Fiction in Review: Asymmetry, A Novel
“For her part, Alice was starting to consider really rather seriously whether a former choirgirl from Massachusetts might be capable of conjuring the consciousness of a Muslim man.” Having just ordered hotdogs from a halal cart on the Upper West Side, the twenty-something publishing assistant Alice in Lisa Halliday’s striking debut novel Asymmetry asks herself a delicate compositional question: Can a white Christian girl from New England accurately portray the consciousness of a male Muslim immigrant? Jonathan Franzen would tend to say no. In a 2016 interview with Slate, the American novelist argued that not having many African American friends precluded him from writing a novel with a black protagonist: “If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person–a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people–I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.” Franzen frames the choice to represent otherness not just as an act of audacity but also as an almost unnatural, transgressive wish. The polemic is as old as James Joyce’s rendering of the inner thoughts of an Irish Jew, Leopold Bloom, but is given fresh life in Asymmetry, which both rises to the challenge of and wrestles with the possibility of intercultural representation.
Asymmetry has an unusual tripartite structure. The first section, titled “Folly,” chronicles the relationship between Alice and the aging writer Ezra, and is modeled on Halliday’s own relationship with Philip Roth when she was in her twenties and he in his sixties. By contrast, the second section, “Madness,” is the first-person account of Amar, an Iraqi American graduate student of Kurdish extraction, in the period leading up to and just after the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. The third part, “Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs,” loops back to the fictionalized version of Roth, but in the unconventional format of a BBC radio interview. Halliday thus deliberately mixes writing about what she knows, her relationship with Roth, with writing about what she ostensibly does not, the first-person account of an Iraqi American. While “Folly” covers familiar ground, taking place in literary New York, mostly within a couple of blocks between Amsterdam and Broadway, “Madness” shuttles among Los Angeles, New York, London, Amman, Baghdad, and Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. Intensifying the geographical unfamiliarity, Amar finds himself navigating culturally liminal and often uncomfortable spaces: a windowless immigration holding room at Heathrow, a smoke-filled rental car shared with an Iraqi intelligence officer on the road from Jordan to Iraq.
The sweep of Halliday’s novel at first feels at odds with the fiction of Roth, who, after all, wrote nine novels about his own literary alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman. That outsized attention to male ego at the expense of all else led Sondra Bleich to remark that “Roth’s women either materialize out of a Dewing landscape, so ethereal as to be unattainable, or lunge at us from a De Kooning abstract, so gross as to be totally undesirable. In either case, they are unreal.” The alleged flatness of his female characters has resulted in the oft-repeated critical appraisal of his work as close-minded and misogynist. While Halliday wanders the globe, Roth is stuck in suburban New Jersey. In Asymmetry, Roth’s doppelgänger, Ezra, even admonishes Alice with the hackneyed MFA dictum to write what she knows:
“Do you write about this? About us?”
“Is that true?”
Alice shook her head hopelessly. “It’s impossible.”
Ezra looked skeptical. “Do you write about your father?”
“You should. It’s a gift.”
“I know. But writing about myself doesn’t seem important enough.”
“As opposed to?”
“War. Dictatorships. World affairs.”
“Forget about world affairs. World affairs can take care of themselves.”
In a 1984 Paris Review interview with Hermione Lee, Roth offered a more complicated version of Ezra’s advice, comparing himself to a ventriloquist whose puppet can never fully escape the hand of his master. Excavating, harnessing, and re-creating one’s own self is to Roth a more interesting undertaking than that of trying to fully bridge otherness: “You don’t necessarily, as a writer, have to abandon your biography completely to engage in an act of impersonation. It may be more intriguing when you don’t. You distort it, caricature it, parody it, you torture and subvert it, you exploit it–all to give the biography that dimension that will excite your verbal life.” In his 1974 novel My Life as a Man, Roth’s young male creative-writing instructor Nathan Zuckerman exasperatedly declares, “I wanted to hang a sign over my desk saying anyone in this class caught using his imagination will be shot/ … ‘Ground your stories in what you know. Stick to that. Otherwise you tend, some of you, toward the pipe dream and the nightmare, toward the grandiose and the romantic–and that’s no good. Try to be precise, accurate, measured.’” Zuckerman goes even farther than Roth in casting any effort at literary incarnation beyond direct experience as an idealized, romantic dream doomed to failure. Yet reading Asymmetry merely as a rebellion against Rothian autobiography would be misguided, since Halliday herself slyly plays on Roth’s self-referentiality in the figure of her own Zuckerman, Alice the ingénue.
