Lisa Halliday explores privilage and art in ‘Asymmetry’

Title: Asymmetry
Author: Lisa Halliday
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Length: 288 pages
Available: 6 February 2018


“It perhaps might be said–if anyone dared–that the most worthless literature of the world has been that which has been written by the men of one nation concerning the men of another.”

asymmetryAlice is an editor for a New York publishing house during the second Bush presidency. Amar is an Iraqi-American economist detained at Heathrow airport in 2008. While at first, the two novellas seem unrelated, as both Alice and Amar’s stories unfold, their connection is explained during a radio interview during the third section of the book. In a book that focuses specifically on characters, we see their pasts and present, their similarities and vast differences.

“It began as a playful thought, but suddenly she distrusted herself to resist crushing that head, turning off that brain.”

With Alice, in Folly, the reader is given a front row seat to her affair with an older, well-published author, Ezra Blazer. Alice examines the differences in their lives: his ability to do what he wants, his success at writing, their views on love, and his coming to terms with his mortality and her want to be immortal. What makes Alice’s story especially interested is seeing the publishing world from both sides of the table. On one side, there is the highly successful, award-winning male author who is eager to share his wisdom with his young lover. On the other, Alice shares her frustrations with being gate-keeper instead of writer but sees what an author’s life can become. One moment that stuck out especially was her finding an advanced reader’s copy of a book in Ezra’s bathroom garbage with a blurb request attached to the front. This echoed Alice’s own concerns that no story she’d be able to tell would ever be important enough.

“You observe what people do with their freedom–what they don’t do–and it’s impossible not to judge them for it.”

In Madness, Amar is struggling to come to terms with his dual-identity as an American and an Iraqui. Laced between moments of his interaction with security at Heathrow airport in London, we see Amar’s flashbacks of growing up in America, his time spent in London, and his previous visits to Iraq. He, like Alice, calls New York City home: this is where he grew up. Went to school. Fell in and out of love. But what he understands that security sees is only one aspect of his identity: the Iraqui citizenship, his skin color, the assumption of his religion. In the holding room at Heathrow, he notices a Koran and an arrow pointing to Mecca, but doesn’t dare pray for fear he’ll be detained even longer.

What Lisa Halliday creates in Asymmetry is a multi-layered conversation about the state of publishing today, about the way we tell stories, and inherent privilege that comes with gender, age, race, and nationality. Crafted using quotes from other famous literary tomes, Halliday has written an intellectually stimulating character study that forces the reader to come to terms with how they view the post 9-11 world.

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