Reading the World: Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry

by Thea Hawlin

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry.
Granta Books. £14.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Asymmetry, to give its dictionary definition, is “a lack of equality or equivalence between parts or aspects of something; a lack of symmetry”. It’s also the title of the bold and provocative début from Whiting Award-winner Lisa Halliday, a novel that examines the asymmetries of life in the contemporary world with incisive detail and unnerving intelligence. Split into two distinct, disconnected narratives, followed by a brief coda which takes the form of a radio broadcast transcript, even the structure of the novel lacks symmetry. In a certain sense, it’s reminiscent of Ali Smith’s experiments with form in How to be Both (2014), but whereas Smith’s prize-winning novel used the device of structural division and imbalance to defy and examine readers’ narrative expectations, it is the intricate ordering of parts that plays a key role in Asymmetry.

By the end of Halliday’s novel, the reader has become a participant in it and has been made aware of his or her participation. Halliday uses the novel’s structure to implicitly ask us whether we sense that one of its stories is more valid than the other, whether one person’s life is worth more than another’s. Why, in the closing pages, is one story lauded on the radio and another left unresolved, with the ache of an ellipsis, in limbo at an airport terminal? Halliday compels the reader to witness inequalities, dissecting both discrimination and privilege, and in the process she invites important questions. How do we value the lives around us? And what would constitute equilibrium anyway?

Asymmetry begins, like many classic novels, with that humming, delightfully fragile moment in which two people connect. Courtship is perhaps the most evident of the asymmetries we encounter in our lives, the balance that we continually attempt to understand as we remain forever on a single side, craving symmetry and yet rocketing back and forth between two poles of emotional understanding.

The novel’s first section, ‘Folly’, is set in post-9/11 America and follows Alice, a twentysomething editorial assistant, as she climbs the ranks of the New York publishing scene. So far, so Mary McCarthy. But then, spotted reading by herself on a bench in the park, Alice is approached by a successful but ageing writer named Ezra Blazer. Ezra strikes up a conversation and the two of them begin a romantic relationship tinged with aspects of apprenticeship. It’s a fairytale experience for Alice, a whole other kind of wonderland, as she falls for a wise mentor-benefactor who can pay off her student loans with a single transfer, dress her for expensive lunches, and send her bags of books from Barnes & Noble. Yet mixed in with the magic of Alice’s enchantment are details of the relationship that irritate her and trigger anxieties. The constant hum of keeping your phone beside you at all times when expecting that call or text, sleeping with it nearby and willing it to buzz with the light of another word, itching to strike up a new conversation: these moments of prolonged yearning, too, are part of Alice’s experience of Ezra’s affections. Halliday presents Alice’s emotional turmoil brilliantly, especially as she punctuates Alice’s ease around Ezra with jabs of annoyance at quotidian events, like stumbling upon a loose toilet seat that really needs to be fixed.

The rhythm of these successive crescendos and diminuendos — the bliss followed by sudden vexation, the rise and fall of emotional momentum — are what make Asymmetry so compelling. In the first section, the tale seems as old as time — the mature, successful man and his younger, less worldly lover — yet Halliday skews the power dynamics to reveal, on Ezra’s part, the unglamorous details of age, the weary habits, the monotonous pain of living in a body that refuses to function as it once did, and the frustrations that follow the discovery of sudden inabilities. In a peculiar way, being in Alice’s company is part of Ezra’s coming to terms with the ravages of time: “Alone together, together alone. … Except of course they weren’t alone. Ezra’s pain was with them. Ezra, his pain, and Alice, barely tolerable envoy from the enraging world of the healthy.”

With a sudden, jarring shift of location, Halliday veers into the second section of the novel: ‘Madness’. Here she plunges head-on into the first-person monologue of Amar, a protagonist as different from Alice as could be: an Iraqi man visiting England, descended from immigrant parents who have settled in America, living a life far removed from the comfortable bourgeois turmoil of Alice in her brownstone loft. Detained by immigration officers at Heathrow Airport, Amar finds himself caught in a state of limbo, imprisoned in that terrifying liminal space between countries in which ethnic and cultural discriminations have played out so keenly since 2001. Solely by virtue of this leap to another narrative, Halliday exemplifies the range of her skill: she both offers readers a semi-autobiographical tale which invites us to search the story for aspects of her life and challenges readers with her ability to conceal herself in the voice of a character who — according to her critics — should be completely out of reach for her.

“Sometimes I wonder whether we hide lovers from others because it makes it easier to hide ourselves from ourselves”, Amar muses while reminiscing about his shame over having dated an American Catholic. This longstanding idea, that we are reflected in the things and people we love, acquires new resonance in Halliday’s hands, as she shows how the things and people we love sometimes shape us in ways we cannot recognise. Alice is in a formative state, at a point of becoming, just embarking upon her career of choice and entering the ‘real’ world of New York, when she falls in with a man who is supposedly already fully-formed. At the same time, however, this man, in contrast to Alice, is slowly but surely unravelling, in a state of dissemblance, physically and emotionally, as he struggles to come to terms with his own demise. In a similar juxtaposition of characters, Amar relishes the life that his parents have provided for him in the new world of the United States while his brother rejects their wishes and instead returns to Iraq, his identity firmly rooted in the old world that his parents left behind.

