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Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
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Asymmetry (2018)

by Lisa Halliday

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5292729,735 (3.55)32
"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" --… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
This book has been on my to-read pile for a while. Its description did not really appeal but The New Yorker, my favourite magazine, called it a literary phenomenon so I finally gave in and read it. I’m afraid I don’t really agree with this assessment.

The novel is divided into three parts. In the first section set in 2003, Alice, a book editor in her mid-20s, has a relationship with Ezra Blazer, a famous writer 45 years her senior. Ezra basically takes over her life and though he heavily influences her reading, he does little to instil confidence in the fledgling writer. In the second section set in 2008, the narrator is Amar Ala Jaafari. He is an Iraqi-American economist flying to Kurdistan to find his brother Sami who has disappeared, but he is detained at Heathrow. Between interrogations, he reminisces about his life and experiences as an immigrant with dual nationality. In the third section set in 2011, Ezra, now a Nobel Prize laureate, is interviewed on BBC about what music he would want with him were he to be stranded on a deserted island. In that interview he makes a comment that links the first two parts of Asymmetry.

The mystery is why the stories of Alice and Amar belong together despite their asymmetry. It is not really difficult to solve the mystery. Alice is a novice writer who lacks confidence in her ability. She dreams of living “A life of seeing, really seeing the world, and of having something novel to say about the view,” but she worries that she cannot be cured of “the anxiety of self-doubt.” She compares herself to Ezra and asks, “And, hadn’t he already said everything she wanted to say?” It seems she has tentatively started a novel about “’War. Dictatorships. World affairs.’” and “’People more interesting than I am,’” but has misgivings: “Alice was starting to consider really rather seriously whether a former choirgirl from Massachusetts might be capable of conjuring the consciousness of a Muslim man.” Have you solved the mystery yet?

Characterization is interesting. Alice remains very much a mystery. Little insight into her thoughts and feelings is given. She just seems to passively let Ezra take over her life. It is Ezra who sets the rules for their relationship; she is at his beck and call. He constantly tells her what to read; in fact, several long quotations from what she is reading are included so Alice almost seems to disappear. Amar is really Alice’s foil. He has much more experience in the world and his tone of voice shows none of Alice’s diffidence. His section is really a monologue so the reader is privy to his thoughts and emotions. And then there’s Ezra. From Alice’s perspective in the novel’s first section, he is a controlling but generous figure; in the last section which reveals him only through his words, he is a much less appealing character. Of course, once the truth is known, the reader’s impression of Alice also changes.

The book examines the limits of creativity. Students in creative writing classes are always taught to write about what they know. Halliday, however, suggests that it is possible for a writer to imagine a life that overcomes the narrowness of one’s horizons, to “imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own.” (I could not but think of Emily Dickinson.) Writers may suffer “the metaphysical claustrophobia and bleak fate of being always one person,” but the novel implies that the writer’s imagination can solve this problem. Though there are limits, “someone who imagines for a living . . . can hold her mirror up to whatever subject she chooses, at whatever angle she likes.”

This book is very much a literary experiment. I was rather underwhelmed by the reveal at the end since the clues are rather obvious. Asymmetry is a book which I admired to some extent after I had read it but didn’t necessarily enjoy while reading. Lengthy descriptions of the roles of adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol in congenital adrenal hyperplasia do not make for interesting reading. Is it necessary to read over 50 names of people called to jury duty? I don’t mind if a book is an intellectual puzzle but I want it also to be entertaining; I should like it while reading and not just on reflection afterwards.

Note: Please check out my reader's blog (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski). ( )
  Schatje | Aug 25, 2019 |
The first of the three distinct stories was compelling, but the other two stories didn't seem to connect and didn't have characters that held my interest. Admittedly, I skimmed the 2nd two stories. ( )
  Beth.Clarke | Jun 28, 2019 |
Story of the relationship of a woman in her 30’s with a thinky disguised Phillip Roth , and a surprising second half .
Great fun read by Lisa Hallasdy who was apparently by Roth’s bedside when he died .
  JoshSapan | May 29, 2019 |
One of the most praised US novels of 2018; it's on many Best of Year lists and it has a juicy backstory to boot. I liked parts of it much more than I expected to, but other parts were as bad as I'd feared. Halliday is an excellent mimic, and the characters and settings which are well known to her are often beautifully done. But when she ventures into territory with which she is less familiar, well, here we go again.

I won't recap the plot and structure because it's been the focus of so much of the coverage. Suffice it to say that there are two medium and one short parts, with the first two seeming almost entirely unrelated until the third part, which reveals the connections among all three. This architecture has been much admired, and it's understandable. There are hints and easter eggs sprinkled throughout the first two parts which reward close attention but don't feel gimmicky as you read them. And the three parts have very different tonal and stylistic registers, which accentuates their sense of separateness and enhances (for me) the ways in which they eventually come together.

The first part, "Folly," is narrated by Mary-Alice Dodge, a Harvard grad in her mid-20s who is an editor at a prestigious NY publishing house. One afternoon she shares a park bench with an old man, with whom she eventually begins a relationship. The man turns out to be Ezra Blazer, a world-famous novelist who has won every meaningful US literary award; can the Nobel be far behind? Blazer is a pitch-perfect rendition of a 20thC US Great American Novelist. He's based on Philip Roth but you can swap in Saul Bellow and some others and it would still work.

