Ruth Margalit

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Asym­me­try by Lisa Hal­l­i­day

Asym­me­try by Lisa Hal­l­i­day. Si­mon and Schus­ter, 275 pp., $26.00

Early in Asym­me­try, Lisa Hal­l­i­day’s as­tound­ing first novel, Alice, a young as­sis­tant ed­i­tor at a large pub­lish­ing house, comes across a stray pa­per in the apart­ment of the much older writer she is sleep­ing with. On it are a few typed lines, in­clud­ing this: “An artist, I think, is noth­ing but a pow­er­ful mem­ory that can move it­self through cer­tain ex­pe­ri­ences sideways ...” The quote bears no at­tri­bu­tion, but it comes from the nine­teenth-cen­tury nov­el­ist Stephen Crane. It will resur­face, as so many other de­tails in Alice’s story, in Asym­me­try’s sec­ond sec­tion, a seem­ingly dis­con­nected tale told from the point of view of an Iraqi-Amer­i­can econ­o­mist de­tained at Heathrow Air­port.

It is also an apt pré­cis for what Hal­l­i­day sets out to achieve in her de­cep­tively smart novel. De­cep­tive be­cause, though it tells two rel­a­tively straight­for­ward sto­ries—one a com­ing-of-age love story; the other the tale of an up­rooted man search­ing for his lost brother—it does so while break­ing away from the con­ven­tions of re­al­ist fic­tion. Hal­l­i­day re­lies in­stead on omis­sions and in­fer­ences. She ar­ranges the first sec­tion of the novel (ti­tled “Folly”) into short, as­so­cia­tive bursts rem­i­nis­cent of Re­nata Adler’s Speed­boat (1976) or, more re­cently, of Jenny Of­fill’s Dept. of Spec­u­la­tion (2014). And she in­ter­lays her book with var­i­ous texts, from Han­nah Arendt’s Eich­mann in Jerusalem (1963) to an abor­tion man­ual, end­ing it with an in­spired set piece that reads like a spot-on tran­script of a BBC Ra­dio 4 pro­gram.

But I’m afraid the above de­scrip­tion risks mak­ing Asym­me­try ap­pear heavy-handed or pre­ten­tious. It is any­thing but. In fact, one of its many plea­sures lies in its ad­her­ence to the clas­si­cal nov­el­is­tic tra­di­tion of a for­ward-mov­ing story (two, in this case) well told. Hal­l­i­day’s im­pres­sively as­sured yet light touch moves through the novel sideways, which is to say porously and with­out judg­ment.

When we first meet Alice, she is sit­ting on a bench on Man­hat­tan’s Up­per West Side, read­ing a book:

She was con­sid­er­ing (some­what fool­ishly, for she was not very good at fin­ish­ing things) whether one day she might even write a book her­self, when a man with pewter-col­ored curls and an ice-cream cone from the Mis­ter Sof­tee on the cor­ner sat down be­side her.

She rec­og­nizes him in­stantly, and so do the jog­gers bob­bing by. He is Ezra Blazer, a writer Hal­l­i­day con­sciously mod­eled on Philip Roth, in or­der, she said in an interview, to “max­i­mize the ‘anx­i­ety of in­flu­ence.’” (And per­haps out of fa­mil­iar­ity: Hal­l­i­day had a re­la­tion­ship with Roth when she, like Alice, was in her twen­ties and work­ing in book pub­lish­ing, and the two have since re­mained friends.) His in­flu­ence is great in­deed, for Alice is an as­pir­ing writer, though as yet un­hatched. She cer­tainly has the eye of one—notic­ing the way in which cars driv­ing in the rain ap­pear to be trav­el­ing faster than when it’s dry; how a photo Ezra had taken of her “was al­most a beautiful pho­to­graph,” but the prob­lem “was its Alice­ness: that stub­bornly ju­ve­nile qual­ity that on film never failed to sur­prise and an­noy her”; or the fleet­ing look of ir­ri­ta­tion that crosses Blazer’s face when he catches sight of the “white cone of dis­carded type­script” lining his waste­bas­ket.

