Asymmetry: A Mentorship Tale, With Surprises

Lisa Halliday’s new book inventively tackles a familiar storyline, encouraging real-world identifications in order to subvert them.

The Upper West Side of New York
Jaguar Land Rover / Getty

Even if you had never heard a word about Asymmetry or its author, Lisa Halliday, before you started reading the book, it wouldn’t take long to realize that the figure at the center of the story is a version of Philip Roth. After all, Halliday’s Ezra Blazer is an elderly, very famous writer, Jewish, living on the Upper West Side, perpetually passed over for the Nobel Prize. Halliday changes a few details—Blazer is from Pittsburgh, while Roth always writes about his boyhood in Newark—but these amount to drawing a mustache on a familiar portrait: a gesture at concealment, rather than an actual effort.

In fact, Halliday has not tried to disguise the Rothian origins of the character. In a profile in The New York Times, she acknowledged that the story of Asymmetry—one of the stories, anyway—is loosely based on her own romantic relationship with Roth. Halliday was a young woman working in publishing in the early 2000s when she met Roth, just like her character Alice, an editorial assistant at “Gryphon,” when she meets Blazer. By making this information public, an official part of the novel’s “origin story,” Halliday is not simply fanning the flames of readerly curiosity. Rather, she is opening a door into the labyrinth that she has designed in Asymmetry, a book whose unusual structure is part of its fascination. Like Roth himself, who inveterately mixes up literature and life, Halliday encourages real-world identifications so that she can play with them and subvert them.

Asymmetry is two seemingly unrelated novels in one. In its first section, “Folly,” it tells the story of Alice’s relationship with Ezra, as it plays out in New York in the years after 9/11. Then, in its second section, “Madness,” it becomes a monologue by Amar Jaafari, an Iraqi-American who is being detained by immigration officers at Heathrow Airport. The challenge to the reader—helped along by a subtle, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clue in the novel’s brief coda—is to figure out how, and still more why, these two tales belong together, despite their very obvious “asymmetry.”

By announcing that the Alice section is based on her own experience, Halliday cannily leads the reader to begin the novel with certain expectations. It becomes difficult not to see it as a disguised memoir—a familiar genre for a debut novelist, and one that critics tend to approach with a measure of condescension. And Alice is particularly easy to underestimate because of the way Halliday writes about her. Though there is no doubt that she is the protagonist of “Folly,” and that we are seeing Blazer through her eyes—his frailty, his sexuality, his egotism, his demands—Halliday carefully rations the reader’s access to Alice’s interiority. We seldom hear her actual thoughts about what is happening in her life; rather, Halliday prefers to drop indirect clues. On one of their first meetings, for instance, Alice writes down her phone number for Ezra on the bookmark she has been using: “You’ve lost your place,” he says, to which she replies, “That’s okay.” The foreshadowing is apparent: Alice will indeed lose her place—in life, in literature—by ceding it to Blazer. That she meekly accepts the loss is a sign of how much she will have to change in order to repair it.

It is only because Alice remains so quiet that the story in “Folly” can be taken, as it has by some critics, as a kind of romantic comedy. Comedy there is, surely—Ezra Blazer is a funny man—but at its core this is not a funny story at all. Rather, it is a story about the ferocity of literary ambition and the vicissitudes of apprenticeship—particularly when the apprentice is a young woman and the mentor is an older man. That is a story we have heard many times from the man’s point of view, where the woman usually features as a dangerous temptation or a fountain of youth—see J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, or indeed Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater.

Much more rarely do we hear this story from the young woman’s point of view. What’s so powerful and interesting about Asymmetry is that Halliday does not exactly undo that silencing; rather, she enacts it, and then explodes it. Alice remains a fairly reticent, even mute, character. Only occasionally in the first section of the novel does she even admit—to Ezra, or to herself—that she wants to be a writer. Instead, she is the passive object of his educational decisions: He is constantly telling her what to read, and Halliday incorporates big chunks of quotation from these Great Books (Camus, Twain, Primo Levi), as if to suggest how their voices are usurping Alice’s own. At the end of the “Folly” section, as Blazer goes into the hospital and Alice is confronted by the prospect of becoming his longterm caretaker, she is forced to answer the question that she has been avoiding all along.  What is it she wants from Blazer—to be with him, or to be him?

Put this way, it becomes clear that Asymmetry can be read as Halliday’s response to one of Roth’s own most famous books, The Ghost Writer. This, too, is a tale of apprenticeship, but in this case the sexual dynamics are different, since both idol and worshipper are straight men. Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego, goes to visit the great E.I. Lonoff—a figure often described as a version of Bernard Malamud. Roth makes clear that Zuckerman wants Lonoff’s blessing, but also wants to supplant him, both imaginatively and sexually, in the way that son-figures are supposed to supplant father-figures. The Ghost Writer dramatizes this contest by turning into a wild fantasy about the return of Anne Frank from the dead—a sign that Zuckerman’s imagination is equal to any subject, even the most outrageous. More concretely, Zuckerman ends up masturbating in Lonoff’s guest room, in a foolish but pointed declaration of his own potency.

In Asymmetry, the middle section—the story of Amar Jaafari—serves as Halliday’s version of Nathan Zuckerman’s Anne Frank fantasy. What we are reading here—as the clue in the last section reveals—is the novel that Alice will go on to write after breaking up with Ezra Blazer. And it is a novel so “asymmetrical” with the first section as to constitute a declaration of imaginative triumph. Everything about Amar—his experience, his range of knowledge, his tone of voice—is utterly different from what we have come to expect from Alice. As we learn about his childhood in Brooklyn, his periodic visits to his family in Iraq, and the way his fate has been shaped by American wars, it becomes clear that Halliday is engaged in a daring act of transposition. The power asymmetry between Alice and Ezra has morphed into much more profound and violent kinds of asymmetry—between the U.S. and the Middle East, and between state power and the individual child of immigrants.

The leap from the novel’s first section to its second is so great, and yet so intuitively logical, that it forces the reader to rethink the Alice section entirely: It is now clear that she is not a version of Lisa Halliday, but just one of the many voices Halliday can invent, if she chooses. In its subtle and sophisticated fable of literary ambition, and the forms it can take for a young woman writer, Asymmetry is a “masterpiece” in the original sense of the word—a piece of work that an apprentice produces to show that she has mastered her trade.