Dan Friedman has written an excellent account of this section in his review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show.... Read that because I can't top it. I expected to hate this part but I was swept up into the story despite myself. It's very well written and the style works to de-creepify the 25/72 age spread as far as is possible. Alice's POV is muted, as are the emotions, although details are not spared. You do get a sense of why these two people are attracted to each other and why such a relationship is probably a poisoned chalice for Mary-Alice, no matter how fascinating it is for an aspiring author to be in such close proximity to literary creative genius.
And trust me, the baseball parts are key to the verisimilitude. If you know anything about the relationship of baseball and US male-centric literature, you'll recognize what it's doing here. The one misstep for me was the idea that Mary-Alice wouldn't know the great writers that Ezra gives her to read as part of his tutelage. Four years at Harvard, three years and counting at a FSG-type publishing house, and she doesn't know how to prounouce Camus? Yeah, no.

But overall, I admired the first part quite a bit. Then came "Folly," which tells the story of Amar, an Iraqi-American economist who is being detained at Heathrow during a quick stopover between London and Istanbul (he's on his way to Iraq to find out what has happened to his brother Sami). The chapters alternate, between the terrifying mundanity of detention where no one will tell you what is happening but you aren't allowed to leave, and Amar's flashbacks to his past. That past starts when he is a small boy in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, continues through his Columbia college years and internship in London, trips back and forth to Iraq, and eventual PhD course in economics in LA. The problem I had with Amar was that I never believed in him as a character, not for a moment. Despite being an empiricist, he's incredibly well read in world literature. Despite being born in the 1970s, he's a big fan of jazz artists like Chet Baker. Sure, it's possible, but it's unlikely. He doesn't feel like an economist, or even a doctor-turned economist. He feels like a construct. He frets about not being able to write about Iraq in the 2000s, when he should be fretting about not writing his dissertation. In fact, neither Amar nor Sami feel like immigrant kids raised in the 1980s. They're more like contemporary versions of Ezra's background, which kind of makes sense when you realize what the section is about, but makes no sense when you're reading their story.

On top of Amar-as-construct, though, there's Iraq-as-construct. Amar goes back to Iraq regularly, and his last major trips are after the 2003 US invasion. These sections read like every novel or "creative nonfiction" piece written by Westerners about the Arab Middle East. There are gruesome scenes in hospitals. There are citizen-philosophers who wax lyrically about East-meets-West and cross-cultural rapport (can it really happen? The jury continues to be out), there are car bombs and family gatherings. The women are almost entirely silent, for reasons that I have never understood but see over and over again in these depictions.

Most oddly, however, in all these scenes, the US military is almost entirely absent. Yes, they're the reason all these things have happened. But they are not *present*. Imagine writing a story about the USSR without the government. Or British India without the Raj. That's what this feels like. And Amar barely thinks about what being Iraqi-American means post 2003, except for one or two completely unbelievable moments. Compare Amar to the title character in Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Compare Halliday's Baghdad to the city in Frankenstein in Baghdad, and you'll realize how weird this all is. And honestly, the big reveal about this section doesn't help. It just makes it feel *more* Western-focused. Also, stylistically, this section is way overwritten and flowery, with infodumps and set-piece orations.

Once we leave Amar and enter the last and shortest section, the novel improves. Ezra returns as the guest in a pitch-perfect depiction of an episode of Desert Island Discs. He's funny, and he's so rude and lecherous that he's almost charming. He neatly ties up the loose ends and then we are done.

I can see why reviewers, especially those who are writers and literary critics, have been so effusive about this debut novel's stylistic achievements. But I am fed up to here with reading novels in which white authors try to understand the post 9/11 world by writing about Muslims. If they really want to understand *their* post 9/11 world, they need to look in their class- and ethnically segregated communities and start working on the truths that are staring them in the face right there. ( )
  Sunita_p | May 17, 2019 |
I enjoyed the novel as a whole very much, but was most engaged by the first section. Beautiful writing, ingenuity of structure, and intelligence leaping off the page ( )
  JeanneBlasberg | Apr 30, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
An exceptional debut examines imbalances in love and geopolitics.
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.
added by sneuper | editFinancial Times, Luke Brown (Mar 23, 2018)
 
Lisa Halliday’s striking debut is certainly – as the title implies – a sharp examination of the unequal power dynamic between men and women, innocence and experience, fame and aspiration. Through its fractured structure and daring incompleteness, it also explores the unreliability of memory, the accidents of history and the exercise and understanding of creativity. Most of all, it wonders whether we can ever “penetrate the looking-glass” of our own personality to imagine another consciousness – a question as relevant to human relationships as it is to novel writing. (...)
Can any of us escape our own perspective? What are the risks, if we do not? What is art for, and how do we fit our lives around it? This is a debut asking a dizzying number of questions, many to thrilling effect. That it leaves the reader wondering is a mark of its success.
added by sneuper | editThe Guardian, Justine Jordan (Feb 28, 2018)
 
And that is the magic of this exquisite, impressive book: the way it plays with influence and assumption. As Ezra notes, “Our memories are no more reliable than our imaginations, after all. But I’m the first to admit it can be irresistible, contemplating what’s ‘real’ versus ‘imagined’ in a novel.”
(...) For us, the ride is in surrendering to falling down rabbit holes to unknown places. The moment “Asymmetry” reaches its perfect ending, it’s all the reader can do to return to the beginning in awe, to discover how Halliday upturned the story again and again.
 
The leap from the novel’s first section to its second is so great, and yet so intuitively logical, that it forces the reader to rethink the Alice section entirely: It is now clear that she is not a version of Lisa Halliday, but just one of the many voices Halliday can invent, if she chooses. In its subtle and sophisticated fable of literary ambition, and the forms it can take for a young woman writer, Asymmetry is a “masterpiece” in the original sense of the word—a piece of work that an apprentice produces to show that she has mastered her trade.
added by sneuper | editThe Atlantic, Adam Kirsch (Feb 18, 2018)
 
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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?
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