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
These three novellas explore the legacy, or residue, of British colonialism in India. In the first novella,” The Museum of Final Journeys,” a junior functionary takes on the role of the departed English Foreign Service, takes on the attributes of the oppressor without questioning that role. His father has been a civil servant, rising through the ranks to a position of prestige, and he aspires to rise through the ranks as his father did. An ancient family servant to a once great and wealthy Indian prince convinces the functionary to visit the abandoned, decaying mansion. He walks through room after room of long decayed art treasures, collected by the son of the once owners of the property, and then finally is taken to see an elephant on the verge of starvation. The old servant asks him to save the elephant, but he concludes that he cannot do anything to help the elephant, and gets on with his life. Like his father, he rises to position and relative wealth, but he is troubled by recurring dreams about the elephant. He never allows himself to know that the continuing colonial power of which he is a part is starving the elephant, which is to say, not only India, but his Indian self. The dreams are eruptions of his repressed Indian self.
Other critics have said that windows open briefly, but Desai’s characters fail to seize the day. I think Desai is after more than that. This is a critique of colonialism, but what makes her writing so effective is that she is able to locate such a huge historical and political moment within a quite simple story of a man denying what he sees.
The second story, “Translator Translated,” takes up the problem of writing the colonized experience in the language of the colonizer. The point of view character, Prema, an English teacher, whose life is less than meaningful, begins to find meaning as a translator of short stories she has grown up with and loved, written in an indigenous language, and apparently quite familiar to all the people who speak that language. Her translation is a success and she is happy for the first time in her life. The author proves to be a recluse who doesn’t really want to make much time for her, does not connect with Prema’s fantasy of a warm friendship between writer and translator, where they might even become almost coequal in the production. She prevails upon the author to write a novel. But when she gets the novel she is disappointed. She finds none of the vividness and charm of the short stories. As a teacher of Jane Austin and George Elliot, Prema knows what a novel should be. So she revises as she translates, to bring the novel up to her standards. The novel is less than successful, but worse, a relative of the author comes to claim that it is badly translated, and at a reading, a voice in the crowd scolds Prema for translating the story into the language of the colonizer. The author chooses not to continue writing—she is busy developing schools in the poor districts from which her short stories were drawn. And Prema is forced back into the dreary life she had hoped to escape—riding the coattails of Austin and Eliot.
Desai is here writing in English, writing a novella –not a novel but close enough—about why Indians shouldn’t write novels in English. In Desai’s biography there is no clear indication that she ever spoke a truly remote, indigenous language, but she did speak several of the more common languages: Urdu, etc. I don’t quite see Desai herself as betraying her native language. She grew up speaking German, but I do notice that the story is told primarily in the third person past tense, except for two sections in first person, one past tense and one present tense. This breaks the traditional form of novels, at least, of the novels that Prema spends her life teaching—the nineteenth century British novel. Given the machinations of today’s young novel writers the challenge is hardly breathtaking, but it calls attention to the act of writing about the life of the colonized in a form that belongs to the colonizer. Desai tries to escape the novel. As does Prema, in her dismal life.
The story tells us the indigenous author could not write a novel. The stories she had to tell didn’t survive the passage into novels. They were pretty close to the anecdotes we tell each other every day about our lives, written in the language that community would tell its stories in. The indigenous author is not dependent on literature for a life: she is engaged in the process of living, of helping other people. But Prema is left, living an empty life on the margins of eighteenth and nineteenth century English novels.
The last story is less elegantly efficient than the first two, less elegantly shaped. In “The Artist of Disappearance,” an upper caste Indian couple in love with the values of the British, spend their lives aping the ways of the rulers. They travel in Europe, socialize with British neighbors. They have adopted an Indian son in whose welfare they are not at all interested. The boy barely survives, and that only with the help of the servants. He relates to things in nature, not to people. The parent’s social life is interrupted by a racist incident, when an English man beats up the husband for dancing with his wife. The boy is sent away to school, where he is miserable. Eventually he goes home to share his life with blind old woman supposed to be his tutor, his parents having departed somewhere for good. Somehow the old woman sets the house on fire and it burns up completely except for one room that still has walls and a roof, though black and smoked. A villager brings food and a cot for the now grown man, who seems to spend his life sitting on what is left of the veranda. And so he hardly survives as far as anyone knows. But he has a secret project: he finds a pool hidden in the jungle and turns it into a work of art. He drags trees and stones and arranges them all to make a beautiful space.
