Friday, June 1, 2018

Symmetry in Lisa Halliday's Asymmetry

When I want cleverness, I go to Renaissance poetry with its puzzles and paradoxes. Or I go to T.S. Eliot with his puzzles and paradoxes. Give me George Herbert's pruning poem or "I saw a peacock with a fiery tail" or John Donne's "nor ever chaste except you ravish me" or the humdinger, attributed to Nicholas of Cusa, Empedocles, and Voltaire: "God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere."
I'm not looking for a story when I'm looking for cleverness. I'm looking to be amused, enlightened,  thrust into a philosophic mood, and startled by the beauty of language.
When I read a novel or a short story or a memoir--a narrative of any kind--I'm looking for something different, something that makes me, I am sure, the wrong reader for Lisa Halliday's experimental Asymmetry. When I read a novel I don't want puzzles and paradoxes: I want to know what happened, meaning, how the central conflicts get resolved. I want to know whether Snape is a good guy; I want to know what makes Anna jump; I want to know--and Lewis Carroll will tell you--how Alice got through the looking glass and made it home.
Halliday's Alice neither gets through the looking glass nor back home again. She's stuck between the float glass and the aluminum powder within three narratives bereft of resolution. 
The tricks--spoiler alert ahead--don't do it for me, because the characters created (and apparently remembered) are so extremely well-drawn, their worlds so anthropologically accurate (how I admire the way Halliday's created the neighborhoods of my youth in New York!) that we want to know what happens to them. We never do.
In part one, "Folly," Mary-Alice, who like Lewis Carroll's Alice is getting bored, meets Ezra Blazer, the pewter-haired stand-in for Philip Roth. She's a grown-up, unlike Alice Liddell, but the pedophilic implications play over the scene nonetheless. The two remark on their relationship as it develops in lovely ways, he wondering whether it's tragic, she conceding it is "around the edges." At the end of "Folly," Ezra's in the hospital and Alice is thinking of leaving him. Then I turn the page to the "Madness" section and find myself alone with Amar Jaafari, a young Iraqi-American inexplicably detained at Heathrow, clearly on charges of flying while Arab. He has something to do with Alice's story only in the sense that she's been reading about Iraq, longing to be a writer, longing to write about people more important than herself, trying to imagine the mind of the "Muslim hot dog seller" and whether she, a choir girl from the midwest, could ever do so. 
We learn all about Amar's life and his tragedies, and toward the end of this section, we're treated to a view of a young blond woman weeping in the holding area across from him--and we know she's Alice because she's wearing the same Searle coat with the black fur around the hood that Ezra bought her back when the two of them were a thing in "Folly." But we don't find out why she's there--except that we're supposed to see her as a character in Jaafari's story, the author of it? Or he is the author of her story? Keep 'em guessing. The final clue comes not in the "Madness" section--which leaves both Alice and Jaafari in a Kafkaesque lack of closure--but in the "Ezra Blazer's Desert Island Discs" section. There, we're treated to Ezra's ramble about the two or three or "all right, maybe four" times that depression hit, when women left him and his brother died. Then the kicker, at least it's supposed to be the kicker, on p. 260-261 of the British edition: "Our military might is unmatched and in any case the madness is at least an ocean away. And then all of a sudden we look up from ordering paper towels online to find ourselves delivered right into the madness." [Get it? Amar's madness, the war madness, Iraq and Middle East madness.] Ezra goes on: "And we wonder: How did this happen? . . . what good will it do, the willful and belated broadening of my imagination? A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel about this, in its way. About the extent to which we're able to penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own. It's a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author . . . " 
So now it's confirmed that his young friend, Lisa Halliday or Alice, wrote Asymmetry.
I am one of those readers who feels cheated. Especially because we're getting slammed with that overused "looking glass" metaphor again. No, we did not get through the looking glass. If we had, we'd have learned how Ezra and Alice's relationship ended, what happened to Amar and whether he ever got out of the airport to see Alistair, and what Ezra thinks about Alice's novel--much more of what Ezra thinks of Alice's novel! And then you'd have three novels. Three very long novels. Instead of one skinny, clever novel--too clever by half. I can't help but think this novelist chose not to go through the agony of living through Alice's and Amar's states of mind when they're thrust into the dramas she creates. The ending is a clever deus ex machina rendered popular by the death of my hero, Philip Roth--I think of the miraculous voice of Portnoy and the scintillating plotting--not to mention the panorama of America's race, politics, and gender issues in The Human Stain--and conclude that Asymmetry is a footnote to the life of a genius. 
But more: Lisa Halliday is, I persist in feeling, cheating herself as a novelist. She's selling herself short. Her gifts are considerable--she can create endings, but perversely (it must be that--it could be a desire to be mathematically precise--it can't be laziness) she won't. 
The question of whether the choir girl can imagine the mind of the Muslim hot dog seller--of course she can. Of course he can imagine her mind, too. Literature abounds with unlikely narrators: how did he think of her? Vice versa? One example will suffice: In Thomas Mann's Schwarze Schw√§ne ("The Black Swan" in English) a menopausal woman who has inexplicably begun to bleed again, argues with her daughter, who has cramps, insisting menstruation is a wonderful experience the daughter ought to appreciate.  I first read this story in a graduate seminar with the late lamented and brilliant Steven Marcus--who, and this is the only time I ever saw this happen, didn't get it. He began the class by saying, "this mother and daughter are having a wonderful, loving conversation." Both I and another women sprang to our feet--I think we did, at least we interrupted him, which none had ever dared to do--and informed him that this mother was anything but loving--she was jealous. How, I later wondered, had Mann gotten so far inside the mind of women that even Steven Marcus didn't understand--when any woman would?
So the answer to Lisa Halliday's Alice is: Of course you can imagine. So imagine. And then imagine Amar's fate--imagine how he does nor does not get out of that airport. Imagine Alice's fate: what are her last romantic moments with Ezra, and why?
Plotting. The hardest part of all. Mastery lies in plots that wind up the reader, moving so smoothly that you can't imagine how the author agonized his or her way through them.
Ms. Halliday: please agonize--tell us the rest of the story. I don't want the symmetries: Oh, look, here's Alice, and here's Alice imagining Amar, or vice versa, and here's Blazer imagining both. I want to know what happened.


  1. I'm not a bit surprised Marcus didn't get that! He didn't ever seem to me like a guy who understood women, brilliant though he was. He loved Dickens, another guy who didn't understand women!