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?