Annotated Alice

3 AUGUST 2018 | KAREN KAO

Maybe you’re read the hype. Asymmetry is all about the affair Lisa Halliday had when she was a nubile 20 and Philip Roth was in his 60s. That, in any event, is what I thought and so I read Portnoy’s Complaint in order to prepare.

asymmetry book cover
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. Image source: http://grantabooks.com/asymmetry

It turns out that the hype is just that. After all, Halliday won the 2017 Whiting Award with its $50,000 cash award to enable emerging writers to devote themselves to the craft. Asymmetry is far more than a kiss-and-tell.

In fact, it’s three stories, each told in its own section. We begin with “Folly”, descend into “Madness” and close with an episode of “Desert Island Discs”. In that final section, the Philip Roth lookalike, Ezra Blazer, gives us his musical favorites. As New York Times reviewer, Alice Gregory, describes:

The effect on the reader feels identical to the way Ezra describes a piano suite by Isaac Albéniz, which he selects near the program’s end. “Each of the pieces builds on the last,” he says. “They’re discrete and yet all the richer for being heard together, and you just ache with the mounting intensity of it.”

alice & ezra

In “Folly”, we meet Alice, young and diffident. All that ties her to Manhattan is a publishing job and that doesn’t entirely suffice. Enter Ezra Blazer, 40 years her senior and a celebrity. Ezra plies Alice with ice cream, a wallet and an offer to pay off her student loans.

Alice is understandably bowled over. She revels in her invitation to visit Ezra at his country home.

Light shimmered in the trees, whose leaves, when the wind ran through them, sighed like the gods after a long and boozy lunch. The air was balmy and brackish and here and there carried a whiff of pinesap bubbling under the sun. Alice dove into the water […] Coming almost together and then pulling apart, her hands looked to her like the hands of someone once tempted by prayer but who had since renounced it for other means of mollifying herself: someone learned, someone liberal, someone literate. Someone enlightened.

Yet there is something manipulative in Ezra’s actions. He guides Alice in her wardrobe choices just as he schools her in the right books to read. He reminds me of Alexander Portnoy trying to educate the Monkey. There is no question in either man’s mind that their ministrations are needed. Is this one book in conversation with another or a glimpse of the real Philip Roth?

Willa Paskin writes that Asymmetry made her fond of Roth in a way his books had not. Ezra is certainly fond of Alice but I have to think of that other Alice and her older male friend, Lewis Carroll. As Katy Waldman observes, #MeToo both clarifies and occludes the relationship between the literary lion and the wannabe writer. 

It was cool for June; steam rose from the water as though a river of magma flowed only a fathom below. Rustling trees cast trembling shadows on the basin […] Beneath the surface, Alice’s hands, still coming together and swiveling part, began to look less like instruments of propulsion than like confused magnets, or hands trying to find their way out of a dark room.

amar

That sharpness of description runs throughout Asymmetry but nowhere to greater effect than in the middle section “Madness”. Amar Ala Jaafari is trying to travel from Los Angeles to Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq. Immigration at Heathrow Airport won’t let him pass. General inquiries need to be made.

Amar has little to amuse him other than his own thoughts. There’s his friend Alistair Blunt, the war correspondent, who’s waiting for Amar to come have a drink in London. There are his parents back at home in Bay Ridge who came to America for a better life. And then there is Sami, Amar’s brother, who rejected all that to return to Iraq to live among his people.

Now the theme of asymmetry comes into its own. Halliday doesn’t limit herself to the power imbalance inherent to the relationship between Alice and Ezra. Or even the helplessness of Amar in the face of the British immigration service. Halliday is tackling the asymmetry of war and the randomness of violence.

Alistair tries to explain to Amar why he’s attracted to that violence. He describes an incident in Kabul when a boy steals his cameraman’s bag. Alistair complains to the police who promptly find the thief and return the bag.

the policeman told the boy to apologize, which the boy did. Then the policeman drew his pistol from his holster and shot the boy in the head. […] So, no, I don’t always sleep soundly at night. But if I quit, which I considered very seriously after that day, I think I’d go mad from the alternative.

desert discs

I wanted to stay with Amar. To see him through that limbo space and into whatever truth was waiting for him in Iraq. Instead, the final section of the novel returns us to Ezra Blazer. In a sound booth at the BBC Radio, an interviewer labors valiantly to get Ezra to talk about music.

Once again, Halliday plays with the reader. Is it true or isn’t it? Because Desert Island Discs is, in fact, produced by the BBC Radio.

[It’s] a programme in which a well-known person is asked the question, if you were to be cast away alone on a desert island, which eight gramophone records would you choose to have with you, assuming of course, that you had a gramophone and an inexhaustible supply of needles.

But Ezra would much rather talk about himself than music. After the pathos of Amar’s predicament, Ezra seems petty, a tiresome old man impossible to shut up. Is this the real Philip Roth? By now, I could care less.

Halliday has written a novel that sheds light on far more than one male libido. We learn through Ezra’s bravado what happens to the young Alice. In Willa Paskin‘s words, she’s no longer

a tenderizer of his particular macho genius.

By the end of Asymmetry, Alice has come into her own. Well done, Alice.