Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday
I have mixed feelings about this novel; or rather, no feelings, only thoughts. Two passages resonated. One in which the narrator of the second part of the novel, Amar Ala Jaafari, a young Iraqi-American economist, remarks: 'the more time a foreign journalist spends in the Middle East the more difficult it becomes…to write about it'. He says that while this initially sounded like 'an alibi for failing to do the hard work of writing well…the more time I'd spent…in the Middle East – the more sympathetic to [this view] I'd become.' It made me think that here was the reason people couldn't understand or sort out their own lives; because they were so embroiled in them. It made me also muse that it is worth remembering that no one truly knows another person; knowledge that is helpful in countless situations. The second passage that I liked was actually a quotation from The Red and the Black in which Stendhal likens writing about politics to writing a 'page full of dots'. This was similar to how I felt when trying to write about my erstwhile religion. It seemed impossible, unspeakable, like the Tetragrammaton itself; 'cursed' subject matter, almost.
This perceived or real difficulty in speaking about another is the ideological and structural axis upon which Asymmetry revolves. An impressive debut, the novel is split into two narratives, with a short concluding section that takes the form of a radio interview. The essentially binary structure allows Halliday to obliquely explore her theme of 'asymmetry'. Twenty-something Alice, a seemingly rather vacuous editorial assistant and aspiring writer, who has an affair with a revered, much older novelist, a New Yorker called Ezra Blazer. The asymmetry of their ages, wealth and achievements is established, then set aside, and the second narrative begins in which the secure (the novel takes place pre 9/11), wealthy, Western contrasts by sheer juxtaposition with war-torn, poverty-stricken Iraq, narrated this time by Amar Ala Jaafari, a young Iraqi-American economist, and hinted (very faintly) to in fact be aspiring writer Alice's own handiwork. There are a few brilliant dramatizations of the asymmetry motif, near misses whose slight dissimilarity serves to highlight essential disjunction more effectively than stark contrast: an Iraqi fast food restaurant called MaDonal, a game of charades played by Amar and fellow students in a wealthy American collegiate party where the subject is 'ransom'; a scene followed moments later by the killing of a member of his family in Iraq who had in fact been kidnaped; and a particularly dazzling image of cars in West Hollywood approaching their own reflections in a restaurant window, appearing 'to drive into themselves…their hoods and wheels and windshields to disappear into antimatter, the [American] flag [trailed by a fire truck] to devour itself', enabling Halliday to suggest, in one neat image, that the two sides of the globe, two nations, cultures, and halves of this binaural novel do not so much merge as eclipse one another by means of their reflections.
The meanings of the novel have been described as 'musical' rather than 'architectural'; 'what we receive is less a series of thesis statements than a shimmering web of associations', Parul Sehgal wrote in The New York Times. I felt if anything, the asymmetries could have been heightened, but that is just personal taste. I was baffled by was the often remarked brilliance of Asymmetry and turned to reviews to see what I was missing. Justine Jordan spoke of Halliday's 'sharp examination of the unequal power dynamic between men and women, innocence and experience, fame and aspiration'. While the relationship between Alice and the aging Ezra is immaculately, and wittily, documented – largely through dialogue – and the power imbalance real, both to an extent take advantage of the other, so there is mutual exploitation going on. Ezra continually asks Alice if she has considered the long-term, if the affair is really what she wants, while Alice accepts his gifts of furs, holidays at his country residence, and his payment of her student loan. Sometimes, it seems, the power falls squarely in her court. Like her literary namesake, Jordan says, Alice 'is also struggling to progress through a confusing, surreal world'. But we see precious little of this 'struggle'. She has a comfortable, though boring, job in publishing, wears skirts costing hundreds of pounds, has no shortage of sexual conquests and a fair amount of leisure time. Yes, Ezra sings “The party's over …” when he wants her to leave' and refers to her as his assistant when others are around, but he is also paternal, thinking of her future if she does not. Alice does not seem all that 'innocent', either (she's familiar with the pill, abortion and sleeps around). What's more, we are made privy to virtually none of her ambition to write or attempts to. In fact, because we know so little of Alice's internal world and her surface is so unattractive (she resents interruptions from her elderly and clearly very vulnerable neighbour, gets up to change the TV channel when the subject moves to American seniors and Medicare, telling the announcer to 'shut up', 'before resuming cutting the tags off her new clothing from Searle'), when she blurts a confession of love at the end of the narrative it didn't ring true.
