Author upturns story frequently in ‘Asymmetry’

Washington Post
Friday, March 02, 2018

Initially, Lisa Halliday’s debut novel, Asymmetry, appears to be a roman à clef. A young publishing assistant named Alice embarks on a love affair with the American literary lion, Ezra Blazer, who sounds and behaves very much like Philip Roth.

In fact, any identification with Roth, with whom Halliday once shared a romance, seems there for the reader’s delight and plucking. An incorrigible flirt, with no progeny and every literary honor but the Nobel (a recurring joke), Ezra has a weakness for almost everything older – Yiddish humor, vintage music, forgotten movies – except companions. Women he prefers absurdly young.

Ezra is Alice’s teacher, her patron, and in danger of being her everything if she doesn’t stake a claim. Alice muses, “As soon as you are born the sand starts falling and only by demanding to be remembered do you stand a chance of it being upturned again and again.”

In the midst of becoming a writer, wise Alice realizes that she cannot bloom as an artist as long as she is enveloped by Ezra. “Ninety-seven years they’d lived between them, and the longer it went on the more she confused his for her own.”

Halliday’s coruscating work takes you down roads you hadn’t planned on taking. Alice’s name is no accident; Lewis Carroll’s heroine is invoked several times. Even the book’s structure is initially bewildering. Asymmetry delivers two seemingly disconnected novellas, followed by a brief third coda.

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.”

After the first novella, titled “Folly,” the book takes a hard left into “Madness.” Amar is on his way to visit his brother in Iraq, in possession of two passports and few wiles about airport security. The result is a prolonged detention in a Heathrow holding room, a contemporary purgatory.

Amar’s story, the less familiar, is relayed in the first person, while Alice’s story, which seems deeply rooted in Halliday’s own biography, is told in the third. These two smart, perceptive characters are the same age, well-educated, yet unlikely to collide.

A girlfriend tells Amar, “Once we know the end of an unfortunate story, it’s tempting to ask why its protagonist did not do better to swerve his fate.” Deprived temporarily of his freedom, Amar contemplates what he knows and has failed to learn, the violence of other places, the constant of war, the absurdity of his situation. He considers the writing of Stephen Crane: “It perhaps might be said – if anyone dared – that the most worthless literature of the world has been that which has been written by men of one nation concerning the men of another.” Which is precisely what Halliday is doing.

But, Amar asks, “wasn’t it also Crane who said that an artist is nothing but a powerful memory that can move itself at will through experiences sideways?” This passage also moves sideways in the novel, Ezra having typed it in “Folly” for Alice to discover.

Asymmetry concludes with the section entitled “Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs,” based on the BBC radio program that asks guests to name the songs they would want on a deserted island. Halliday has blessed Ezra with unexpected events in his late age, gifts that deviate from Roth’s biography. Ezra’s comic imperative to seduce, however, remains a constant. In his wide-ranging interview on the radio show, he becomes the key to understanding the novel’s wonders. 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.