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“Madness,” the second of two long stories (plus a crucial coda) that comprise Lisa Halliday’s outstanding debut novel, Asymmetry, is narrated by economist Amar Ala Jaafari, who tells us first that he was born in the airspace above Cape Cod en route from Baghdad, and subsequently became a dual citizen of the United States and Iraq. The major pieces of Halliday’s text are warped about each other in all kinds of intrusive, inquisitive ways; so, too, are these parts themselves folded, floating, interrupted. Jaafari’s is bent around a single scene in time — a day spent in one of Heathrow Airport’s interrogation rooms in 2008 — yet renders, more or less, the significant events and rhythms of his adult life. In one such moment, while visiting his brother in Iraq a few years prior, he envisions himself living there, yet upon further reflection (literally as he stares at himself in the mirror, although the book rarely beats you over the head this way): “I didn’t look like a man teeming with so much potential. On the contrary, in my eleven-year-old jeans, a week’s worth of stubble, and a frog windbreaker from the Gap, I looked rather more like the embodiment of a line I would later read — something about the metaphysical claustrophobia and bleak fate of being always one person. A problem, I suppose, that it is entirely up to your imagination to solve.” It’s a bit of a writerly flourish.
The novel’s first section, “Folly,” begins in the early Aughts. United States military forces are poised to invade Iraq, and Alice Dodge is twenty-five, mulling her dream of writing fiction while working as an editorial assistant at a New York City–based publishing house, when she meets Ezra Blazer, a seventysomething decorated author who succumbs to brief despondency each time he’s passed up for the Nobel Prize. Several quality Philip Roth parodies ensue, as does a romantic relationship between the two. He bestows gifts upon her: an analog waterproof watch, Chanel Allure eau de parfum, stamps, bags of books, $600 (“for an air conditioner”), Honeycrisp apples, a recording of Yo-Yo Ma and the London Symphony Orchestra performing Edward Elgar’s cello concerto, money to pay off her student debts. He feeds her classics of literature, standards of music, lunch. Moments of ecstatic intimacy — dependency, even — pass between them, too, but not without the quick hit of a transaction longed for and completed. Likewise, the two narrative worlds of Asymmetry could survive without each other, but they could not live so well in the reader’s imagination: They account for each other, driven as they are along coalescing lines of inquiry. It’s suggested in several moments of metafictional effusion that “Madness” is a piece of the book Alice will go on to write.
“Asymmetry” does not necessarily condemn one thing to be unlike another; what it connotes is an unequal relationship between the two, and this, as corollary to the theoretical basis, implies a tipsy economy of power. Halliday’s novel is a gutsy meditation on the despoilment of symmetry in literature and the lives flung somewhere about its orbit. Her structures and characters interrogate — sometimes with journalistic precision, sometimes with journalistic ambivalence — the imbalances upheld in establishment publishing circles, the costs of projected self-worth, Western imperialism, and what might be achieved by writing whose creator aches to feel personally responsible for it. Refreshingly, it’s a roving book about intersecting lives in which fate is never invoked; each major association between characters is forged quite nakedly from authorial ambition.
In an early scene from “Folly,” Ezra cups Alice’s breasts and audibly remarks upon their inexact apportionment. Not long after, she holds his head and marvels, in silent reverence, at its genius contents. He calls her “mermaid” and sometimes “The Kid” (in his Desert Island Discs interview, which constitutes the book’s final, short section, Ezra jokes with bolt-upright sincerity, “I consider my girlfriends my children”). Before long, Alice is invited to his second home on Long Island, where she swims back and forth along the length of his pool, wishing for an ideal geometry of laps laid out “like pipe end-to-end,” not just passing time, but achieving mature distance. His prizes hang in her office; her colleagues extol his virtues. And in order to furnish her with the cover he believes they both need when she visits him in the country, he devises fictitious business cards for her, embossed with a new name (“Samantha Bargeman”) and title (“Editorial and Research Assistant to Ezra Blazer”). These, too, are gifts, and above that, for an aspiring fiction writer soon to come into her own, they’re material.
By Lisa Halliday
Simon & Schuster