In 1960 Philip Roth wrote: “The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.” By the first decade of this century, the conditions Roth was describing were arguably more acute, yet the more our media was saturated with stories of mass violence, the high crimes of respectable people, and other grotesqueries, the easier it was for those living comfortable middle-class lives, including writers, to view such stories at a distance, to see them not as part of one’s own reality or a shared national reality, but as simply the daily revolting flotsam of the internet and cable news. At the same time, by the end of the first year of the Bush administration, the major story was the projection of American power and violence abroad. A certain kind of person could follow the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on a daily basis and feel no personal connection to them: conflicts initiated by a president you didn’t vote for, fought by fellow citizens you’d never met and weren’t related to, waged in countries you knew next to nothing about.
The disconnect has presented problems for American writers trying to portray the country’s reality. The problem is less one of making that reality credible, since we’re all used to hearing that the incredible happens on a daily basis, than of making it coherent. It’s an impossible task because American reality isn’t coherent, even if novels about it ought to be. There was, of course, the obvious challenge of the 9/11 novel, and for several years novelists applied themselves to the task of marrying a spectacular historical event to the private lives that carried on in the shadow of the events. There has been war fiction authored by veterans, journalist observers, and stay-at-home writers adopting various perspectives, most commonly that of the traumatized soldier returned home. In many of these works, especially the best of them, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, it’s the disconnect that’s dramatized in the form of trauma and its echoes.
In her first novel Lisa Halliday adopts a conceptual strategy declared in the book’s title, Asymmetry. It’s a title with multiple valences, but it signals that Halliday won’t be imposing coherence on her protagonists and their two very different stories. The first section, “Folly,” is the story of a young woman in New York with a job in publishing, Mary-Alice Dodge, called Alice, to heighten her innocence and wonder as she takes the elevator through the looking glass to the Upper West Side apartment where she conducts an affair with a much older and much celebrated novelist (think of one whose name rhymes with “still hip cloth”) named Ezra Blazer. “Madness,” the second part, is narrated by Amar, an American son of Iraqi Kurdish immigrants who tells his family history while detained by immigration agents at Heathrow. Ezra has the last word in the coda, a transcript of his appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs after winning the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature. His remarks are the metafictional bow that ties this very self-conscious novel together.
Halliday is in her early 40s, lives in Milan, and worked for many years for the Wylie Agency in New York and London. She published her first short story, “Stump Louis,” in the Paris Review in 2005. It was fiction very much of its time, with its mix of whimsy and tragedy, set in a gauzily slapstick 1940s. A teenage piano whiz gets his own radio show, taking calls from listeners trying to name a song he can’t play off the top of his head. It’s a big hit, and no caller stunts him until the night Pearl Harbor is attacked. An emergency newsflash prevents the hero’s on-air embarrassment, but the war, the last sentence reveals, kills him. There were a lot of stories like this in the 2000s, when nostalgia for the generation that experienced World War II and the Holocaust offered young writers an easy way into history. Their (our) generation had been told history ended in the 1990s. After it became obvious this wasn’t true, it been an open question what stakes these writers have in history as it’s transpired and whether it’s better for them to tell their own stories or those of others.
Within Asymmetry’s framework, Alice is an authorial alter ego and the first section a teasing autofiction. (An author could invent the affair described in the book by reverse-engineering the one described in, say, Exit Ghost.) Readers from publishing circles will recognize tweaked versions of familiar rumors. Ezra is constantly being denied the Nobel, which is awarded instead to Imre Kertesz, to J.M. Coetzee, to Elfriede Jelinek. We hear of the start of the Iraq War, the announcement of the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, and the blackout of the summer of 2003. Ezra buys her novels to read, gives her cash to buy clothes (or whatever she wants), and pays off her Harvard student loans. The age gap allows them to act like adolescents together. They speak in code. She picks him up goodies from Zabar’s. They spend a lot of time watching baseball together, mostly the dramatic Red Sox versus Yankees playoffs of 2003 and 2004. (Halliday wisely elides the Red Sox 2004 World Series victory, a dull triumph in four games against the Cardinals.) Sex is treated coyly, but we know his back problems are an issue. They aren’t the only issue: He gets a defibrillator (which is likened, in a joke, to Chekhov’s gun on the wall in the first act), is at times immobilized, and at the section’s end lies in a hospital bed.
The affair is by turns sweet, naughty, and achingly poignant. Alice’s life outside it is dreary. She’s the child of divorced parents, and her father is a conspiracy theorist and a gun nut. She has an elderly neighbor creeping into advanced stages of dementia. Her job is a drag. A one-night stand with a colleague results in a condom malfunction, a pregnancy, and an abortion. The instructions for clinical procedure are relayed outside the narration and in italics — the same way we encounter texts from the weighty books Ezra gives Alice to read (the Holocaust figures in these texts, among other world-historical atrocities). In other words, the experience is part of her education. Ezra intuits that Alice is a writer herself and asks her what she writes about: “Other people. People more interesting than I am …
Muslim hot dog sellers.” The conversation goes on:
Ezra looked skeptical. “Do you write about your father?”
“You should. It’s a gift.”
“I know, but writing about myself doesn’t seem important enough.”
“As opposed to?”
“War. Dictatorships. World affairs.”
“Forget about world affairs. World affairs can take care of themselves.”
“They’re not doing a very good job of it.”
Soon Alice starts “to consider really rather seriously whether a former choirgirl from Massachusetts might be capable of conjuring the consciousness of a Muslim man.”
Amar’s story is that attempt at conjuring. It’s not such a far stretch. The child of immigrants, born on an airplane passing over Cape Cod and raised in Bay Ridge, Amar is another American striver, his youth spent alphabetizing baseball cards and studying for the PSATs. He’s an Ivy League graduate, a premed ace turned economist, the author of a dissertation on risk aversion, so he’s set for a career as the sort of technocrat who might advise against starting the Iraq War. He’s mostly abstemious and little priggish, as we learn when he accompanies a friend and future girlfriend to an abortion clinic. That girlfriend, Maddy, has a few other things in common with Alice: a poetic disposition and the experience of seeing her parents split when she was very young. Amar’s own family maintains deep ties to Iraqi Kurdistan, where his brother works as a doctor and his relatives endure the collateral damage of the U.S. invasion. Amar’s previous visits to Iraq — before his detention at Heathrow, which occurs just after Obama’s election — and his friendship with a British journalist allow Halliday to stage discussions of the war and its consequences. A few incidents in Amar’s story take on the quality of a thriller.
So which is “more interesting,” the folly of a young woman’s unlikely romance or the madness of a young man’s encounter with world affairs? In terms of tone and style, Halliday stacks the deck in favor of the latter: Amar’s first-person narration is more lushly furnished on the prose level than the fragmentary scenes between Ezra and Alice, which are told in the third person and largely through dialogue, with enough peeks into her head to convey the familiar ups and downs of the young side of asymmetric love. And what difference does it make to think of Amar as Alice’s, rather than Halliday’s, creation? In the coda, Ezra describes her project: “a novel that on its surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author, but in fact is a kind of veiled self-portrait of someone trying to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.” It’s hard to deny, by the novel’s end, that Alice/Halliday has pulled off this stunt of transcendence. As with a gymnast who’s just stuck a perfect routine, your impulse is to ask her, what’s next?