Anthropologists studying a tribe in southern Africa in the 1970s distinguished between two kinds of stories: those told during daylight — gossipy anecdotes, your average water-cooler chat — and those told at night. Around the fire, stories turned starkly philosophical, full of allusions to the ancestors and the spirit world. Nighttime tales seemed to speak to a different human need.
Among the abundant pleasures of “Asymmetry,” a scorchingly intelligent first novel by Lisa Halliday, is that it satisfies both these appetites — it’s a clever comedy of manners set in Manhattan as well as a slowly unspooling tragedy about an Iraqi-American family, which poses deep questions about free will, fate and freedom, the all-powerful accident of one’s birth and how life is alchemized into fiction.
The first section follows Alice, a 20-something assistant at a publishing house, as she tumbles down a rabbit hole of a relationship with Ezra Blazer, a literary eminence 40 years her senior who bears a terrifically unabashed resemblance to Philip Roth (with whom Halliday had a relationship while in her 20s).
For all the obvious imbalances in their relationship, the pair meets at a moment when they’re both stuttering at a precipice. Alice longs to fully enter the world, to write and create; Ezra struggles with leaving it, his body starting to break down. Each becomes the custodian of the other’s dignity. He pays off her student loans and teaches her how to pronounce Camus. She picks up his Mylanta from the drugstore and gets him a new cord for his reading glasses. They watch baseball in bed together and talk writing. “If there’s a gun hanging on the wall in the first chapter, in a later chapter it must go off,” Ezra instructs Alice, passing along Chekhov’s famous rule. She responds in her customary deadpan, “If there’s a defibrillator hanging on the wall in the first chapter, in a later chapter must it go off?” (Does it ever.) In the distance, there is the rumbling of the American invasion of Iraq.
It’s a fresh twist on a familiar story — a May-December romance that so shrewdly anticipates and skirts expectations, I would not have minded if the novel had trundled along in this vein for another 200 pages. (“Asymmetry” joins a group of recent acclaimed debuts by women that revolve around the theme of a young woman, usually a would-be writer who takes up with an older male artist — Sally Rooney’s “Conversations With Friends” and Hermione Hoby’s “Neon in Daylight,” to name just two. The younger woman, handmaiden to genius, has been such a curiously central and peripheral figure in fiction; it’s as if she’s being energetically reclaimed.) But Halliday shifts course, and the book’s scope widens.
We’re transported to a holding room in London’s Heathrow Airport, where Amar, an Iraqi-American economist, has been detained on his way to Kurdistan to see his brother. This section is delivered in first person, and by a narrator as different from sweet, somnolent Alice as you can imagine. Amar is introspective, given not only to scrutinizing his own motives but those of everyone around him, of whole cultures — it’s how he has survived, or has tried to, as he’s watched his family and Iraq decimated by war.
The two stories never explicitly intersect. A third section, a radio interview with Ezra, hints at the link between them, but the game — and real pleasure — for the reader is to trace deeper resonances. What does it mean that these lives coexist? Alice in Manhattan, preoccupied with her erotic and intellectual ambitions, and Amar in Baghdad, watching his family’s life being choked by checkpoints, travel restrictions and constant threat.
The questions that crop up — about the illusion of choice and the fateful hand of luck, of birth — form the philosophical core of the novel but luckily, they come to us largely through Amar, and are handled lightly, leavened by his sarcasm, his mournful wit.
As you search for the symmetries in “Asymmetry,” you won’t find one key that will unlock all its mysteries — this book is musical, not architectural in structure; themes don’t build on each other as much as chime and rhyme, repeat and harmonize, so what we receive is less a series of thesis statements than a shimmering web of associations; in short, the world as we know it.
You hunt for buried clues — the repeated references to a Stephen Crane quote, the mentions of an abortion. You do close readings of the fragments of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Eichmann in Jerusalem” that appear. On every page, you interrogate every detail: What are you doing here? Why do you matter? “Asymmetry” is not complicated, but it cannot be read complacently. Like it or not, it will make you a better reader, a more active noticer. It hones your senses.
Toward the end of the book, a radio interviewer asks Ezra what it’s like to grow old. He responds, “The short answer is that you go about your business reminding yourself to look at everything as though you’re looking at it for the last time.” Why wait? Halliday challenges us. Start now.
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