Friday, April 6, 2018
I first heard about the existence of Asymmetry in a radio interview in which Lisa Halliday’s affair with Philip Roth came up. Who made this public knowledge? Did she? At any rate, surely she was aware that having her novel’s main character engage in a sexual relationship with a prestigious (and forty-plus years older) author would be a selling point. Readers will, despite any protests by Halliday, take this to be a roman a clef. What is Philip Roth (in the guise of Ezra Blazer) really like, especially in bed? — inquiring minds want to know. It’s this aspect that caused publishing houses to engage in a bidding war for rights to the novel.
But any form of expose about a prominent person carries with it a degree of smarminess. Not that Halliday portrays Blazer in a negative light. He’s intelligent, witty, generous, kind. An interesting person. Though he’s not in good shape physically — he has an array of serious health problems — he wants a sex life, and one of his outstanding features is a seductiveness. It’s obvious that he’s a long-practicing seducer of women. And he seduces Alice. Easily.
What induces her to have an affair with him? In the opening scene of Asymmetry Alice (who’s an editorial assistant at a publishing firm) is sitting in a park, reading a book and thinking about writing one herself. When Ezra approaches her she immediately recognizes him, and her cheeks turn “watermelon pink.” Years later, as she and Ezra are strolling in the same park, “Alice saw what she supposed other people would see: a healthy young woman losing time with a decrepit old man. Or were other people more imaginative and sympathetic than she thought? Might they acknowledge that everything was still more interesting with him than without, and perhaps even that her gameness and devotion were qualities that the world needed more of, not less?” People are cynics, especially when they have the facts. If they knew that the decrepit old man was a famous author, and the healthy young woman an aspiring writer, they’d conclude that her gameness and devotion were dispensed in an effort to advance her career. Not just any decrepit old man, no matter how interesting, would get the treatment Blazer does.
The fictional Blazer is generous to Alice. He showers expensive gifts on her (how about paying off her $6000 Harvard student loan?). And he encourages her aspirations to write. I don’t know if Roth was similarly helpful to Halliday. Did he open doors in the literary world for her? In the years they were together, he surely didn’t hide her under the rug. At any rate, I doubt if he was happy with being the subject (however lightly disguised) for her novel. Halliday says she sent him the manuscript, and he raised no objections. But would his objections have caused her to shelve the book? — I think not. Nor did she need his help in getting it published — her real-life affair with him had occurred, and that made it commercially viable. Of course, for those inquiring minds, she had to include sex.
There are, thank goodness, no explicit descriptions of the seventy-something body of Ezra having Viagra-aided sex with Alice. I’d find them distasteful. (And were they distasteful, one wonders, for Alice?) But what Halliday does provide are kinky teasers. During a sex act, this man who has had a full and sophisticated sex life exclaims, “ ‘Oh, God. Oh, Jesus. Oh, Christ. What are you doing? Do you . . . know . . . what you’re doing?’ ” (What she does is never disclosed.) And why is a dildo hanging on the vanity of Ezra’s bathroom? Something odd is going on. I’m fine with the non-disclosure part, but I could do without the teasers.
The “Folly” section of the novel is devoted to the affair, and not much else. Alice remains indistinct. As for her job, there’s almost nothing. She has a bothersome gaga neighbor who knocks too often on her door and repeatedly asks Alice if she’s lonely, if she has a boyfriend. (Does Alice have a life outside her relationship with Ezra? We never know, though I suspect the answer is yes.) As for Ezra, he’s Ezra, over and over: jokester, benefactor, instructor in what books to read, what music to listen to, what movies to watch. And from the beginning he has asked Alice to run errands for him. For her to bring him a certain type of food, or get something for him at a certain shop (he’s picky). These requests are made in a considerate way, and she had told him that she’s always willing to help. But, since he expects her to do his bidding, the requests begin to seem more like demands. They’re part of her role in his life.
Years go by, but the only way we know that is because the winners of the Nobel Prize are announced (and they’re not Ezra Blazer). What Halliday relies on to fill the 123 pages of “Folly” is filler. Long italicized quotes from those books Ezra gives her to read (many about the Holocaust); song lyrics (Ezra likes the old classics); play-by-play accounts of baseball games (they’re both fans). Near the end of the section Alice receives a summons for jury duty and pages are devoted to a list of names being called out. We get the entire warnings on a drug printout.
The end comes swiftly, and has an emotional intensity absent from the rest of “Folly.” Ezra’s health has been declining; Alice is no longer a dispenser of pleasure; she’s a nurse. And Ezra wants her to fill that roll — nurse and errand runner and companion — for the rest of his life. As she sits beside his hospital bed she breaks down. “I can’t . . . This! It’s just . . . so . . . hard. It’s so not . . . normal. No, I don’t mean normal. I mean . . . good for me. Right now. If I’m with you . . .” The words that come next, but aren’t spoken, are that if she’s with Ezra she can’t live a normal life with a man her age. Ezra rationally counters all she says, reassures her that things will be “fine” the way they are. They begin to watch baseball on the hospital TV. “Don’t leave me,” he says. “Don’t go. No one can love you as much as I do. Choose this.”
There “Folly” ends. There’s no account of the breakup, but we know that Alice will not choose the life Ezra is offering her. It was folly to get so entangled with him. She must move on.
Alice began “to consider rather seriously whether a former choirgirl from Massachusetts might be capable of conjuring the consciousness of Muslim man . . .” Which is what Halliday does in “Madness,” the second section of the novel. As to why she chose this as a subject, it’s quite possible that, since she knew readers would see “Folly” as based on personal experience, she was showing that she can carry out a feat of the imagination. But, as a feat, it’s not an audacious one. Amar Jaafari isn’t foreign in his sensibilities; his most notable quality is his reasonableness. Nor is he allowed to fully emerge as a personality. We’re given some events of his life, some of his thoughts and feelings — interesting fragments — but there’s no unified narrative in which he’s allowed to develop; his story is constantly broken up by shifts in time and place. Amar’s section is structured around scenes of his interrogation in the holding room of Heathrow Airport, where we learn little about him besides his patience and stoicism. In much of “Madness” Halliday inundates us with Arab names, foreign locales, scenes of the disarray and suffering going on in the Middle East. I began to wonder if she had been a war correspondent or if she had just done an awful lot of research. “We went left. This was not without cost: the drive to Sulaymaniyah from Zakho, on the Iraq-Turkish border, took about nine hours that way. If we’d cut the corner and gone down to Mosul and then across to Kirkuk, it would have taken about five.” And I thought: more filler, this time aimed at establishing authenticity of place.
The “Madness” section is political: war is hell, the United States acted badly, the vast majority of people in the Middle East want to live quiet, peaceful lives; like Amar, they’re not radicals. Okay, but I already knew this. Politics is fatal to a novel unless the reader is personally engaged with the characters. Amar’s controlled reactions and the fragmentation in the telling of his story works against engagement with him. He’s mainly a passive presence, dominated by the dense and scattered problems in the Middle East. The same problem existed when Halliday was writing about a young woman in New York and her affair — things she had intimate knowledge of. Alice’s section is thin and repetitive. We get glimpses of her emotions, especially at the end, but the role she plays is subordinate to the personality of Ezra Blazer.
Agents and editors needed more than “Folly” for Asymmetry to stand as a novel. I suspect they weren’t at all pleased with the “Madness” section (and the attendant necessity to try to justify its existence). A perfectly valid question arises: why didn’t Halliday write an entire novel about Alice? One that would go into her life outside her time with Blazer, then follow her after her break with him? One that would reveal her in all her dimensions?
I believe that degree of revealing was a task Halliday wasn’t up to. By shifting the story to Amar Jaafari she was able to avoid the problems which the subject matter of “Folly” posed for her. She tells enough about Alice’s affair to satisfy the curiosity of readers, but no more. The faults I find with Asymmetry all have to do with its evasiveness. What’s here is good, but there’s not enough.
Asymmetry ends with a short section entitled “Ezra Blazer’s Island Disks.” It consists of an interview in which Ezra is asked to select eight pieces of music he would take with him to a desert island. But from that premise he’s given a wide range of personal topics to discuss. Though years have passed since his time with Alice (we know that because Ezra has finally won the Nobel Prize), he’s in fine form. Halliday has him throw in a few words about Alice and a book she’s written. But, significantly — for it’s a final manifestation of evasiveness — “Folly” is not the book Ezra makes reference to: “A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel . . . that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author, but in fact is a veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naivete.” He almost goes on to say that this friend was one of the two women in his life that he had “hugely loved,” but backs away (“Well, no. I won’t say that. I won’t say her name.”) Blazer claims he is happily celibate, but he can’t resist making a pass at the female interviewer. The voice is the same coaxing, humorous one he used with Alice when he first met her at the park. Though the interviewer is married and has children, Blazer persists. He has two tickets to a concert, and he’d like her to come. “So. What do you say, miss? Are you game?”