But the un­spo­ken un­der­stand­ing be­tween them is that Alice’s am­bi­tion, so far as it ex­ists, must re­main sec­ondary to Blazer’s work. One of the novel’s asym­me­tries is the in­her­ent power im­bal­ance be­tween an im­pres­sion­able young wo­man and a suc­cess­ful older man. (I may be com­plicit here, too, in­stinc­tively re­fer­ring to her by her first name and to him by his last.) Blazer de­ter­mines where and when they will meet—his apart­ment, af­ter his writ­ing day is done—and for how long. When­ever he wants Alice gone, all he has to do is sing “The party’s over . . .” and she stag­gers home, “her belly full of bour­bon and choco­late and her un­der­wear in her pocket.” At the start of their re­la­tion­ship, Alice jots down her phone num­ber on a book­mark and hands it to him. Blazer tells her, “You’ve lost your place.” We sus­pect he’ll turn out to be right in more ways than one.

The im­bal­ance quickly turns fi­nan­cial. Alice lives with­out an air con­di­tioner, so Blazer buys her one, show­er­ing her with other gifts as well—a “sen­si­ble” watch, a Chanel eau de par­fum, a lux­u­ri­ous Searle coat that makes her feel “pam­pered and in­vin­ci­ble.” This is done not so much in the pos­ses­sive man­ner of a high-roller to­ward his tro­phy wife (though there is an as­pect of that, of course) as in the benev­o­lent spirit of an older un­cle, say, be­sot­ted with a pre­co­cious niece. Along with the presents, Alice also gets an ed­u­ca­tion. “It’s Ca-MOO, sweet­heart. He’s French,” Blazer tells her. When he sees her read­ing a bi­og­ra­phy of Hitler, he ad­vises her to steer clear of sen­ti­men­tal ac­counts of the Holo­caust and to fo­cus in­stead on Primo Levi, Gitta Sereny, and Arendt. By the by, he of­fers her en­cour­age­ment of sorts, say­ing that her con­spir­acy-the­o­rist fa­ther is a writerly “gift” and that she should write what she knows. “Don’t worry about im­por­tance,” he ad­vises. “Im­por­tance comes from do­ing it well.”

Books—and a pas­sion for base­ball—are what unite them, and Hal­l­i­day is clearly hav­ing fun con­jur­ing the strange ins and outs of a busi­ness in which Blazer is the undis­puted de­ity and Alice a mere mor­tal. Time in the novel is marked by a run­ning gag about Blazer miss­ing out on the No­bel each year. There’s a sting­ing mo­ment in which Alice finds, tossed away, the gal­leys of a novel by some­one she knows, with a let­ter ask­ing Blazer for a blurb “still pa­per-clipped to its cover.” There’s a funny aside about her fir­ing off an e-mail at work “re­ject­ing an­other novel writ­ten in the sec­ond per­son.” And some wonky in­side base­ball, too. When Alice vis­its Blazer’s sum­mer home and tells him that she just killed “the big­gest wasp,” he can’t help him­self: “I thought Ge­orge Plimp­ton was the big­gest wasp,” he says.

At first glance, theirs is a fa­mil­iar story—of do­cent and pupil, artist and muse. But the Alice–Blazer arc doesn’t read as a cau­tion­ary tale about the pit­falls of gender, sex, and power. It is—as life is—more com­pli­cated than that. On the one hand, we get to in­habit Alice’s per­spec­tive, so that her role as muse is nicely sub­verted. On the other hand, she re­mains elu­sive, kept by Hal­l­i­day at a third-per­son re­move. And while we sense that Alice and Blazer are wrong for each other—“for a mo­ment Alice saw what she sup­posed other peo­ple would see: a healthy young wo­man los­ing time with a de­crepit old man”— there is, none­the­less, a ten­der­ness be­tween them that is ab­sent from Alice’s in­ter­ac­tions with more “suit­able” young men. (In one short but skew­er­ing sketch we learn of a boy she has sex with once: he is an as­sis­tant in the Sub-Rights Depart­ment; they meet at a “re­tire­ment thing” for a company ed­i­tor; in the morn­ing he puts on his cor­duroys and bolts. Enough said.)

