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Asymmetry (2018)

by Lisa Halliday

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
7303522,973 (3.51)37
"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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English (32)  Spanish (1)  Dutch (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (35)
Showing 1-5 of 32 (next | show all)
I wonder if some assistant editor greenlit the novel's title as a sarcastic commentary on its uneven quality; theoretically it alludes to some discussions of "imbalances of power/understanding" that the main characters have, or something like that, but I prefer my interpretation because I found the first and longest section to be formally well-written but almost completely unengaging emotionally. It's about Alice, a mid-twenties book editor who enters into a relationship with Ezra, a much older Famous Author who bears a striking resemblance to Philip Roth. In real life, author Lisa Halliday was romantically involved with the real Philip Roth, who in an unhappy coincidence died right around when Asymmetry was published. There's absolutely nothing inherently wrong with a roman à clef, but this section is as undramatic as it is long. Halliday is a zippy writer, so any individual sentence is well-crafted, but in plot terms there's not much interesting going on at any point, and since only the passage of time connects the scenes together it feels like a collection of rejected short stories that happen to feature the same characters: various geriatric medical issues, lots of baseball chat, Ezra keeps failing to win the Nobel Prize, they go on vacation together, Alice worries about her own creativity - who cares? There's not even any good sex scenes, as one would hope for from a story leveraging that link to fame, although Halliday does gift the world with the memorable simile "He came like a weak water bubbler."

My feelings changed dramatically in the (seemingly) completely unrelated second section, where Amar, an Iraqi-American economist, is detained at Heathrow while traveling back to Iraq because his brother has been kidnapped. This narrative takes place mainly while its protagonist is stuck in the maddening, pointless, absurd bureaucratic hell of airport security, so it's much more emotionally vivid and relatable if you've done any recent air travel, and even if you haven't, the asides where he explores his memories of his family and his now-distant relationship to his brother in the grim, sad, lethal landscape of post-Surge Iraq are quite moving. You really feel for Amar during every minute of his helpless agony as his life is put on hold by greater powers though individually each functionary is perfectly pleasant and helpful, and each recollection of his relationship with his disparate family members is full of personality. This section is well-paced and full of stakes and emotion, and perhaps it should have been the whole book, but just when you're in a rhythm and turning the pages, it flatly ends with another tragedy and a graceless jump-cut to the coda, a fictional Desert Island Discs episode with Ezra where he's since broken up with Alice but finally bagged that Nobel, unlike the real-life Roth. Neat, I guess. Kudos to Halliday for giving him good musical taste at least, and the way that Ezra puts the moves on the interviewer at the very end is pretty funny.

What to make of this? Amar's section doesn't appear to have anything to do with Alice's story, but if you pay really close attention there are some little hints that his story was actually Alice's creation, the work of her own that she had been vaguely worrying about to Ezra in the first section. So there is a very faint glimmer of Pale Fire-type conceptual playfulness between the narratives, but that actually almost made it worse for me: the whole point of Alice's story was to set up Amar's parade of tragedy, which just ends unsatisfyingly, and wasn't even "real" to begin with? I think the Amar section might have worked better as an Ezra product, since we got told a bunch how brilliant he was but never saw any of his theoretically Nobel-caliber writing, and as an Alice product it just gave me unpleasant thoughts about its likely genesis: what if Asymmetry is to the Lisa Halliday/Philip Roth relationship as Amar's story is to Alice/Ezra's - an attempt to prove creative independence to a more famous fling, and the reason the Alice/Ezra section is so boring is because it's basically a diary with the names changed? Alice and Ezra discuss the challenges of truly empathizing with someone; perhaps that's actually Halliday's issue, and the dull parts of this novel are like the infamous writer's block-induced "play about a struggling playwright"? In any case, hopefully readers with stronger connections to the New York literary scene fishbowl than I have will get more out of this novel. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
controllare copia carta se è prima edizione
  perseveranza | Feb 28, 2021 |
There are some books you can recommend widely. This isn't that. I don't know how to explain this one or who I would possibly recommend it to, but it worked for me. ( )
  KimMeyer | Sep 8, 2020 |
Wow, this is a hard no. Something about the simple narration, the naif-like main character, and the much older and more powerful love interest made everything about this feel creepy. (She is literally named Alice. wtf.) ( )
  elenaj | Jul 31, 2020 |
Dull, not particularly insightful and although I enjoyed the bits about Iraq, I don't know how much of it is true. Nothing happens except that Ezra gets older and sicker and Amar, while his detention is undeniably unfair, still makes his flight. Quotidian details that don't add up to much. ( )
  Bookmarque | Jul 14, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 32 (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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"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" --

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