Contrary to expectation, Alice’s and Amar’s universes never overlap, save for the shared time and space of the first Bush administration. First-time readers of Asymmetry will be forgiven for fretting that Halliday is risking aesthetic incoherence in chasing these completely different narrative threads, and yet the careful reader soon begins to notice how a series of details in “Folly” are repeated in “Madness.” George Bush’s announcement of the invasion of Iraq pops up on television screens throughout Alice’s story. What we might think was merely a means of situating Alice in 2003 becomes a hint of the personal devastation to come for Amar and his family, who despite having dual passports suffer through kidnapping attempts, political instability, and sectarian violence. In turn, Amar’s narrative looks back to Alice’s. Both sections dramatize the experience of obtaining an abortion: Alice takes herself to the clinic where the pamphlet she reads in the waiting room is mimetically reproduced in the text; later, Amar takes his friend and future girlfriend, Maddie, to her procedure and passes the time in the waiting room. Maddie ultimately leaves Amar for a much older man, itself an echo of Alice and Ezra’s relationship.
Many pages into Amar’s story, the reader finally begins to suspect that Amar’s narrative is actually Alice’s creation, her sympathetic conjuring up of the “consciousness of a Muslim man.” Halliday’s unexpected move to embed a novella within another that both comments on and frames it takes us through the looking-glass into the less familiar landscape of Amar’s world, and is as much Jorge Luis Borges as it is Lewis Carroll. While Halliday thus answers Alice’s question about writing across cultures and religions in the affirmative, the novel remains highly self-conscious about the problematic nature of that attempt. When Amar and his brother go to buy a used Yamaha piano in Sulaymaniyah, Amar catches himself looking into a mirror. He suddenly sees a potential future for himself in Iraq–a sliver of optimism that will soon give way to disappointment and the rejection of a job offer to work in the “Green Zone.” Amar’s literal and figurative reflections allow Halliday to gesture meta-narratively at the difficulties that emerge from his fictional representation. As Amar looks at himself in the mirror, the language suddenly shifts from the pronoun he to she: “But then even someone who imagines for a living is forever bound by the ultimate constraint: she can hold her mirror up to whatever subject she chooses, at whatever angle she likes–she can even hold it such that she herself remains outside its frame, the better to de-narcissize the view–but there’s no getting around the fact that she’s always the one holding the mirror.” While Alice, and Halliday, try to stand outside the frame of Amar’s story, there are acknowledged limits to that endeavor. We are returned to the dilemma of Roth’s ventriloquist dummy. At the same time, the Russian nesting-doll structure of the novel, in which Alice and Amar never cross paths, signals a desire to maintain a respectful distance, the illusion of which is shattered through the slippage of pronouns in this scene.
The novel does not confirm Amar as a product of Alice’s imagination until the end, when, meditating on the complacency of American life in 2003, Ezra notes in his interview, “And then all of a sudden we look up from ordering paper towels online to find ourselves delivered right into the madness… . A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel about this, in its way. About the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own. It’s a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author, but in fact is a kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.” To Alice, the project of writing as Amar becomes an act of empathy in an age of ignorance, as a means of overcoming the narrowness of her own epistemic horizons, of reckoning with both the folly and the madness of America’s misadventure in Iraq. “War,” Ezra darkly observes, “is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” Yet Ezra’s sudden approval of Alice’s novel somewhat contradicts his earlier suggestions that she write not about world affairs but about her own father–to stick to what she knows the best. The fact that Asymmetry feels the need to put such approval in Ezra’s mouth, to boot, in an alternate universe in which Roth’s doppelgänger wins the Nobel Prize that always eluded Roth himself, constantly shifts the sand beneath our feet. One moment the novel affirms the boldness and necessity of its own project, the next it satirizes its folly.
The representation of direct speech plays an outsized role in Halliday’s ventriloquizing of the other. The novel announces in its opening pages a distaste for lengthy description. When we first meet Alice on a bench in Manhattan, she reveals what she dislikes about the book she is reading: “Alice was beginning to get very tired of all this sitting by herself with nothing to do: every so often she tried again to read the book in her lap, but it was made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have any quotation marks?” The novel thus opens up with a declaration that it will privilege characters talking, instead of giving pride of place to narration. In fact, Asymmetry can be read as a contemporary conversation novel, one that reproduces dialogue in its all its dialectical possibilities. The long transcriptions of phone conversations between Alice and Ezra, between Amar, his brother, and his family recall the telephonic back-and-forth of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Halliday also expands the aesthetic possibilities of dialogue, through Ezra’s BBC radio interview transmitted to an invisible public and, inversely, Amar’s private interrogation by U.K. immigration officers, to which the reader becomes privy.