The western world shows up, in the form of documentary film makers from Delhi who wish to film the destruction of the jungle. A fine irony. They are not especially lucky in finding what they came for. Much is made in the story of film crews coming to film the beautiful scenery in this area. At one point, one of them discovers the artist’s pond. They succeed in filming the pond, but the villagers hide the artist, so they are never able to connect with him. Looking at the film, they find that the footage seems flat and boring. One says that they needed the artist for this to come alive. They pack up their cameras and leave, but the artist never goes back to his pond.
That is, the western world comes to see the scenery, not the people. They almost figure out that they are missing the soul of the people, that there is a soul immanent in the art of the pond, but, like the civil servant in the first story, they have no idea what to do about that.
This novella has an unusual shape. It seems to be two different short stories barely connected. My guess is that Desai is again working out the problem of how to tell the story of the colonized in the language of the colonizer.
The epigraph quotes Jorge Luis Borges, “One thing alone does not exist—oblivion.” The Artist of Disappearance seems to be about the internalized project of completely colonizing the indigenous culture. The project fails. - SQ
I sometimes wonder what makes a story good? Why do I stay up all night reading one book, while another I find so dull? As a writer, I want to know how to keep readers turning the pages. So, I decided to scan some reader reviews, searching for the answers.
Many of the responses suggested the pace was sluggish. In fact it seemed to be the number one complaint. Here are some of those review excerpts:
So the pace of the story is very important. What slows the tempo? What causes the story to lag? Here are some more detailed reviews.
Ok, so too many details, or too much description can cause a story to lag, become boring. Then what makes the story good?
By studying what reviewers say about books they like, or don't like, I found what to watch for in my own writing. - LG
Photo credit: Pixabay.com
I’ve been hearing that publishers don’t like prefaces to novels. They say those are just a note to the author, not the reader. But I’ve lately read a couple of novels that were published with a preface. So I asked myself, why? The Kitchen House opens with a preface in which we see a woman hanging from a tree. The novel then tells us how that came about. That preface does a little work in giving the reader a sort of mystery: who, why, etc? Rules of Civility (Amor Towles, Penguin, 2012) is a far better novel that opens with a preface. I’m looking at it carefully to see why.
It opens with a date: October 4, 1966. So it does that little task, and we meet the narrator, an upper middle class Manhattan editor and her husband. Then we’re told that the scene is the opening of an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, the opening of a show called,Many Are Called, “portraits” the narrator says, taken by Walker Evans, taken surreptitiously on the subway in New York City, during the depression years. Evans had a camera up his sleeve, and took pictures of the people sitting directly opposite him on the subway, without their ever knowing they were being photographed. (If you have time, stop here and think about the epigraph, a quotation from Matthew 22:8 to 14, where Christ does some parable ending with “many are called, but few are chosen.” So far I haven’t figured that out, so I asked my local library to get the Evans book, Many Are Called. Still haven’t figured it out. The epilogue of the novel is titled “few are chosen.”)
The preface goes on to a little discussion of the nature of society these days, that is, 1966: too much drinking, for one thing. But it focuses on the role of the US in the world now that World War II has decimated our competition and the Russians don’t seem to be much of a threat. Then the preface narrows down to Manhattan and to the exhibit of photographs taken back in the thirties. Depression and flappers.