That Alice as a character is 'absent' is presumably intentional, but I don't know whether it works effectively in the way, say, Rachel Cusk makes elision work in her recent trilogy, which is all the more important so because it is upon Alice that Halliday pins her main artistic enterprise: that an apparently self-absorbed person is capable of imagining creating another's existence; in this case, in the form of Amar's narrative. In an interesting series of regressive reflections, and no doubt part of the reason (aside from the fact that Halliday had worked in the publishing world for years before writing her novel) that the novel sparked an auction between eight publishing houses, Halliday herself was a lover of Philip Roth when she was a young assistant at the Wylie agency and apparently based the character of Ezra Blazer on him. She herself then, arguably accomplishes the imaginative feat that the characters in Asymmetry contemplate, and in doing so she adheres to Roth/Ezra's advice to Alice to write only what she knows. But Alice (and Halliday) then eschews this counsel; many pages into Amar's story, the reader finally begins to suspect she is being asked to believe that this in-depth psychological study of a young Iraqi-American charting his own and his family's complex personal, cultural and political history and their homeland's current plight is actually Alice's creation, her conjuring the “consciousness of a Muslim man”. It is true that this supposedly happens some time (how long isn't clear) after we knew her as the young, self-centered lover of Ezra Blazer, but it is still, to put it mildly, a shock. If this is Halliday's 'point': that the most seemingly unlikely candidate can transcend their own blinkered world view and occupy or imagine other consciousness (“penetrate the looking-glass” of their own personality to see another, as Amar muses) then she has emphatically made it; there would be few who we could imagine being more blinkered than the Alice we were introduced to at the beginning of the novel. In fact, if the reader is sceptical that such a thing is possible, it is their own imagination that is now revealed to be wanting. But should it be? Can we be blamed for 'correctly' responding to Halliday's dramatization of Alice as she first appeared? We have been taken in by Halliday's own fiction. But does this ploy really succeed? Isn't that disingenuous – or ineffective, lacking in skill on Halliday's part? A bit like introducing the fabled Chekhovian gun that Ezra counsels Alice about in the first half of the novel, only to do nothing with it? Or not introducing it, and having it go off anyway? I am not sure if the surprise is a failing or a virtue. And whether the failing, if one is was, lies with me or the author. The shock we receive when we finally discern Amar's narrative is in fact Alice's creation should be balanced by our feeling, upon reflection, that there was sufficient, if subliminal, groundwork laid to support such a revelation.
If we decide that Halliday intended such a jarring and disorientation it is then up to each reader to judge whether the 'experiment' works. I had already failed to engage with any of the characters. I found Alice vapid, selfish and irritating, Amar credible but was not close to him and wondered, from the outset and then more or less continually, why I was being told his narrative at all. I liked Ezra best because at least he was entertaining, though his treatment of Alice left something to be desired at times. I grew tired of the un-integrated 'slabs' (the term is Justine Jordan's) of Mark Twain, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Primo Levi, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, whose presence remained a mystery, apart, I presumed, from evidencing the meta-textuality that Halliday seems determined to foreground (there are stylistic influences, gestures and structural allusions to various literary authors and characters – whose significance, apart from them being 'literary' are never explained, and an 'Acknowledgements' where a quiet joke is made of referencing each quote very 'specifically') and serving to remind us that the first narrative is about two writers. When extracts concerning histories of Auschwitz appeared I thought: 'ah, we're finally getting there: this is the point of the novel' – but no; this 'slab', too, like those before, went nowhere. Other 'texts' and discourses are quoted: medicine packets, abortion clinic leaflets, TV reportage. Jordan, in line with the generous tack taken by the rest of her review, feels they 'add to a sense of the overwhelming variousness of historical and literary experience'; by this token one could include segments of the telephone directory, an aircraft safety card and free recipe booklet from Waitrose in a novel and be congratulated. In fact I spent most of Asymmetry feeling like the reader of Thomas Nashe's Lentern Stuffe, which deploys the trope of the red herring as a diversionary tactic, reading on in hope of consuming the elusive offering, only to find that the whole is an elaborate charade. Which is Nashe's point, but it isn't Halliday's; her novel is not a joke but a demonstration that we are asked to witness and at least entertain the possibility of. The Alice in Wonderland motif is a prime example: we start off the novel with a version of the opening of Alice in Wonderland. Ok, we think, so this young (blonde), (gratingly) 'childlike' heroine, falls down a rabbit-hole - and through a looking-glass - by getting involved with the older Blazer, who through his sheer presence and overt literary guidance, opens another world to her and contributes to her growing self-awareness and artistry, by which she ultimately – if we are to believe she really has written the second part of the book – successfully manages to conjure another (Amar). But the Alice in Wonderland device does little more than provide a springboard for Halliday to create a cute opening; there are a few vague and scattered references towards the beginning of the novel that could be interpreted as relevant, but the originating concept – which held so much promise - is not fully integrated.
