I had to think on this novel for a while. “Asymmetry” was a darling of the literary media when it appeared in 2018. The New Yorker called it a “literary phenomenon,” The New York Times included the novel on its list of top books for the year, as did Barak Obama.
Of course I had to find out what the fuss was all about. My conclusion is as asymmetrical as the novel itself: I found Asymmetry to be both intriguing and disappointing.
The novel is structured in three sections. The first, Folly, is about a young editorial assistant, Alice, who has an affair with a much older famous writer, Ezra Blazer, who is clearly modeled after Philip Roth. More on that in a bit.
The second section, Madness, about an Iraqi American detained at Heathrow Airport on his way to search for his missing brother in Iraq, seemingly has nothing to do with the first section. The third, and shortest part, is an interview conducted by the BBC with Ezra Blazer.
Halliday’s writing is masterful, and the stories themselves grab you and hold on (except for the last one), and overall I’m impressed with this novel.
The author did have a relationship with Philip Roth in her early twenties, and the portrayal of Ezra as what I can only describe as a “dirty old man” bothered me. Roth has written some of my favorite novels of all time, including “American Pastoral,” “The Human Stain,” and “Goodbye Columbus.” Frankly, I don’t care about his personal life, especially a fictionalized, sensationalized rendering of his worst inclinations. And the relationship between Ezra and Alice, while well-written, isn’t the stuff of great literature.
So while reading that entire section I felt like a voyeur, unable to look away from the carnage.
The second section on Amar, on the other hand, was quite deft, shifting back and forth between his detainment and questioning at the airport, and his family backstory.
I couldn’t put the two sections together, until I read the third, when I discovered (not at first, I had to look again), that during the interview with the BBC, Ezra mentions a young friend of his who wrote a novel, and the Amar story is that novel.
Very disappointing to me was that “Asymmetry” ends with Ezra propositioning his interviewer — as if I hadn’t enough of the lecherous portrayal already. Maybe that’s just me, because I’ve been such a huge Roth fan and he’s been an influence on my writing, if not my personal life.
Ultimately, Halliday has written a clever and impressive book, but in the way a magic trick is clever and impressive, more than the way a great novel (such as “American Pastoral”) is.
I think Halliday can do much better, and will.
3 stars out of 5.