Meanwhile, Alice and Blazer’s re­la­tion­ship, lop­sided as it is, starts to tilt the other way, with Blazer be­com­ing in­creas­ingly de­pen­dent on Alice to run er­rands for him af­ter he un­der­goes an un­suc­cess­ful back op­er­a­tion, and to in­ject a dose of live­li­ness into his veins. “While they were do­ing one of the things he wasn’t sup­posed to do” be­gins a typ­i­cal en­counter be­tween them. The more time they spend to­gether, the more daunt­ing his in­flu­ence: “Nine­ty­seven years they’d lived be­tween them, and the longer it went on the more she con­fused his for her own.” They use a fine scrim of hu­mor to veil and un­veil their age dif­fer­ence. Alice tells Blazer of a dresser she bought with the money he gave her—a “vin­tage 1930s piece,” she says. “Like me,” he replies. Nor is she her­self above rib­bing the mul­ti­ple-Pulitzer-Prize-win­ning au­thor. When he in­quires af­ter her fam­ily, ask­ing if her grand­mother is still alive, she says: “Yep. Would you like her num­ber? You’re about the same age.”

Con­trary to Blazer’s ad­vice, how­ever, Alice isn’t in­ter­ested in writ­ing what she knows. She is drawn to con­flict and world af­fairs—“Writ­ing about my­self doesn’t seem im­por­tant enough,” she tells him. He reads Keats in bed; she reads about the lat­est Lon­don Tube bomb­ings. She also pores over Jon Lee An­der­son’s The Fall of Bagh­dad, at one point won­der­ing whether “a former choir­girl from Mas­sachusetts might be ca­pa­ble of con­jur­ing the con­scious­ness of a Mus­lim man.” (The sec­ond sec­tion of the novel will serve as a kind of answer to that ques­tion.) Still, when the United States in­vades Iraq, the war touches their lives only tan­gen­tially. They share a pra­line tart as Pres­i­dent Bush an­nounces the in­va­sion on television. This is war as seen from the com­fort­able con­fines of 85th and Broad­way.

Not so with the sec­ond part of the novel (en­ti­tled “Mad­ness”), in which the cur­rents of war soak ev­ery cor­ner of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. The char­ac­ters in this sec­tion are not on the front line— they live in Los An­ge­les, Brook­lyn, and Iraqi Kur­dis­tan (a rel­a­tive bas­tion of peace com­pared to the rest of Iraq)— and yet their lives are hemmed in by events larger than them­selves. Hal­l­i­day deftly de­picts how con­flict trans­lates

to an ob­scene waste of time, from cir­cuitous car rides to avoid roam­ing kid­nap­pers in the desert, to hours spent in win­dow­less hold­ing rooms on whose walls are taped up signs with mes­sages such as “SLEEP­ING ON THE FLOOR IS NOT AL­LOWED.” Nat­u­rally, this sec­tion, which fea­tures an in­ept bu­reau­cracy and mo­not­o­nous ques­tion­ing, flags a lit­tle. Then again, it is an­i­mated by the per­cep­tive con­scious­ness of a first-per­son nar­ra­tor with whom we be­come much more in­ti­mate than with Alice. This is in­ten­tional: Hal­l­i­day has said in in­ter­views that al­though she shares some bio­graph­i­cal de­tails with her first pro­tag­o­nist, it is Amar Jaa­fari— the nar­ra­tor of Asym­me­try’s sec­ond part—whose thoughts and tem­per­a­ment more closely re­sem­ble her own. Amar is anx­ious, cal­cu­lat­ing, philo­soph­i­cal. He chose eco­nom­ics as a pro­fes­sion out of agree­ment with Calvin Coolidge that it rep­re­sented “the only method by which we pre­pare to­day to af­ford the im­prove­ments of to­mor­row.” Like Alice, he is a keen ob­server of his sur­round­ings, though he wor­ries that the rec­ol­lec­tions that haunt him— the very events we are read­ing about in a se­ries of flash­backs—are un­re­li­able, that his mem­ory is noth­ing but a sec­ond­hand repos­i­tory of old pho­to­graphs and sto­ries.

