Read Asymmetry for the humor and lightness in “Folly,” the first half, and read this for the frustrating governmental craziness in “Madness,” the second half. Or read this for the curious remembrances of Ezra Blazer, the famous writer in “Folly,” who shows up in the third half (really a kind of coda to the rest of the book) to fill in the gaps of how he became the crusty but lovable elder artist as he selects his favorite all-time desert island discs for a BBC radio program.
Alice—Ezra calls her Mary Alice—is the focus of “Folly.” She is twenty-five. Ezra is much older; he has already won “multiple Pulitzer Prizes.” (Halliday based the “Folly” section on her own affair with a much older Philip Roth.) Alice and Ezra meet on a New York City park bench. “Alice knew who he was—she’d known the moment he sat down, turning her cheeks watermelon pink—but in her astonishment, she could only continue staring, like a studious little garden gnome, at the impassable pages that lay open on her lap. They might as well have been made of concrete.”
Their love affair starts quickly. (If anything, the brisk pace of “Folly” is anything but impassable; it starts like a fighter jet.) For Alice, It’s possible that living in the shadow of Ezra Blazer’s fame will make it harder for her to become a writer. Life with Ezra becomes its own wonderland—he sends her on many searches, in fact—but the May-December relationship leaves Alice wondering about the artistic mark she’ll leave. Ezra has everything figured out—the best doctors, the best Little Scarlet preserves, the best clothing stores, the best deli, the best Chinese Food. But the interplay between them is caring, funny, and touching.
Ezra has a series of old-age aches and pains, even as he continues to write. She gets an abortion. They go to concerts, watch a classic American League Championship series between the Red Sox and The Yankees, and have lovers’ quarrels, too. When she expresses an interest in writing about war and world affairs, he has advice. “Forget about world affairs. World affairs can take care of themselves.”
Alice’s tart reply: “They aren’t doing a very good job of it.”
Ezra wants her to write about those close to her, like her father. Alice doesn’t think the subject is important enough. Alice imagines writing about those she doesn’t know so well, like the Muslim hot dog vendor. Ezra is relentlessly prolific. She imagines that crushing Ezra’s skull might free her own creativity—even as she carefully tends to his ailments, including an extended stay in the hospital. Alice wonders “really rather seriously whether a former choirgirl from Massachusetts might be capable of conjuring the consciousness of a Muslim man.”
And “Madness,” the second book/novella, is about a Muslim man—but no hot dog vendor. Amar Jaafari is an economist. He’s the son of Iraqi Kurdish immigrants. We are suddenly in the business of “world affairs,” but in a kind of microcosmic/bureaucratic way because Amar is in an awful kind of purgatory, detained at Heathrow Airport on his way to Iraq. His talented, piano-playing brother has vanished. He needs to go through Heathrow, from L.A., to get there.
We are reading Alice’s writing. (Well, Halliday’s—in a remarkable shift of tone, style, and theme.) The fact that this is, in fact, Alice’s work isn’t fully revealed until Ezra Blazer references it in part three, “Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs.”
Ezra is telling the BBC radio host about his occasional bouts of depression when he reveals: “A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel about this, in its way. About the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots on our own. It’s a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with the author, but in fact is a kind of provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.”
Ezra declines to say Alice’s name on the radio but at that point, we know Alice penned “Madness,” that Alice penetrated the looking glass and imagined a life.
Suddenly, in Amar, we have a character who seems to relish his own emotional interiors and his family, where Alice eschewed any opportunity to reminisce or self-examine.
Amar is a man trapped by bureaucracy who himself must rely on his memories and imaginings to recall many thoughts about his family, as well as life in Iraq.
And we come full circle with mirrors and imagination when Amar recalls looking in a mirror near his brother’s new piano.
“I didn’t look like a man teeming with so much potential. One the contrary, in my eleven-year-old jeans, a week’s worth of stubble, and a fraying windbreaker from the Gap, I looked rather more like the embodiment of a line I would later read—something about the metaphysical claustrophobia and bleak fate of being always one person. A problem, I suppose, that is entirely up to our imaginations to solve. But then even someone who imagines for a living is forever bound up by the ultimate constraint: she can hold her mirror up to whatever subject she chooses, at whatever angle she likes—she can even hold it such that she herself remains outside its frame, the better to de-narcissize the view—but there’s no getting around the fact that she’s always the one holding the mirror. And just because you can’t see yourself in a reflection doesn’t mean no one can.”
Back in “Folly,” Alice is seated in a jury pool when she observes a man whose laptop screen saver shows a photo of himself with someone of identical complexion and facial features, each wearing the same brand of windbreakers. Is that a direct reference to Amar in “Madness?” Well, at least, it’s the sign of a writer grabbing details from real life for her own storytelling purposes. The truth is all three stories are dotted with points you can connect—and have fun doing so. One could scour every paragraph of Asymmetry and race down hundreds of such rabbit holes, looking for such details to connect. The bolder strokes are obvious—music (lots of music) and war and mirrors; freedom and loneliness; and themes about artistic originality; and, yes, rabbit hole and wonderland references too. A book club could spend several meetings pulling Asymmetry apart. Writers? Much to ponder, especially about “the metaphysical claustrophobia and bleak fate of being always one person.”
A review in The New Yorker said this: Asymmetry is “a meditation on who we might be when the most obvious components of our identity—age, religion, ethnicity, gender—have been stripped away. The coda, which confirms with the lightest of touches that Amar sprang from Alice’s head, suggests that our inner lives hold more nuance than can be contained in the boxes we check on a census form.”
Like Amar’s census form—a man literally trapped by immigration bureaucracy, who has answered many technical questions about his identity, conjures the scope of his life through the sheer power of his memory and imagination. It’s a story written by Alice, who is demonstrating her own ability to imagine beyond her “claustrophobia” and empathize with a Muslim man. And of course, it’s all a brilliant novel by Lisa Halliday, who seems to have no trouble looking squarely in the mirror.