Asymmetry, Whiting Award winner Lisa Halliday’s debut, is a pair of novellas with a unique narrative shift. What begins as the story of a 25-year-old editorial assistant in early-2000s New York turns into the tale of an Iraqi-American economist detained at Heathrow on his way to Iraqi Kurdistan.
In Folly, the opening novella, Ezra Blazer, a novelist in his 70s who suffers from many ailments, passes on his knowledge of books and music to Alice, an editorial assistant with whom he is having an affair. In her spare time, Alice writes about “War. Dictatorships. World affairs.” In Madness, the second novella, economist Amar Ala Jaafari experiences firsthand the war and dictatorships that Alice writes about, especially during flashbacks to war-torn Iraq and when he encounters the casual racism of border control agents.
The first section of Asymmetry feels sketchy, but the novel gains considerable momentum in Madness. The prose becomes poetic and precise, as when Halliday writes that the bustle in Heathrow “had a kind of prolonged regularity to it, like a jazz improvisation that, for all its deviations, never loses its beat.”
Both novellas deal with insecurity and death, and Halliday draws connections between the two seemingly disparate stories in many ways. For example, in Madness, Amar refers to Saul Bellow’s line from Humboldt’s Gift: “Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.” The same reference appears in Folly.
In a third and final section, wherein the two novellas come together, Ezra tells an interviewer, “We have very little choice other than to spend our waking hours trying to sort out and make sense of the perennial pandemonium.” Asymmetry is a thoughtful look at many forms of disorder and the eternal struggle to reconcile them.