For the past year, it seemed to me like the novel everyone was going on about as their favorite new release was Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry. It was all over twitter and in the hands of my favorite cultural critics, and eventually, even on Barack Obama’s end-of-year reading list. Yet, I resisted it. Every time I came across it in a bookshop, I picked it up, read the summary, sighed, and put it back down again. A young literary editor in begins an affair with a much older writer in New York. No, thank you. We’ve heard it before, and it’s never been a trope I’ve felt particularly drawn to, no matter the approach.
Yet, everyone kept talking about it and I kept putting it down.
Then, a few weeks ago, a friend who reads and likes many of the same books as me picked it up and started sharing passages in her Instagram stories. Her taste I knew, and frankly, her taste I trusted more than those of all the literary critics. The next day, I came across a new paperback of the novel at the train station, and this time, without reading the back cover, I picked it up.
Reading it began very slowly. I carried it in my bag for a week after defending my thesis, too tired and too sleepy to read a word. Then I began reading and almost promptly got hit with a very, very heavy cold and spent another week in the arms of exhaustion. I read a few pages here and a few pages there, and oddly, instead of becoming tedious from being broken into so many reading chunks, the pace of the novel fit perfectly into my days of napping with cups of tea nearby.
Asymmetry isn’t what I expected it to be. Every comment I heard on it was about the affair between Alice, the protagonist, and an older writer whose name I can’t actively remember and keep having to look up even though I only finished the novel an hour ago (I was going to say Ezra Sofa, but it is in fact Ezra Blazer). But that part of the novel is a sleepy anchor to New York, the sleepy bit that fit so well into my week of illness. (Positive) criticism of the novel keeps referring to it as voyeuristic, always taking care to note that Alice and Ezra Blazer’s affair is based on the writer’s affair with Philip Roth, as if it’s the most interesting bit, but really, who cares? That part of the novel – “Folly” – is only its first half, and its strength only comes through with the novel’s coda. To me, it is a mundane contrast to the core of the novel.
The second part of the novel meanwhile – “Madness” – takes place not only with different characters but in a different place, in another decade. Set at Heathrow, it has nothing to do with Alice or Ezra Blazer, but with Amar, an Iraqi-American economics PhD who is detained on his way to see his brother for the first time in many years. “Madness” delves far further into the mind of its protagonist than “Folly,” and we get to know much more about Amar than we ever do about Alice. In fact, his story almost takes on Tristam Shandy levels of detail – Amar’s narration begins with “I was conceived in Karrada but born high over the elbow of Cape Cod” (131). Everything from his childhood to his family background to his and his relatives’ experiences with war are explored, and you can’t help but wonder why his story is being told in the same book as Alice’s.
Once “Madness” comes to a sudden and gut-wrenching ending, the novel jumps into its coda and obscenely back into the world of Ezra Blazer, ahead now to the same year as Amar. While “Folly” was told from Alice’s perspective, the coda consists of the transcription of a fictional episode of “Desert Island Discs” where Ezra Blazer is the guest. The extremely dull but ultimately “not so bad” sheen of his character is stripped away, and the interview serves to tie things together – to reveal that the first section of the novel was a perspective glazed over perhaps by love, perhaps by influence and that Ezra Blazer is really, truly a gross man (“After the fact, I consider my girlfriends my children.” 259). Alice is not present in the coda, but without it the novel would seem incomplete. Amar does not appear in the coda either, but we know from “Madness” that he at least has a habit of listening to “Desert Island Discs” when in the UK.
An easy interpretation of Asymmetry is that “Madness” is Alice’s creation. In “Folly,” she reads the writings of many older writers and very quietly harbors thoughts of writing herself. We don’t, however, know that that’s what “Madness” is. This, I think, is in hand with focusing on the “voyeurism” of any “real-life” inspiration behind the novel. What I find interesting instead is the wordplay – why the title and why the echoes between “Folly” and “Madness.” I don’t want to think of Amar as Alice’s creation, one somehow, unfairly dependent on the other. Instead, I see them as two people who’ve passed through or been tethered to New York at different points but gone on to live extremely different lives – their narratives take place in different years and they’re portraits of two different people in a city more diverse than any other.
Their stories are, also, echoes of stereotypes. Writing in 1929, Virginia Woolf confronted a difference in attitude towards books about men and books about women:
“This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop - everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.”
Asymmetry, in its way, plays with this. Alice’s story, titled after the frivolous sort of madness that is often ascribed to women – “Folly” – is about her love affair. Amar’s – more straightforward “Madness” – is about the elaborate effects of religion, politics, and war. It is almost as if “Madness” is there as a commentary on “Folly” – why, echoing the voices of so, so many, care about this when there are actually people suffering in the world? The characters in “Folly” are so privileged, so oblivious, that they don’t even see what else is going on in the world in the 2000s, outside of their elite Manhattan bubble.
There is no answer, and I have no answer. That it is the beauty and, I believe, the strength of Asymmetry. None of it fits together. It is asymmetrical. It poses more questions than it answers about different dynamics and experiences, questions of authorship and authority and politics and culture (why, after all, is a white woman from New England intimately writing about Iraq?). Despite this, it gives to the world and adds to its definitions of humanity.
The only thing I know for sure after having read Asymmetry is that I’m glad I overcame my prejudice against what turned out to be just one aspect of a beautiful, multi-faceted novel. I see now what all the fuss was about, and I’m happy to contribute to its hype.
Olivia Gündüz-Willemin is Editor-in-Chief of The Attic on Eighth. She is dedicated to reading her way through the world and trying to stay as calm as possible.