And the narrator begins her personal history, her own life during the depression. She imagines that the exhibit might be quite a revelation for the younger people there, but for her it brings up old ghosts, and one old ghost in particular: there are two portraits of a man one surmises was once a romantic attachment. The first they see shows him “ill shaven in a threadbare coat” underweight, but bright eyed and addressing the world. Vibrant and naive. The second one they see shows the same man well dressed, filled out, handsome, sure of himself. Perhaps a little world-weary. But. The second picture they see is actually the younger version of the man. This is not about a young man finding himself. It’s about a man losing himself. Or is it? The novel will be not about the rise, but rather about the fall, of Tinker Grey. Or not.
The narrator alludes to Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which you may remember is a poem about the moral bankruptcy of Edwardian England: “time enough to murder and create—or at least, to have warranted the dropping of a question on your plate.” In the context the question appears to be the question of what has happened in her past. And the question on her plate is the question of what happened then, not just the events, but what did they mean?
And the allusion suggests at least some moral decay as a theme for the novel. I note that near the end of the novel the narrator again alludes to Prufrock, “There will be time for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions.” The novel is bookended with Prufrock. (“And in the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo” ---the poem, like this preface, is set in a high society art gallery.) And the structure of the novel is rather well described there: a hundred visions and revisions. This is not a novel with a strong plot, where the protagonist confronts an evil and vanquishes that evil in the final scene. What it does is give us the narrator’s vision of each character, and then at least one revision, in some cases several revisions, none of them really conclusive. Ultimately they are visions and revisions of society in New York City. Think The Great Gatsby, and also, Edith Wharton (House of Mirth, specifically).
And the theme of the portraits is carried out through the book, with some of Evans’ portraits introducing sections, as if the novel, too, is an exhibition of a series of portraits.
The cultural density of the novel is impressive. And the writing is masterly. Like so many other writers today, Towles manages at least one simile, usually rather epigrammatic, per page. They are extended similes that account for much of the texture of the prose, and often for the cultural density that causes me to hear so much more per line. There are whole metaphoric paragraphs where the energy is concentrated like a black hole: but these emit a lazer light.
So. What does this preface do? It sets up a world context for the novel, and a social context, takes us into the depression through the eyes of a celebrated, photographer, who actually lived outside the novel, and lets us know that the novel will be very literary, by which I mean it locates itself in the literary world, takes up the questions our best literature explores, and then finally narrows down to the business of what happened to one particular man during the thirties, as seen from the point of view of one specific woman.
This preface is rich enough to be a novel in itself. It is a guide to reading the novel, raises all the themes the novel will work out. Is it really necessary? Would the novel succeed without it? Could this not have been handled as Chapter 1? Perhaps. In any case, I am grateful for the heads up. The novel is very rich and I love spending time with it. - SQ
An amazing story that examines the delicate subject of racism with grace and empathy. Ruth’s story grabbed me from the start as she is put into an impossible situation by the hospital she works for. The choices she makes, and the story she decides to share, not only affects her life, but also the lives of the strangers she will come to know.
Along the way, we get to know Turk. His strong beliefs prompt a decision to prevent Ruth from caring for his newborn child with devastating effects. We also see things from the point of view of Kennedy, the lawyer that defends Ruth in the lawsuit filed by the white supremist couple. As the story unfolds, the belief system for all three of them are challenged in a fundamental way.
This story is about prejudice and tolerance. It is also about how our perceptions can flavor the decisions we make every day as well as the truths we share with others. This story is very much about human nature, the good and the bad, and shows that the smallest choice can make a huge impact on the lives of others.
Small Great Things was an amazing read and I also highly recommend reading the Author’s notes. They gave great insight as to the inspiration and evolution of the story. - DH
Had a co-worker suggest the series to me, and was not disappointed! The first book of the Gardella Vampire Hunters series was beautifully written and is deliciously paced. The story brings us into a world that walks a fine line between formal London society and a shadowy realm of immortal creatures.
It is Victoria’s duty to keep the residents of London safe from the evil that surrounds them, as they dance their waltzes and fret about what color dress to wear to their next party. She is an empowered and beautiful woman who tries in vain to embrace both worlds. She ultimately suffers because of it.
