is abruptly concluded with Ezra Blazer’s silly radio interview. The reader, if not too baffled by the experience, must then decipher what it all means. 

Wolfgang Iser theorized in the 1970s how narratives contain gaps that readers must fill in with their own knowledge. In Asymmetry, these gaps are much wider than they usually appear in novels. This, in turn, entails an avalanche of different interpretations. I recently came across a review of the novel where the reviewer, an elderly person, said that its main themes are ageing and death. I was surprised when I read it, because I couldn’t expect one novel to mean so very different things to another reader. For me, it was all as clear as day: this is a story of white privilege, of the inevitable asymmetry that exists between a rich white male – whose main concerns in life include “fucky fucks” with editorial assistants and the pains of describing a door in a draft of his upcoming novel – and a person of color, who has strived for a good life yet faces one challenge after another because of his background.

Additionally, it’s a story of appropriation, be it cultural or other. The door that Ezra is anxious to describe is contrasted with Alice’s aspirations to write a story about a Muslim man. “Forget about world affairs. World affairs can take care of themselves,” he says. “They’re not doing a very good job of it,” she responds. Playing with metatextual tricks, Halliday suggests that Alice is responsible for the story known as “Madness” in the middle of Asymmetry. How far can we take the paraphrasing of other people’s experiences? Is Ezra right, describing in his novels what he knows best – the experiences of a white American man – or is it righteous of Alice (or Halliday) to write a story of an Iraqi-American man? These are the kinds of questions that, I believe, are raised by the asymmetry.

Much to the novel’s merit, however, Asymmetry is not a black and white story of good and evil. Ezra has his redeeming features and somewhere between his misogynistic comments he also gives good guidance to the young Alice. Amar could have been the usual trope of a man with dual nationality, facing racism and therefore winning the readers’ sympathies, yet even he is more rounded and real than that. Alastair, a foreign correspondent from London, sitting in a pub near Baghdad, describes how witnessing the atrocities of war has altered his life:

But when I go home, when I go out to dinner or sit on the Tube or push my trolley around Waitrose with all the other punters and their meticulous lists, I start to spin out. You observe what people do with their freedom – what they don’t do – and it’s impossible not to judge them for it. You come to see a mostly peaceful and democratic society as being in a state of incredibly delicate suspension, suspension that requires equilibrium down to the smallest molecule, such that even the tiniest jolt, just one person neglecting its fragility with her complacency or self-absorption, could cause the whole fucking thing to collapse. You think about how we all belong to this species capable of such horrifying evil, and you wonder what your responsibility to humanity is while you’re here, and what sort of game God is playing with us – not to mention what it means that generally you’d prefer to be back in Baghdad than at home in Angel with your wife and son reading If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If I am unnerved by peace and contemplation, if something biochemical in me craves the stimulus of violent spectacle and proximity to conflict, where am I on the spectrum? What am I capable of, under another set of circumstances? How different am I really, from ‘them’?

The stories that Alastair and other journalists report from the conflict zones have been previously interspersed in “Folly” as intertextual clues. Often italicized, they are seemingly random transcriptions in the middle of Alice and Ezra’s love affair. The two of them might close the radio when the reporter is in mid-sentence (as all of us might do). Similarly, Nobel Prize winners are reported on the pages of the novel, often for important writers of color, statements which stand in stark (and humorous) contrast with whatever Ezra happens to be doing at the moment of the annual announcement. The irony is palpable, and it’s tasty.

While Asymmetry might be perplexing, it is utterly rewarding. It addresses big questions with masterful use of language, evident in Halliday’s ability to switch between light and heavy prose. She never underestimates the reader, not blatantly proclaiming a specific motif. The novel’s wide interpretability speaks only of its excellence – as much as I stress my theory of white privilege as the key to the novel, it could very well be about ageing and death. A smart novel that opens itself gradually, there’s a chance that Asymmetry has a longer than average life amidst the relentless churning of new literary fiction.