Asymmetry

Lisa Halliday’s cunning tri-part novel is one of the most exciting debuts I’ve read in a long time. Asymmetry works on several levels, beguiling readers with two absorbing, seemingly unconnected narratives while exploring questions about what literature can do to transcend our personal experience and “reduce the blind spots” in our lives.

The book opens in Manhattan at the start of the Iraq war, with a December-May romance between a famous older writer and a young editorial assistant with more ambition than direction. Halliday pulls us deep into this offbeat relationship before jumping to a second, initially disorienting story about a young Iraqi-American economist — en route to visit his older brother in Kurdistan — who reflects on his life after being detained by immigration officials at London’s Heathrow airport.

We meet the twenty-five-year-old protagonist of the first section, “Folly,” sitting on an Upper West Side bench, trying to read a book whose long paragraphs and lack of quotation marks annoy her. When a man eating a Mister Softee sits down next to her, she recognizes him instantly. So do passersby. Halliday keeps the paragraphs short and punchy, and the dialogue neatly set off in quotation marks. “What else do you read?” he asks. “Oh, old stuff, mostly.” “So,” said the man, rising, “What’s your name?” “Alice.” “Who likes old stuff. See you around.”

Within weeks, she’s accepting a dripping cone, since “multiple-Pulitzer Prize winners don’t go around poisoning people.” When he asks if she’s game, she answers, “Well, no reason not to be, I guess.” He retorts, “There are plenty of reasons not to be.”

And they’re off to a quirky wonderland. Alice’s full name is Mary-Alice Dodge, a deliberate nod to Charles Dodgson and his most famous creation as Lewis Carroll. Curiosity runs through Asymmetry deliciously, like fudge ripples. Alice holds a looking glass up to Ezra Blazer, a playfully fictionalized portrait that channels Philip Roth, down to his repeatedly being bypassed for the Nobel Prize.

Halliday can be very funny, in a wry, snappy way. When Alice first sees Ezra’s numerous surgical scars, she asks, “Who did this to you?” “Norman Mailer,” her aging paramour quips. She notes that, given his delicacy, sex with him “could feel like playing Operation.” They lob accusations of “cradlerobber” and “graverobber” across his vast bed.

It’s an asymmetrical relationship from the start. Initially, Ezra calls the shots — disappearing to his country house for months on end to write, singing, “The party’s over . . . ” when he wants Alice to leave. He calls her sweetheart, feeds her great books and the best writing on the Holocaust, and funds upgrades to her wardrobe and her sweltering walkup. They share a passion for baseball, though not the same team. (Thanks to her grandmother, she’s a Red Sox fan at a propitious time, the year the curse is broken.) Their repartee is wonderful. “Is she still alive, your grandmother?” he asks. “Yep. Would you like her number? You’re about the same age.” “It’s a little early in our relationship for you to be satirizing me, Mary-Alice.”

How does Alice feel about all this? Is she using him? No more than he’s using her. “Do you ever think this isn’t good for you?” he asks. She says he makes her happy.

Naturally, things change. He needs additional surgeries. She picks up his arcane grocery requests at Zabar’s and starts to think about her long-term plans. “If there were a pill that would make her a writer living in Europe and another that would keep him alive and in love with her until the day she died, which would she choose?” she wonders. (Note: the Massachusetts-born author currently lives in Milan, Italy.) After she expresses guarded criticism of his new novel, he says, “I know what you’re up to.” “What?” “You’re writing. Aren’t you?”

This is where Halliday folds her literary origami in unexpected ways, and Asymmetry starts to assume a new shape. When Ezra encourages Alice to write about her complicated father, she tells him that “writing about myself doesn’t seem important enough.” But, she wonders, is it even possible that “a former choirgirl from Massachusetts might be capable of conjuring the consciousness” of a completely different human being?

I don’t want to spoil the surprises, so suffice it to say that we come to realize that Halliday’s book, like so many first novels, is about searching for one’s place in the world. What isn’t like so many first novels is the assurance and brilliance with which she manages this. Questions about shifting power dynamics and stepping outside yourself to discover your true mettle are further explored in the second section of the novel, “Madness.” While not as delightful as “Folly,” it is ultimately just as moving and even more thought-provoking.

Halliday plants sly hints about what she’s up to throughout all three sections, saving oblique revelations for the poignant, hilarious coda, an interview featuring Ezra as a castaway on the long-running BBC4 radio program Desert Island Discs. Along the way, she raises penetrating questions about the creative process and its limits. If writers like Sheila Heti ask, “How should a person be?” Halliday considers issues of cultural appropriation and asks, “What should a writer write?” In a particularly telling passage, she notes that the writer “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.” Still, she says, “there’s no getting around the fact that she’s always the one holding the mirror.”

Asymmetry has already been anointed with a Whiting Award, an uncannily prescient herald of literary promise whose previous recipients include Alice McDermott, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Anthony Marra, Elif Batuman, David Foster Wallace, and Colson Whitehead. It’s not a stretch to say that Lisa Halliday, on the strength of this sophisticated first work, belongs in that company.

 

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