Alice’s declaration that it is pointless to write “a book that does not have any quotation marks” also reflects the novel’s own rich sense of intertextuality. In addition to that paraphrase of Alice in Wonderland, full paragraphs of Mark Twain, Jean Genet, Albert Camus, and Hannah Arendt, all of whom Alice is reading, are frequently reproduced verbatim, while other, stylistic influences from Lewis Carroll and many structural allusions to characters and sequences in Roth’s oeuvre also appear. The pick-up line Ezra uses to court Alice (“Are you game?”), for example, is a direct lift from Roth’s Everyman, in which the ailing male protagonist attempts to seduce a young, curvaceous passerby through wordplay alone: “He said, ‘I’ve noticed you jogging.’ She surprised him by responding, ‘I’ve noticed you noticing me.’ ‘How game are you?’ he heard himself asking her, but feeling that the encounter was now out of his control and that everything was going much too fast.” When Ezra hands Alice two bags from Barnes & Noble filled with books she should be reading, such as Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, her literary education at the hands of the elder man recalls Professor David Kepesh’s domineering induction of his Cuban student Consuela into Kafka and Velázquez, into culture and sex: “Can Consuela enter the cultural space that is his preserve? She cannot. Not without the mediation of her master and teacher.” Halliday is keenly self-aware, but never too heavy-handedly so, of the power of texts to branch out like a web of semiotic references, a primitive internet of linguistic hyperlinks.
An appendix at the end of the book, cheekily titled “Acknowledgments,” pays homage to this sense of quotation as citation by providing the reader with a catalogue of the exact editions and page numbers of the texts they hail from, similar to T. S. Eliot’s famous notes to The Waste Land: “The two passages read by Alice on pages 19 and 20 are from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain,” Halliday writes, “specifically the Modern Library paperback edition published in 2001.” The adverb specifically is repeated over and over again, signaling Halliday’s care with the texts she is importing. Her edition of Jean Genet is “specifically” the Grove edition; her copy of Gitta Sereny is “specifically” the first Vintage Books edition, with publication dates strewn across almost every line of her acknowledgements. Halliday’s interest in intertextuality also moves from citation to annotation, gesturing at the work readers must undertake in the understanding of a text. In his BBC interview, Ezra notes that if stranded on a desert island he would like to take Ulysses with him, not the original but the version “with the notes.” Even more critically, the epigraph of the novel is a quotation not from Alice in Wonderland, but from Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice: “We all live slapstick lives, under an inexplicable sentence of death.” Gardner goes on, “and when we try to find out what the Castle authorities want us to do, we are shifted from one bumbling bureaucrat to another”–a sentence that resonates deeply with the bureaucratic nightmare Amar encounters in visiting his brother in Iraq and, of course, that invokes not Carroll but Kafka. Halliday’s foregrounding of annotation is almost a plea to the reader to chase after her riddles and to go beneath the surface of her multilayered text.
Etymologically, the word asymmetry comes from the Greek, where it bears the sense of “lacking in harmony” or of not having a common measurement or metric. Critics have focused on the age difference between Alice and Ezra as the novel’s principal asymmetry, a conclusion bolstered perhaps by Roth’s own complicated relationship to the representation of women in his work. Yet Halliday is hardly critical of Ezra. Although the use of Alice in Wonderland as a key intertext leaves the propriety of Alice’s relationship with Ezra somewhat unresolved, Ezra’s horny antics are treated more as affably irascible than predatory. In the end, “Folly” is a deeply sympathetic, often funny, portrait of Roth. At the same time, it is also a richly textured portrait of Halliday’s literary coming-of-age, of the girl from Medfield, Massachusetts, who tumbles down the rabbit hole of New York City life. Halliday refuses to let us fill in her story for her.
The word asymmetry itself appears only once in the novel, buried in Amar’s story in “Madness.” Amar and his father are looking for a foreign-exchange shop in Sulaymaniyah, but they have difficulty reading the signs, which are in Arabic rather than Kurdish. Even though Kurdish is written in Arabic letters in Iraq, Amar notes, “The word for bank is the same, but the word for money changer is not, and while I have never learned the etymology behind this minor asymmetry I can imagine it represents centuries of cultural and ideological dissidence.” The decision of the Kurdish community to hold on to its own word for money changer in the face of Arab political domination is a subtle act of resistance, one that has its echo in the anxiety that many of the Iraqi characters in the novel express over the overwhelming influence now exercised by the United States over the nascent Iraqi state.
Halliday’s sensitivity to this “minor” asymmetry, a subtle semantic distinction between two languages that share a common alphabet, neither of which is her own, bespeaks the ambition of Asymmetry’s attempt to capture the workings of another’s mind. In his 2016 Los Angeles Times essay on cultural appropriation, the Vietnamese American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen contends that it is indeed “possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division, that needs to be addressed responsibly–that is to say, with great artistry–in one’s writing.” Nguyen seems to imply that self-awareness of the power dynamics implicit in embodying another can grant one the right to write that other. The key to that effort, for Halliday, lies in a precise representation of the words we speak and how we choose to say them.
Asymmetry: A Novel, by Lisa Halliday (Simon and Schuster, 288 pp., $26)