Published by Simon & Schuster
Publication date: February 6th 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Debut, Fiction, Literary
Asymmetry is a novel split into three separate and seemingly unrelated parts. I know, sounds like short stories, but there is supposed to be a thread connecting the three. The question is whether I was able to find it or not.
The first section is Folly, wherein 27-year-old Alice meets Pulitzer Prize winning author, Ezra Blazer, in Central Park. They talk and after several such meetings he invites her to his apartment where they bond over a love of baseball and corny jokes. Soon they are lovers despite Ezra being old enough to be her grandfather. The relationship spans years, with Alice moving from the fringes of Ezra’s life to its very center.
Madness is the second segment and is an abrupt change from the small quietude of Folly. Amar Jaafari is an economist traveling from Los Angeles to London and then on to Iraq to see the brother he has not seen in almost five years. An Iraqi citizen by birth, despite never having lived there, he is detained at Heathrow with no explanation. His stay in London is supposed to be brief, but with a veneer of obsequious civility the customs officials force him to explain himself again and again as more of his possessions and, finally, his body, are examined for reasons no one will share. Thirty-six hours later he is still in a holding room with his plans in disarray, but we have traveled with him back to his childhood, through his life in America and visits to Iraq, to learn how deep the love of a brother and family can run.
Asymmetry’s finale is Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs—a radio program with Blazer where he picks the eight recordings he’d take with him to a desert island and explains why. The interview occurs at some time after Folly because we learn more about Alice. Beyond that, the conversation feels glib and stilted with Blazer playing the expected role of elderly, world-weary author. The entire segment feels incongruous next to the other two and left me not knowing what to make of it.
Author Lisa Halliday skillfully traverses a wide range of human relationships in Asymmetry. She gives Alice and Ezra enough silly and tender moments to ease the discomfort with their age difference, but it lingers in other ways.
…reverberating in her sternum, the music made her more desperate than ever to do, invent, create—to channel all her own energies into the making of something beautiful and unique to herself—but it also made her want to love. To submit to the loving of someone so deeply and well that there could be no question as to whether she were squandering her life, for what could be nobler than dedicating it to the happiness and fulfillment of another?
Is Alice putting her life on hold for this affair, which, as time passes, becomes more about caregiving to an elderly man?
Halliday is a quick-change artist, moving elegantly from the softness of Ezra and Alice’s lives to the brittle falseness of the customs people holding Amar. She accomplishes this again and again throughout Madness by parsing these clinical exchanges with intimate scenes from Amar’s childhood and his memories of his beloved older brother, who graduated from Georgetown with honors but opted to go back to Iraq for medical school and to stay there with his new wife and child, in spite of the Iraq war. The juxtaposition of the two make his real reason for this trip even more painful.
To answer my own question, I was not able to knit the chapters of Asymmetry together. I connected the three stories, but only with impersonal, factual fragments—a radio program, a book, a name—nothing that mirrored the gentle nature of the first two stories or felt like a larger theme. The coda, Ezra’s interview, was almost a throwaway and didn’t bring me any closer to or any closure with the characters. There was also a formatting choice that put me off—opting not to use quotation marks around dialogue. This makes understanding who’s talking difficult, especially in Amar’s story, with all its introspection and remembered conversations. These two aspects detract from Halliday’s ability to evoke the warmth of family and relationships, the small bits of life that loom large—what gives Asymmetry its grace. I loved her writing, but not the book.