Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: A review

Let me just get this out of the way right up front: I loved this book! I thought it was brilliantly written, the characters were engaging, and the pace of the plot kept me turning the pages and made it hard to put the book down and sorry to see it end. Hard to believe that this was actually Lisa Halliday's debut novel, although she has been an award-winning writer of other fiction.

The book, like Gaul, is divided into three parts. The first part follows 20-something Alice, an assistant editor at a publishing house in New York, and her developing relationship with Ezra, a much older and much-honored writer. The second part deals with Amar, an Iraqi-American economist, detained on his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan and stuck in a holding room in Heathrow Airport in London. And the final part features Ezra doing a radio interview with a public radio type.

We follow Alice as she sits on a park bench one day and is joined by a man who is perhaps in his sixties - old enough to be her grandfather. They talk briefly and each goes his/her way. But they meet accidentally (on purpose?) at the same bench several times and finally the man, Ezra, asks "Are you game?" It turns out Alice is and they become friends and lovers.

I read somewhere that Lisa Halliday had a relationship with Philip Roth who was in his sixties while she was in her twenties, and it's hard to read about Alice and Ezra without speculating that the fictional relationship is informed by the real-life one. But I didn't really care. What I did care about was the asymmetry of their lives as explored by Halliday. One is entering old age, with the physical challenges that implies, while one is very young and in the full vigor of good health. One is world famous and much honored in his art while the other longs to enter that world of creativity, to become a writer. One is rich and one is weighed down by student loans and just getting by.

Theirs is the story of a May-December romance, but it is so much more than that. These two develop a deep friendship and really care for and take care of each other. The book could have easily gone on in this vein for another couple of hundred pages, but Halliday shifts course and gives us another story. Another example of asymmetry.

Amar's family were immigrants to the United States from Iraq. He grew up in America but maintains strong ties to his family back in Iraq. His older brother, Sami, a doctor, chooses to go back to Iraq, marries and has a daughter there. Amar visits him regularly. He is on his way to visit him after 9/11 and shortly after the American invasion of Iraq when he is held up in London. He is refused entry to the country and immigration authorities intend to send him back to Los Angeles. He argues that he's only there on a layover and will be flying out to Baghdad soon and that he should be allowed to take his flight. After much back and forth, his argument prevails but he is still stuck in the airport holding room for two days.

Amar's story shows us the asymmetry in the way people are treated based on where they are born, the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, or anything else that singles them out as different from the ruling class. It could be a depressing story but it is lightened by his sarcasm and wit which help him to face a world which challenges him at every turn and which help the reader to view more equitably the roles that luck and birth play in all our lives. That, it seemed to me, was the philosophical center of this engrossing book.

In the final section, Ezra's radio interview, we can see a glimmer of the asymmetrical lives that coexist in this tale and that, perhaps, run along parallel lines in spite of their differences. The stories build on each other to give us, finally, a view of the world as it is.

Ezra's interviewer is a young woman and the interview ends with him saying to her, "Are you game?" We never hear her answer but I'm betting she is!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars        

6 comments:

  1. I understood the premise better from your review. I can see why the title. If you are allowed to say, do the stories intercept? Because otherwise it can be viewed as an essay collection or short stories/novellas or something like that.

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    1. No, they do not intersect except insofar as all lives intersect and have similarities. They exist on parallel planes, exploring various examples of asymmetry in our lives.

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  2. I want to read this one. Maybe with a reading group for it seems it would provoke good discussion.

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