Amar’s Iraqi par­ents con­ceived him in Bagh­dad, but he was born on a plane high above Cape Cod, caus­ing im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials to scratch their heads over his na­tion­al­ity. This strad­dling of two cul­tures is a defin­ing fea­ture of the Jaa­faris. Amar’s par­ents want their chil­dren to tran­scend their back­ground and fully in­te­grate into Amer­i­can so­ci­ety; Amar’s ad­mired older brother, Sami, yearns to re­turn to Bagh­dad and at­tend med­i­cal school. Sami imag­ines a fu­ture in which Iraq would flour­ish— a time when, “in­stead of Hawaii, hon­ey­moon­ers would fly to Basra” and the Lions of Me­sopotamia would win the World Cup. “Just you wait, lit­tle brother. Just you wait,” he tells Amar. Like his brother, Amar en­rolls in med­i­cal school, but at an Ivy League univer­sity in the US (there are hints of Yale). There he falls in love with the lead ac­tress in a stu­dent pro­duc­tion of Three Sis­ters. It is so “over­wrought,” Hal­l­i­day writes, that “it gave you the im­pres­sion the twenty-year-old at the helm could now cross di­rect a play off his list of things to do be­fore win­ning a Rhodes schol­ar­ship.” They be­come a cou­ple and, af­ter col­lege, get an apart­ment to­gether in Man­hat­tan.

But Amar is adrift and, on a whim, he ac­cepts an in­tern­ship in Lon­don, where he be­friends Alas­tair, a world­weary war re­porter so ad­dicted to the thrill of bat­tle that he feels morally cul­pa­ble. Alas­tair tells Amar:

When I go home, when I go out to din­ner or sit on the Tube or push my trol­ley around Waitrose with all the other pun­ters and their metic­u­lous lists, I start to spin out. You ob­serve what peo­ple do with their free­dom—what they don’t do—and it’s im­pos­si­ble not to judge them for it .... You think about how we all be­long to this species ca­pa­ble of such hor­ri­fy­ing evil, and you won­der what your re­spon­si­bil­ity to hu­man­ity is while you’re here, and what sort of game God is play­ing with us—not to men­tion what it means that gen­er­ally you’d pre­fer to be back in Bagh­dad than at home in An­gel with your wife and son read­ing If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

War, in other words, shapes a con­scious­ness. It ren­ders such Amer­i­can con­cepts as New Year’s res­o­lu­tions laugh­able, be­cause, as Amar’s be­wil­dered rel­a­tives say:

Who says there won’t be a cur­few to­mor­row, pre­vent­ing you from go­ing to the gym or run­ning in the park af­ter work? Or who says your gen­er­a­tor won’t give out and then you’ll have to read with a flash­light un­til the bat­ter­ies die and then with a can­dle un­til that burns down, and then you won’t be able

to read in bed at all—you’ll just have to sleep, if you can?

Any­one who has lived long enough in the Mid­dle East will rec­og­nize the sen­ti­ment. And yet, amaz­ingly, Hal­l­i­day her­self has never vis­ited Iraq or Kur­dis­tan, de­spite her fine-grained evo­ca­tions of the places (down to a Su­lay­maniyah fast-food joint called MaDonal). She said she re­lied in­stead on “an enor­mous amount of re­search.” It’s a tes­ta­ment to her nov­el­is­tic skills that this ma­te­rial comes fully to life with­out her once be­la­bor­ing the book with her study notes. By the time Amar is be­ing held up at the air­port it’s 2008, and his brother’s prophecy could not be fur­ther from the truth. Bagh­dad is a war zone. Amer­i­can troops play cards with a mil­i­tary-is­sued deck that fea­tures fifty-two of Iraq’s most-wanted men. “Chem­i­cal Ali led the flop,” Hal­l­i­day writes. Sami’s hos­pi­tal, where he works as a cor­rec­tive sur­geon, used to spe­cial­ize in nose and breast jobs, but now the doc­tors spend their days “staunch­ing rocket wounds, tweez­ing shrap­nel, and swad­dling burns.” When Amar and his par­ents visit Kur­dis­tan in 2003, they pass a bill­board ad­ver­tis­ing lo­cal elec­tions. “So that we might leave a bet­ter coun­try for our chil­dren,” the plac­ard says, mak­ing it, Amar thinks, “some­what dif­fi­cult not to in­ter­pret the cap­tion to mean: Yes, for our gen­er­a­tion it’s prob­a­bly a lost cause.”

