You’ve probably already heard a fair bit about Lisa Halliday’s debut, Asymmetry, published in the UK by Granta. It’s one of those debuts that seems to have received an unprecedented number of glowing reviews. People love this book. People are dazzled. People say it’s a masterpiece. It may be best to read it without knowing too much about it (you could pick it up thinking, ‘some people think this is a masterpiece’ and then find out for yourself whether you think that’s true).
It’s broken into three parts – or two parts and a coda, depending on how specific you want to get. Two parts are obviously linked; one part, less obviously so. There’s your lack of symmetry. At least in part. Part one, entitled ‘Folly’, concerns a relationship between a young woman called Alice and a much older man called Ezra Blazer, a writer, recognised on the street, regularly cited as being deserving of the Nobel Prize even as he continues to miss out on it. After meeting on a park bench, they quickly graduate to a sexual relationship that, in turn, gives way to nurse-patient as Ezra is forced to deal with various health complaints. Part two is called ‘Madness’ and (another staple of the reviews) ‘couldn’t be more different’. Amar Jaafari is a young Iraqi American detained in London, where he is due to catch up with a friend called Alistair for a couple of days ahead of flying out to Iraq for a family reunion of sorts. Halliday employs what is by any stretch of the imagination a fairly typical literary device to follow Amar through his detainment whilst at the same time filling us in on his life up to that point. In the final part of the novel, we meet Ezra Blazer again on Desert Island Discs, of all things, as he talks about the music that has meant a lot to him in his life in a way that suggests whatever powers Blazer once had, they may now be spent.
Now, unlike the vast majority of reviewers, I can’t say I was dazzled by Asymmetry. There is certainly a lot to like. Make no mistake about that. There are, however, things to dislike, if you are that way inclined. We should say, before we get to that, though, we can appreciate that the things we disliked may not necessarily bother other readers a jot. In terms of the things we liked: Halliday is great on detail, her writing is sturdy and expressive, her worlds are plausible. Here is Alice, for example, in the first part of the book:
“It was Memorial Day weekend and Broadway was closed for a street fair. Already at eleven the neighbourhood was smoky and the air sizzling with falafel, fajitas, French fries, Sloppy Joes, corn on the cob, fennel sausages, funnel cake, and fried dough the diameter of a Frisbee. Ice-cold lemonade. Free spinal health exams. “We the People” legal document administration – Divorce $399, Bankruptcy $199. At one of the stalls peddling brandless bohemian fashion, there was a pretty poppy-colored sundress…”
Perhaps best of all, her ideas feel mulled like hard caramel. What do we mean by that? Well, there are key points in the book where you can tell each word is hard-earned, that she writes slowly, that she is tremendously thoughtful.
“”There’s an expression chess players use to clarify that a piece is only being adjusted in its place, not yet moved to another square.”
“Oh really, what’s that?”
And yet, at the same time, there are cardinal sins too, like having Amar admit,
“…in any case my family and their friends and I weren’t characters in an imaginative work; we were real people weathering real lives…”
Clunk. But that isn’t the biggest issue we have with Asymmetry. If you know anything at all about Halliday’s debut, you probably know that she had an affair with Philip Roth when she was in her 20s and he was in his 60s. She has gone to great lengths, both here in the book and in the interviews she is giving, to distance her actual romance with the romance covered in the book. Yes, she was a twenty some year old having an affair with a much older man who was an internationally famous writer constantly cited as being worthy of the Nobel Prize without ever winning it – but it’s not the same romance described in the book. Time and again in the book she gets into this tricksy area (an area that Roth himself has well and truly furrowed):
“I’m the first to admit it can be irresistible, contemplating what’s “real” versus “imagined” in a novel”
“…it would be equally wrong to call them autobiographical, or to become caught up in that inane exercise of trying to separate “truth” from “fiction”, as if those boxes weren’t kicked aside by the novelist for good reason to begin with”
“wasn’t it also Crane who said that an artist is nothing but a powerful memory that can move itself at will through certain experiences sideways?”
So in some respects Halliday is a writer like Gwendoline Riley or Nicole Krauss. Fine. And yet to us, there is a disingenuousness at work. It’s fine for us to be sitting here wondering which if any elements of the relationship between Alice and Ezra resemble that of the relationship between Halliday and Roth but if what Halliday were saying was absolutely true, and there wasn’t an element of disingenuousness at work, how do we know she had an affair with Philip Roth? Why is it even known about? Ah, you might say. It’s her prerogative. It happened to her after all. Yes, we agree. It happened to her. And it’s fine for her to use it. But isn’t using it – either as grist for her fictional mill or as some salacious tidbit to hook herself a book deal – something that has to be acknowledged (adhering to the Joycian dictum to ‘work it all in’). Isn’t acknowledging she had an affair with Philip Roth but wriggling like a fish on a hook whenever it comes up, itchily saying ‘it’s all about the words, darling’ rather than ‘hey, you know, I had an affair with Philip Roth and I later wrote a book that used some of that material and, hey, you know what, I might have baited my hook with the Roth story when it came time to search around for a deal…” somewhat disingenuous, however you cut it? Isn’t honesty preferable to the slightly sniffy “oh, that, yes well it happened, I don’t really know how you found out about it, that relationship has nothing to do with my book…” you can hear on the recent New York Times podcast? For this reader it is.
But we know that it may just be the fact that we are not the target audience here. It may be that there are a lot of readers who, no doubt despising the likes of Woody Allen or even Philip Roth himself (who probably wisely retired at the moment he did), are ready for a female retelling of the kinds of stories they told (there is a peculiar resonance between the fact that this book is receiving all manner of plaudits whilst Woody Allen’s latest film, itself a May-December story, may no longer see the light of day – and you can’t help but wonder what kind of monstrous reviews would greet a Philip Roth novel concerning a fictionalised version of a relationship between a sixty-something man and a twenty-something woman, such is the age we live in). And, such is the circular motion of the argument, we can’t say what we did without circling back in on that “female retelling of the kinds of stories they told” to acknowledge that Asymmetry is doing more than tell a May-December story, and her adoption of another voice mid-way does demonstrate her great skill of ventriloquism – and Asymmetry is arguably doing something interesting when it comes to interrogating the mode of story-telling (we did say there was a lot to like at the beginning of this review) but, to conclude, there is also stuff here that irritates like a chipped tooth.
Any Cop?: A mixed bag for us but that may be because we’re on the wrong side of a contemporary debate. It’s certainly provocative, intelligent and interesting – but it’s also slippery and disingenuous. The proverbial definition of someone having their pie and eating it. A la mode.