The looking glass metaphor does appear late in the novel, when Amar looks at himself in a mirror and the language suddenly shifts from the pronoun he to she: “…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.” 'It's a novel,' Ezra says, implicitly, about Alice's creation, '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.' Whether Ezra's judgement on Alice's art can be trusted, and whether Amar's narrative can in fact be said to probe Alice's own character and situation is up to each reader to decide. That approval comes from Ezra, who has, admittedly, finally won his Nobel Prize, yet initially gave Alice such different advice - namely to write about her own father - makes the authorial stance hard to pinpoint; should we see Alice's father (who is paranoid and obsessed with guns) as symbolic of America, and the fact that Alice chooses to write not about her 'father-land' but an alien nation the fatherland has plundered as significant? Halliday has performed an authorial sleight of hand that not all readers may pick up on. If they do, then, arguably, she has demonstrated that a person can imaginatively eliminate themselves in order to bring another being to life. But Halliday's triumph is both triumph and downfall, for in creating characters that in turn create others, she defeats her own argument: that people can transcend themselves. Maybe they can – but we are reminded, firstly by the parallels with Hallidays' own life, by Alice the character's literary heritage, and by the strange, inescapable one-dimensionality of her character that we are dealing not with flesh and blood, but, as her name continually reminds us, a literary creation; first of Carroll, then Halliday. A fictional creation has succeeded in creating another fictional creation; where do we draw the line? Where do we say 'this character is real and this one not'? Where is the fourth wall in this instance? Halliday has not even succeeded in eliminating herself from the frame, for while there are only so many author/mirror-holders a reader can keep track of, the autobiographical foundations of the novel and the overt likeness of Ezra to Roth, ensure we cannot help but see real-life counterparts also reflected in the mirror. The cleverness of Asymmetry succeeds and fails and one more level too: for what all-important empathy (surely the main objective of Alice/Halliday's artistic project of transcending the self) remains for identification with Alice, Amar, and at a still further remove, the characters in Amar's narrative, when they are viewed as they really are: fictional constructs? There are no real people being kidnapped or murdered, minding curfews or living without a steady supply of water and access to all the things we can take for granted in the West; they are a construction of Amar/Alice/Halliday.
Perhaps the fact the novel provokes these very questions is a merit. For me, the cumulative affect of these recognitions was that I felt further removed from all of them and hence less identified and invested. Asymmetry felt like a bravura experiment, an equation that looks like it works but whose final position is undone by its very virtuosity. This loss of emotional investment on the reader's part is often a of condition of experimental fiction; that we don't care about the characters as much as are dazzled by the invention seems to be an accepted state of affairs (there are exceptions: Eimear McBride, Rachel Cusk). But seeing as Halliday's whole artistic endeavour is to show that empathising and identifying with others is possible for even the most ignorant and self-concerned, it seems too great a sacrifice. 'This is a debut asking a dizzying number of questions, many to thrilling effect,' Jordan writes in the Guardian. 'That it leaves the reader wondering is a mark of its success.' It is certainly the mark of a novel worth talking about. But anyone can pose questions. Some can pose questions worth asking. A few can answer them, and fewer still can make both question and answer seem like necessary parts of a single whole.
Halliday cannot have it both ways: she cannot dramatize a person making an imaginative leap out of their own skin into another's and laud such a human, moral and artistic achievement, while simultaneously pointing to that same character's unreality; nor should she be surprised if her readers fail to maintain their own vicarious participation in the process. Or maybe she can. Maybe there are no rules. Alice is, after all, in 'wonderland'.