Book review by Melanie Cutting
Asymmetry: The lack of symmetry or proportion between parts of a whole. Not having symmetry; inharmonious; not reconcilable. (The Living Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, 1977)
This debut novel from American author Lisa Halliday, the 2017 winner of the Whiting Award for fiction, garnered truly impressive reviews when released in early 2018. This is essentially why my book club selected it for our April get-together, plus the fact that it is a manageable 271 pages. In retrospect, it can be considered a nearly perfect example of a book club book: it is well-written, tells an interesting story, but more importantly, appreciation of the more esoteric qualities of the book benefits from the type of discussion for which book clubs are eminently suited.
The book is divided into two chapters, “Folly” and “Madness”, of roughly equal length, and a much shorter final chapter, known as a “coda”, a “…final or extra part of a speech, event, piece of writing… or piece of music, usually separate from the basic structure”. (Cambridge Dictionary).
Chapter 1, “Folly”, set in New York City in the early 2000s, centres on Alice, a young editorial assistant at a large NY publishing house, and her relationship with distinguished, bordering-on-elderly Jewish novelist Ezra Blazer. (Any similarity between Ezra and author Philip Roth is deliberate; Halliday, as a young editorial assistant, had an affair with the much older Roth.) They meet on a park bench where Alice is quietly trying to read. Yes, there is a parallel with Alice in Wonderland, and there is a reason for this. Ezra approaches her, engages her in conversation, and within a few days of gradually increasing their intimacy levels, the y have become a couple. They don’t share living arrangements, though, and Ezra’s frequent forays to his summer home in the Hamptons, without Alice, become a source of tension. Another issue is Ezra’s health, which is deteriorating. Alice is torn between feeling real warmth and love for Ezra, and truly enjoying their time together, and the possibility that she will end up spending the foreseeable future as a caregiver for an aged and ailing man 50 years her senior.
Ezra plays a formative role in her life, introducing her to both literature and literati, and helping her financially. In time, she becomes a frequent visitor to both his NY apartment and his summer home, spending time with Ezra’s granddaughters, and obsessing over baseball, a game they both love. But is Ezra her lover, her father, or the role model she aspires to become?
The second chapter, “Madness”, is a complete departure from both the story and style of Chapter 1, and a first hint at the “asymmetry” of the title. The principal character— and narrator— of the story is Amar, a young Iraqui-American who has recently wrapped up his doctorate in Economics in the U.S. Contrary to the storyline of chapter 1, which extends over several months with very little elaboration on the background of either of the main players, Chapter 2 is almost nothing but back-story. Amar is detained at length, for unidentified but no doubt absurd reasons, in Heath Row airport immigration on his way from the U.S. to Iraq via England and Istanbul, to visit his brother. During the hours he spends waiting for clearance to board his plane, we learn the story of his life, as well as that of several of his family members, and, in a larger sense, modern day Iraq.
The final section of the book, the coda, is entitled “Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs”. Again, the author takes a 180 degree turn in style and substance. It is now 2011, and we are re-introduced to Ezra some years after his relationship with Alice has ended. The chapter is presented as the transcript of a British radio program in which the subject is asked to select several favorite pieces of music, and then relate the significance of these choices. Here the reader is finally enlightened as to Ezra’s life history, highlighted by his recent winning of the Nobel Prize for literature. Rather than succumbing to the ailments he suffered from in Chapter 1, he has rallied and achieved even greater literary heights. The book ends on a humourous note, one of many, as the still-rakish Ezra proceeds to hit on the female interviewer, despite her informing him that she is both a wife and mother of two.
How do these very disparate chapters relate to each other, and to the theme of asymmetry? What is the author hoping to achieve with this technique? This is where a little patience, a little research on the author, and a desire to go beyond the immediate pleasure of “a good read” come in handy. In truth, it took the discussion with my book club to raise my consciousness to a level where I could begin to understand and appreciate Halliday’s skills in challenging her readers. When I had finished the first chapter, enjoying it immensely, my reaction to the second chapter was a resounding, “Whaaaaat?” I really wanted more of the Alice and Ezra story, and felt both cheated and puzzled. By the time I had reached the final mini-chapter, I was seriously annoyed, and fully expected my fellow clubbies to feel the same way. Fortunately, several of them are far more perspicacious readers than yours truly. By the end of our evening, I could accept that I had missed the boat by focusing exclusively on the author’s ability to engage my attention with her initial story, and not even trying to see the bigger— and far more interesting— picture.
A good writer will tell a story well; a great writer will do the same, but will also enhance the experience with literary subtleties and techniques that lead to a richer, more memorable appreciation of the storyteller’s art. So yes, there is definitely a re-read of Halliday’s book on my agenda…