Monday, 13 May 2019


Although Asymmetry might be considered to be about its eponymous subject, in reality it's primarily about something else. Toward the end of 'Madness', the second of the book's two stories (there is also a coda to the first story at the end) Amar Jafaari, an Iraqi-American economics graduate with a recent PhD, a Kurdish Iraqi born in the air over Cape Cod, is being detained at Heathrow after trying to enter the country while on his way back to Iraq to visit his brother. Amar, who once interned at a bio-ethics council in London, has a surprisingly vast recall of literature and is remembering having discovered a copy of The Portable Stephen Crane in the music seat of a piano his brother bought in New York. He recalls how he felt at that point in his life, eleven years old, with a sense of “the metaphysical claustrophobia and bleak fate of always being one person”. It is, he thinks, a problem “entirely up to our imaginations to solve.” And then he recalls lines from Crane, “it might perhaps be said—if anyone dared—that the most worthless literature in the world is that which has been written by the men of one nation concerning the men of another”.

This exquisite, if seemingly unlikely, bit of literary recall by an economics student is at the core of what Lisa Halliday is up to. Her two stories are actually moving, almost inevitably, toward a symmetry determined by each story's asymmetry. Amar's is multi-faceted, including the asymmetries of his life in the US and his family's life in Syria, but it is anchored by his interminable and frightening encounter with the officious staff of British customs, convinced his stop-over in London is something they should not allow. It is a frame around his wider tale, a constricting frame that seems to be tightening like a medieval torture device around him. It is also, we might later conclude, an attempt at a story of one nation written by a woman of another.

The book's first story, titled 'Folly', details one asymmetrical relationship, between Alice, an assistant editor at a literary publishing house, and Ezra Blazer, a major novelist, who seemed a cross between Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, if a bit less healthy than either. He approaches her in the park where she is half-reading, and recognises, looking at the book, that she 'likes old stuff'. Alice is 25, Ezra 66 (though in fact he seems somewhat older—which may only be the perception of youth) and their affair is of course one of assymetry, based mostly on his fame but also on his experience and his will (though interestingly Alice is more the aggressor sexually). The writing is young and dreamy; Alice doesn't know who she is, almost literally: her given name is Mary-Alice and Ezra soon gives her an alias to use when they are at public affairs. She also doesn't quite know Ezra: when he calls her, her phone always reads CALLER ID BLOCKED, which is a perfect millennial way to describe that part of relationships. She is also a Boston Red Sox fan; he, being a New Yorker, roots for the Yankees. Talk about asymmetry.

Because Lisa Halliday's Alice is so convincing in her ambivalence, 'Folly' as a whole works better than 'Madness', whose intensity in the immigration interrogation far outweighs the details of Amar's own life, or indeed the real story of what is going on with his family in Iraq. You realise there is another asymmetry on offer there, but you sense there is no real parallel to be made between Alice or Amar's love lives and the taking of hostages in a war zone. And you do marvel at the way the narration of 'Folly', while from Lisa's point of view, manages to build, subtly, a convincing portrait of Blazer. Men of another nation and all that.

The coda is an attempt to resolve some of the asymmetry, as Ezra is interviewed on Desert Island discs by a thinly-disguised Kirsty Young, providing a battle of more-or-less equals, with her situation, like that of the interrogator at British immigration, providing her with power, and Ezra using his tricks to re-establish footing. This seemed a little forced to me, and tonally not of a piece, but it does make her point, if narrowing it somewhat to a battle of the sexes.

I read Asymmetry on recommendation from my friend Alexis, whose praise for the writing was justified. So when I finished, I looked to see why I had missed the book, and discovered two things. Less importantly, in Britain, it was the coda that seemed to receive the most attention, a certain amount of critical cheerleading at the way Kirsty Young deals with the old man, mixed with a definite ignoring of the parallel situation at Heathrow Airport rather than Broadcasting House.

But more significantly, the real attention-grabber was that Lisa Halliday had actually had an affair with Philip Roth, when their ages were roughly what Alice and Ezra's are, and thus this fiction was, as the movies (or Granta books' PR probably) say, 'based on a true story'. This is not essential to enjoying the book, indeed, I think it probably reinforces the fiction's own asymmetry between Alice's and Amars stories. But this is not Joyce Maynard dishing the dirt and getting revenge on JD Salinger. In fact, in retrospect it reminded me more of Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year, detailing the time she spent as an assistant to Salinger's agent.

I would have preferred not to have learned the 'true story', especially since much of it occurs as Ezra is 68, when their ages total 95, and it all seems rather hopeless. Or pathetic. Or asymmetrical. Which seems reinforced as 'Folly' ends, with a Red Sox player striking out against a Yankee, and Alice holding Ezra's hand in hospital. It's a fine piece of writing, true story or no.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
Granta £8.99 ISBN 9781783783625

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