The asym­me­try of ge­og­ra­phy—ar­guably the most con­se­quen­tial of life’s lot­ter­ies—is a re­cur­ring pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of Hal­l­i­day’s novel, as is our abil­ity to ex­tend past it, “to pen­e­trate the look­ing-glass and imag­ine a life, in­deed a con­scious­ness, that goes some way to re­duce the blind spots in our own.” Alice has man­aged to see past the look­ing-glass. This will be­come ap­par­ent in the book’s coda—a ra­dio interview with Ezra Blazer—where we learn, al­most in pass­ing, how the two halves of the novel fit to­gether as a nar­ra­tive. It is as el­e­gant an answer as you have come to ex­pect from Hal­l­i­day. While both sec­tions echo each other through­out, the echoes are never made ex­plicit. A de­scrip­tion of an abor­tion clinic resur­faces; Primo Levi’s mem­o­rable de­pic­tion of the Buna factory in Auschwitz as “the nega­tion of beauty” is ap­plied to Bagh­dad. Such mo­tifs whis­per rather than scream. And that, too, ap­pears in­ten­tional on the part of an au­thor who seems to de­mand—and re­ward—ex­ac­ti­tude from her read­ers. Noth­ing in Asym­me­try feels di­dac­tic or con­trived; it is the very op­po­site of that over­wrought pro­duc­tion of Three Sis­ters that Amar at­tends.

“I’m al­ways highly ir­ri­tated by peo­ple who im­ply that writ­ing fic­tion is an es­cape from re­al­ity,” Flan­nery O’Con­nor wrote in Mys­tery and Man­ners: Oc­ca­sional Prose (1969). “It is a plunge into re­al­ity and it’s very shock­ing to the sys­tem.” To prove her point, O’Con­nor listed the ex­am­ple of a short story called “Sum­mer Dust” by the Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Caro­line Gor­don, which she de­scribed as be­ing di­vided into sec­tions that don’t, at first, seem to co­here. Read­ing Gor­don’s story, O’Con­nor went on, is

rather like stand­ing a foot away from an im­pres­sion­is­tic paint­ing, then grad­u­ally mov­ing back un­til it comes into fo­cus. When you reach the right dis­tance, you sud­denly see that a world has been cre­ated— and a world in ac­tion—and that a com­plete story has been told, by a wonderful kind of un­der­state­ment.

Fifty years on, O’Con­nor’s praise can be ap­plied, word for word, to Asym­me­try, with its own “world in ac­tion” and “wonderful kind of un­der­state­ment.” To read Hal­l­i­day is to feel a sim­i­lar snap into fo­cus, a shock­ing “plunge into re­al­ity.” The ef­fect, as O’Con­nor pre­dicts, is im­pres­sion­is­tic—con­cerned with move­ment and a sub­jec­tive per­cep­tion of re­al­ity. Hal­l­i­day is only a re­al­ist to the ex­tent that Crane was: up to a point. Both writ­ers show us how re­al­ism breaks down when it comes to war, which makes no nar­ra­tive sense. War ex­poses free will as the il­lu­sion of the priv­i­leged. It de­fies struc­ture. So Hal­l­i­day went ahead and cre­ated her own. Puz­zlingly, the de­noue­ment and last word in Asym­me­try be­long nei­ther to Alice or Amar—our two pro­tag­o­nists—but rather to Blazer, the ag­ing white man. His ret­ro­spec­tive interview ap­pears to be the sign of one dim­ming gen­er­a­tion mak­ing way for the next. De­spite his ad­vanced age, Blazer re­mains an in­cor­ri­gi­ble flirt. He ends the interview, and the novel, with a ques­tion to the ra­dio host that, at the be­gin­ning of Asym­me­try, he posed to Alice: “Are you game?” It is a ques­tion for Hal­l­i­day’s read­ers as much as for these two women—whether we are will­ing to set aside our pre­con­cep­tions and let the novel play with our imag­i­na­tion, leave us in a state of height­ened alert­ness, slightly changed, as Alice’s apart­ment ap­pears to her af­ter a ren­dezvous with Blazer, when “ev­ery­thing was ex­actly as she’d left it, but her bed­room looked too bright and un­fa­mil­iar some­how, as though it now be­longed to some­one else.”

Lisa Hal­l­i­day

Arab Jabour, south of Bagh­dad, 2007; pho­to­graph by Ben­jamin Lowy from his book Iraq/Per­spec­tives, pub­lished in 2011

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