My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The jacket copy of this fascinating 2018 debut novel—back cover and both flaps—informs us no less than four times that Lisa Halliday was a recipient of the Whiting Award. This award goes to 10 promising writers each year, and is granted by a jury that is itself selected by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation.
I mention this odd insistence on the Whiting Award because Asymmetry does feel like a novel that would appeal to a philanthropic organization. Its ideology in harmony with its setting’s post-9/11 time period, Asymmetry is a work of humane but slightly traumatized liberalism, like many of the signal Anglo-American literary novels of the mid-2000s—Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Smith’s On Beauty, McEwan’s Saturday, Robinson’s Gilead.
If you’ve heard of Asymmetry at all, though, none of the above is what you heard. You know the book as a roman à clef about the author’s affair with Philip Roth. And it is, beautifully so, in its first half. Titled “Folly”—as in the folly of love, folie à deux—the freestanding novella that is the first 120 or so pages tells of 25-year-old editorial assistant Alice and her romance with a famous Jewish writer almost old enough to be her grandfather, Ezra Blazer.
Despite today’s #metoo moment, their affair is depicted less as a straightforwardly predatory or “creepy” relationship than a warm, lovable, but fraught and unequal one, an instance of literary initiation and erotic pedagogy of the kind celebrated even today by some pedagogues, though denounced by others. Controversies aside, however, I admire how Halliday, in sometimes almost telegraphic third-person narration, depicts this relationship’s many facets, and most importantly captures its real affection, the solicitousness between the couple, without which we might not tolerate it.
Ezra genuinely seems to mean well, and his personal selfishness (and Rothian hunger for the Nobel Prize) is offset by great magnanimity, whether to homeless people he encounters or to Alice herself, as when he pays off her Harvard loans. He is so intelligent and funny that he ably seduces the reader; his increasing frailty as he ages also mitigates somewhat the aspects of his character that we might wish to judge more severely.
Alice, moreover, is a bit of a literary naïf—Ezra has to tell her how to pronounce “Camus”—but her odd sensibility, seemingly effortless erotic sophistication, and her quiet understanding of what Blazer’s patronage might mean for her makes her the novel’s most complex character. Halliday’s unerring intelligence as a dramatist makes “Folly” a small masterpiece of charming ambiguity.
A theme in Alice and Ezra’s literary conversations is the proper subject for fiction—the self or the other. Ezra votes for the self, in line with his real-life counterpart Portnoy-Zuckerman-Roth, while Alice suggests that others, even “the other” in academe’s race-gender-religion-culture terms, are better topics: “Muslim hot dog sellers,” she suggests, after they’ve just visited one. Ezra, who gives Alice not only Henry Miller and Jean Genet to read but also Primo Levi and Hannah Arendt, is not insensible to the nightmare of history, but he seems not to share her desire to capture it in fiction. Their conversations on this topic prepare us for the novel’s second section, “Madness,” which appears unrelated to the first.
Another freestanding novella, “Madness” (as in the madness of war) is the first-person reminiscence of a Kurdish Iraqi-American named Amar as he is detained by immigration authorities at Heathrow Airport on the way to Iraq to visit his brother (though we later learn that the purpose of his voyage is more serious than just a visit). Amar narrates his childhood in Brooklyn, his college experiences (including his first love with a mercurial actress), his academic and professional hesitation between medicine and economics, and, most importantly, his befriending in London of a foreign correspondent and his adult travels back to Iraq after the 2003 war.
Unlike the compelling impersonality of “Folly,” a kind of stripped-down near-experimentalism, “Madness” is a more typical example of “literary fiction.” In fact it is almost a recitation of literary-fiction modes and styles of the last 70 or so years, from the Bellovian warmth and storytelling brio of the opening episodes about immigrant life in America, including the zany detail of the narrator’s in-flight birth, to the melancholy and learned Sebaldian meditations that come to dominate the last sections, where the destruction wrought by the Iraq War and generalized Islamophobia usher us into gloom, as if to say that the heroic immigrant bildungsroman of the midcentury has become a casualty of the 21st-century’s wars.
We gradually become aware that we are reading in “Madness” a novel-within-the-novel. An intricately patterned, almost Nabokovian set of echoes and resonances shows that Amar’s story is one Alice has composed out of her own very different experiences and observations. Presumably in rebuke not only to the autobiographical obsessions of Roth’s generation but also to today’s ideologues of “cultural appropriation,” Halliday conducts a master-class on how the life of “the other” may be reconstituted from the experiences of the self. This is not without risk, as Amar himself, echoing the Zuckerman of American Pastoral, observes, but it remains worth doing:
But then 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.
Just to prove Halliday’s awareness of what’s at stake, as well as her literary wit, there is an allusion on the same page to Stephen Crane, whose own most famous novel is an account of a war in which he did not fight.
Halliday’s descriptive intelligence and storytelling energy make “Madness” every bit as readable as “Folly,” but, in line with Alice/Halliday’s own intentions, there is a feeling of the dutiful, the mechanical, and the pedagogical about it, as if it were reported on assignment. There is in Amar’s life story perhaps a received quirkiness, but nothing of the authentic strangeness of Alice’s character.
Ironically, this demonstrates the real literary danger in “writing the other”: we are so anxious to show we are not estranged, to prove “nothing human can be alien to me” (to borrow Marx’s beloved maxim of Terence), that we shy from discovering in “the other” the terrifying alienness we find in our own single selves. Amar in one moment ruminates that he might have become a terrorist but for the accidents of birth; yet the most vivid novelistic characters are so unpredictable that you wonder if they might become terrorists tomorrow.
The epilogue purports to be a Desert Island Discs episode featuring Ezra in 2011, after he (unlike Roth, cruel irony) wins the Nobel at last. While the epilogue is theoretically necessary to spell out what most readers will have already divined over 100 pages before—that the novel’s second part is a fiction written by Alice to test the limit of the novelist’s empathy—it feels tacked-on, as if an editor had requested something more in line with the aforementioned #metoo moment, even though the rest of the novel reads almost as a generous appreciation by a female author of some of the specific travails of men.
Ezra here gives a charmless, crass performance that doesn’t sound much like the Ezra of the first half, or like Roth’s public voice, or like any other human being, and his musical tour of his life is by-the-numbers. I was amused for personal reasons, though, that Halliday relocated her Roth surrogate from Newark to Pittsburgh and enjoyed the well-researched references to Squirrel Hill, Kaufmann’s, and Edgewater Steel. (But when recounting his participation in the founding of the Paris Review, Ezra strangely doesn’t mention the CIA.)
Asymmetry is an addictively entertaining novel, especially in its first half (and especially if you love Roth, as I do). Its Bush-era humanism, seemingly so innocent of today’s furious populism and identitarianism, throws a nostalgic light. Such liberalism, though, often lets itself off too easily, and so it might be here. There are asymmetries Halliday raises without ever addressing.
If one point of Asymmetry is to answer affirmatively Alice’s worry about whether “a former choirgirl from Massachusetts might be capable of conjuring the consciousness of a Muslim man,” then, on humanistic grounds, I agree. “Only connect,” or else what’s the point of novels?
But what if Alice made her “Muslim man” not an economist but a writer? What if she made him a writer who, because he did not have an affair with a much older, richer, and better-known author who paid off his student loans, was not able to break into publishing? What if he was not able to tell his own story not so much because of the cultural barriers spoken of by identity politics, but because he did not have the right institutional and economic connections, erotic or otherwise? Such a narrative development would have made Asymmetry even more ethically complex and rigorous than it already is, but it might also have made it much less endearing and lovable, to me anyway, if not to you, or to the committee appointed by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation.