Asymmetry. A novel
Author: Lisa Halliday
Simon and Schuster, 2018
Asymmetry has been on several lists of Best Book in 2018. The most striking thing about the novel is the structure. Initially it appears to be three disconnected stories, each dealing with asymmetrical power structures, but somehow I felt that explanation was not enough. The first is the story of an affair between a very old famous writer (rumored to be modeled on Phillip Roth), and a young woman who wants to be a writer (something like the author). Throughout this story there are well-concealed clues as to the connection with the second story. Islamophobia is central to the second story of an Iraqi man dealing with the bureaucracy at Heathrow as he tries to pass through that airport on his way Istanbul. The final section again gives us clues as to how the three stories fit together to form a novel.
The Alice in Wonderland motif that opens the novel and carries it along is part of an attention to the relationship between texts. Where the original Alice saw no point in books without pictures, this Alice sees no point in books without quotation marks. It isn’t entirely clear to me on two readings what each of the sections taken from other books/novels tells us about this one, but that would be a fun project to work out.
And of course it is fun to solve the puzzle, and the writing carried me along pretty well. There are some wonderful images, as in the one where a train track ends suddenly, because it really isn’t going anywhere. That stands for the relationship between the young woman and the famous old writer.
From here, you could see all the way across the water to the North Fork, where the train from the city came to its slow, inexorable halt—its tracks ending abruptly, surrounded on three sides by grass, as though the men whose job it was to lay them down a century and a half earlier had looked up one day and saw they could go no farther…
At least one critic condemned the book for being overly concerned with form, as, he said, so many books of the twenty-first century appear to be. I agree that it is nice to read novels like Salvage the Bones, (Jesmyn Ward) where the form is not out in front of the story, though the language is gorgeous. Still, there is great pleasure in solving the mysteries in novels like this one and NW, Zadie Smith’s enjoyable/challenging novel. I’ll take some of each. - SQ
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