Early in Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday’s astounding first novel, Alice, a young assistant editor at a large publishing house, comes across a stray paper in the apartment of the much older writer she is sleeping with. On it are a few typed lines, including this: “An artist, I think, is nothing but a powerful memory that can move itself through certain experiences sideways…” The quote bears no attribution, but it comes from the nineteenth-century novelist Stephen Crane. It will resurface, as so many other details in Alice’s story, in Asymmetry’s second section, a seemingly disconnected tale told from the point of view of an Iraqi-American economist detained at Heathrow Airport.
It is also an apt précis for what Halliday sets out to achieve in her deceptively smart novel. Deceptive because, though it tells two relatively straightforward stories—one a coming-of-age love story; the other the tale of an uprooted man searching for his lost brother—it does so while breaking away from the conventions of realist fiction. Halliday relies instead on omissions and inferences. She arranges the first section of the novel (titled “Folly”) into short, associative bursts reminiscent of Renata Adler’s Speedboat (1976) or, more recently, of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (2014). And she interlays her book with various texts, from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) to an abortion manual, ending it with an inspired set piece that reads like a spot-on transcript of a BBC Radio 4 program.
But I’m afraid the above description risks making Asymmetry appear heavy-handed or pretentious. It is anything but. In fact, one of its many pleasures lies in its adherence to the classical novelistic tradition of a forward-moving story (two, in this case) well told. Halliday’s impressively assured yet light touch moves through the novel sideways, which is to say porously and without judgment.
When we first meet Alice, she is sitting on a bench on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, reading a book:
She was considering (somewhat foolishly, for she was not very good at finishing things) whether one day she might even write a book herself, when a man with pewter-colored curls and an ice-cream cone from the Mister Softee on the corner sat down beside her.
She recognizes him instantly, and so do the joggers bobbing by. He is Ezra Blazer, a writer Halliday consciously modeled on Philip Roth, in order, she said in an interview, to “maximize the ‘anxiety of influence.’” (And perhaps out of familiarity: Halliday had a relationship with Roth when she, like Alice, was in her twenties and working in book publishing, and the two have since remained friends.) His influence is great indeed, for Alice is an aspiring writer, though as yet unhatched. She certainly has the eye of one—noticing the way in which cars driving in the rain appear to be traveling faster than when it’s dry; how a photo Ezra had taken of her “was almost…
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