While parts of this story came as a surprise, it only made me more curious to learn more about the world that Victoria lives in. I’m excited to see what comes next for her and would definitely suggest this series to anyone who loves to read Paranormal Fiction! - DH
I love reading almost as much as I love writing and I do lots of book reviews. Because I have been through the gauntlet of bringing an idea to life, I know that every book requires a great deal of work. When I do a book review, I keep this in the back of my mind. That way, even if I don’t particularly care for the story, I can focus on the positives.
I decided recently that I needed a system that would not only streamline my review process, but also help me to remain as objective as possible. I realize that ratings are ultimately reflective of the reader’s likes and dislikes, but sometimes I find myself in the position of reading a genre am not necessarily a fan of. I feel this system I am about to share helps me to rate the books fairly no matter the story or genre.
My rating system is set up for 10 points, but you can easily adjust it for a 5-star rating by cutting your score in half and rounding up or down. I have 10 criteria that I have listed on a worksheet, and each of those criteria are given a score of .1 to 1. They are:
Cover – Style/Color/Theme
Formatting – Justification/Flourishes/Spacing
Editing – Typos, punctuation, sentence structure
Blurb – Does it sufficiently describe the book? Or misleading?
POV – Is it consistent? Does it switch with sufficient transition?
Character Depth – Is character realistic?
Character Motivation – Does character’s motivation make sense? Is it explained?
Character Description – Is character description adequate? Can you visualize their qualities?
Plot – Does the plot move along? Any holes or things that don’t make sense?
Impression – Based on this book, would you purchase more from this author?
If you feel that this rating system will help you with your reviews, I have provided a copy of the document that I developed. Feel free to use it or pass it along to other reviewers who may find it helpful. I would like to add that I will only post reviews that I rate between 3 and 5 stars. Anything less than that would, more than likely, be the direct cause of poor editing or severe plot holes. I feel in these rare cases, the direct contact with the author with some constructive criticism is much more helpful to them than posting a negative review.
Authors truly appreciate feedback and I hope that you will consider leaving a review the next time you read a book that you feel others will like. I would love to hear from you if you feel this tool has been helpful, just make a comment here or shoot me an email. Happy reading (and reviewing) everyone! - DH
Original Post: saraybooksllc.com/2017/02/25/my-book-review-rating-worksheet/
Zadie Smith’s Swingtime gives us two “Brilliant Friends,” to paraphrase Ferrante. One beautiful and very talented friend, Tracy, is black, the other beautiful and very talented friend is Aimee, white. The narrator is black/white: talented and beautiful black mother; loving, ineffectual white father. But the narrator is neither talented nor beautiful. Predictably the black girl will not really make it, the white girl will make it, though she can’t remember why. She also turns everyone around her into servants and mindlessly blunders into Africa to “save the girls.” I suppose the mixed blood of the narrator is to give her credibility: she’s on both sides? Men do not come off well. Male characters simply buzz around the various females. I enjoyed the book, but it’s true that the relationships between the women are rather undeveloped. An effect of race? I suppose that’s true, too. - SQ
Authors: Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Review: Linda Grischy
In this well researched novel, the lives of Martha "Patsy" Jefferson Randolph and her father Thomas Jefferson are skillfully revealed. The story covers Jefferson's adventures as Governor of Virginia and Minister to France, to President of the United States and his retirement, and Patsy's childhood, life as a mother and wife. I love the artful way the authors show how the pair cling to one another through tragedy and triumph, in an unusual bond between daughter and father. Although both Patsy and her father had independent family commitments, their lives were forever intertwined. Their love and devotion for one another carried them through their darkest times. This rich historical saga brings to life a different time and fascinating period of our country's beginnings. I've listened to the audio version and found it an excellent production and great compliment to the beautifully written novel. I highly recommend both book and audio version!
Welcome to The Muse Crew Blog. We're happy to have you. Sit back and scroll through our thoughts and ideas. If you like the post, please consider sharing it. Comments are always welcome!