What remains the most intriguing aspect of Halliday’s novel — and will probably be, for many readers, its most infuriating as well — is that the stories of Alice and Amar never overtly intertwine. “Maybe East and West really are eternally irreconcilable”, Amar considers, “like a curve and its asymptote, geometrically fated never to intersect”, and it’s difficult not to read his musings as a commentary on Asymmetry itself, or else to read the two stories as representative of these two extremities. Whatever crossover there is remains implicit, clouded, yet with its coda the novel plays around a little more with its form in order to provoke a further interrogation of the text, a further search for links that may be invisible.

The coda is a transcript of Ezra Blazer’s appearance on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs. It brings with it a glorious element of interactivity. I’m sure I’ll be only one of many readers who find themselves listening in real time to the tracks chosen by Ezra Blazer, in order to become fully immersed in the radio show scenario. The references to music and the stories around Ezra’s list of songs add new layers to his character and open up new ways of reading (or re-reading) his attitudes towards Alice. Most importantly, though, in the process of reading his interview, we are made to enact the very thesis he lays out when he speaks of frantic readers “contemplating what’s ‘real’ versus ‘imagined’ in a novel. Checking for seams, trying to figure out how it’s been done.”

When one learns that Lisa Halliday was herself romantically involved with a successful older writer at the start of her career in publishing, it becomes irresistible to look for alignments between her life and her novel. As a consequence, the National Book Award-winning Ezra has been understood by some reviewers of Asymmetry as simply a thinly-veiled Philip Roth. However, by having deliberately disclosed this information about her private life, Halliday subverts easy assumptions about the ‘private’ contents of her novel. Rather than hiding the reality of her own experience behind the fictional account, she presents both of them to her readers and allows them to live side by side, just as the two parts of the novel do. In a way, then, Halliday urges her readers to examine the strange, intricate imbalances that exist not only between the lives of the people in the novel but also between those lives and others outside the novel. How do we consolidate our lives? This is the burning question underlying Ezra Blazer’s appearance on the radio. How do we understand our own existences if not by comparison to others? If not by experience and by making mistakes, how do we grow and mature? How do we learn to live outside ourselves and nourish empathy without daring to emotionally inhabit lives that are not our own?

Ultimately, then, Halliday asks whether authors such as herself have a right to tell stories that do not ‘belong’ to them. If her first novel had been written entirely from Amar’s perspective, would readers be inclined to see a white American woman as capable of creating the authentic voice of an Iraqi man in detention? Conversely, if she had been faithful to a more palatable story set in her own, more ‘believable’ reality, would she be seen as a writer of limited talents for depicting a world familiar to her? Would she find her literary status reduced to that of a ‘merely’ autobiographical writer, as happens so often to women who write?

“Writing about myself doesn’t seem important enough”, Alice confesses to Ezra when he asks her if she has written anything about their relationship. What Halliday seems to ask is: is it important enough? How do we quantify the importance of a life? When talking to his brother about a friend who works as a reporter, Amar says that “humility and silence are surely preferable to ignorance and imperiousness” when it comes to writing about the atrocities he has witnessed in Iraq. The unspoken question lingers: is it better to attempt to speak or to say nothing at all?

In Who Is Mary Sue? (2018), her latest collection of poems, Sophie Collins notes that,

in literary fiction, when a female writer’s female protagonist is considered up to scratch, she is often taken to be a thinly disguised version of the author’s non-idealised self.

Something like: a woman who tries to invent in literature will fail, whereas a woman who succeeds in writing is believed to have done so to the extent that she has been able to accurately portray the details of her own life.

This is a perceptive comment that applies to the concerns of Asymmetry. What makes the novel so intelligent in its execution is the way it unsettles the dichotomy that Collins identifies. Ultimately, Halliday has produced a novel that asks its readers to question not only its characters and subjects, but also the act and the ethics of writing itself. Personal, political, intimate, and distant, Asymmetry is a conundrum that relishes its own imbalances and challenges the very notion of what it is to be a novel, and what a novel ought to be, at this point in time. It is a book that engages its readers in a discussion about why it is the way it is: a book that makes demands of its readers in order to make them conscious of what they seek when they read the world.

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Thea Hawlin is a writer, artist and cultural critic based in Italy. She writes for publications such as the Times Literary SupplementLitHubReview 31, and AnOther. She has also managed social media for Asymptote, the online journal of literary translation, and was recently a contributor to The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, the acclaimed collection of essays from O/R Books. Thea tweets @TheodoraHawlin.