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review 2018-04-25 02:14
Review: Asymmetry
Asymmetry - Lisa Halliday

"As soon as you are born the sand starts falling and only by demanding to be remembered do you stand a chance of it being upturned again and again."

I think Asymmetry may have a tough time finding its audience. It’s a difficult book for the casual reader in some ways: the prose is simple enough, but the structure is entirely a different matter. I think most readers are going to say “what the hell was that about?” while other more astute but critical readers will say “that was hella pretentious.”

The “problem” rests in that Asymmetry is three very distinct stories tied together by the thinnest of threads. “But there’s no thread at all,” many readers will say. There is and there isn’t. You see, it’s all very metafictional and I’m all about the meta. In Part I we have a young woman, Alice, from Massachusetts who works as an editor, dreams of living in Europe, and develops a romantic relationship with a much older National-Book-Award-winning author. The author of Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday, is herself a former editor from Massachusetts who now lives in Italy. Whether truly based on the author's personal experiences or not, it is logical for a reader to assume that Alice is autobiographical. And therein lies the brilliance of Asymmetry because we do not really know Lisa Halliday’s story, we only make assumptions based on the few facts we do know. But then Halliday goes in the opposite direction. In a time when we too often question the writer’s ability to write from any other perspective than their own, Halliday turns the book on its head and writes a very different story.

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 in our own. It’s a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author, but in fact is a kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.


In Part II, we’re introduced to Amar, an Iraqi-American man who is detained by immigration officers for an entire weekend. He reflects on his back and forth relationship with Iraq and America and with his family, caught between two worlds. It’s natural for the reader to expect some sort of connection to exist between Amar’s story and Alice’s. The reader is busy looking for it and any direct connection that exists is so thin the reader is most likely to miss it: at the end of Amar’s story, we briefly see a woman who may or may not be Alice. That’s it. But the connection goes beyond that, because if that woman is Alice, then she’ll go on to be the writer who writes Amar’s story.

Halliday nails the voice of Amar, proving that a privileged woman from Massachusetts can write from a perspective that she has no first-hand experience with. That's not to say Halliday doesn't understand Amar. Her story is reflected in Alice's as it is in Amar's.

...even someone who imagines for a living is forever bound 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.


Yet Asymmetry is so meta that I'm wondering if there's not more to it. For instance, in the opening pages, the young editor is reading a book that itself bears similarity to the novel of Part II, a novel “made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have quotation marks?” So is Alice reading the book that she herself has yet to write? Or is Alice not the author? Is the fictional Alice perhaps reading the book that her own creator Lisa Halliday wrote? Only now, as I write this, am I drawing the connection between “Alice” and her “looking-glass.” Am I looking too much into this? I'll just leave it at this and let the reader infer their own conclusion.

As I read this novel, I occasionally caught glimpses of other works and authors I have read, all of them Man Booker nominees: Eleanor Catton, Kamila Shamsie, Ian McEwan, Ali Smith… There’s a strong similarity in the tone and structure of the works. I will not be the least surprised if Asymmetry is not on the longlist to be announced in a few months. It's not a perfect book and it may fail in conveying its message to the vast majority of readers, but Asymmetry is such an intelligently written and relevant book that I'm sure someone will take notice.

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review 2018-04-02 22:16
Asymmetry - this book, the NYTimes & Philip Roth say I'm stupid
Asymmetry - Lisa Halliday

I am not clever, and this book is. I am not a writer, and apparently this book is literary criticism. In two main parts with a coda that wraps it all up, it was very clear that I was supposed to be making connections and seeing broad themes while reading Asymmetry (which I did, but I didn't particularly enjoy it, and I’m not sure I saw the “correct” themes.)

It feels like a book that falls over itself to show its importance. If a book can be haughty, this one is. And these big important themes are important, but when I think about them: reality v fiction, autobiography in fiction, power differentials made up by the accident of birth, luck, nationality, location, etc - none are new. They are all things that have been explored for ages. I got concerned that I am not smart enough to figure out books like this, then I got a bit irritated at the book for looking down its nose at me. Or maybe I can figure it out but I'm not smart enough to be bowled over flat. In regard to power, didn’t David Mitchell cover that beautifully in Cloud Atlas? Surely more than one book can and should be written about these themes, but there also needs to be something more, or I may as well read solely nonfiction, or just read the reviews and forget all about the actual book?

 

The format isn't so new or different. I just read another book similarly structured this very week. So I'm not grasping what the awesome is.

 

Asymmetry is divided evenly(!) into two sections with a coda. Part one entitled “Folly,” involves a young woman (who acts like a girl) named Alice (this is the second book I've read this year with a fictional Alice recalling Lewis Carroll's - and I enjoyed SYMPATHY a little more than this one.) Anyway, this Alice works at a literary house, yet somehow doesn't know how to pronounce Camus and hasn't read most of the books one would think might get you a job like that. Never mind, she's got the job and falls in lust with a much older and very famous man called Ezra, who may or may not be Philip Roth (well, he IS Philip Roth, this much is clear, though I sort of imagined him sounding like Alan Alda, apropos of nothing.)

 

Ezra/Roth/Alda plays Pygmalion with Alice, and she plays along enough to get her student loans paid, a good winter coat and various other things along with her newfound knowledge of all things chic and New York, then they sort of fizzle out. Throughout this section they quote loads of passages from other important books by Twain, Joyce, Camus, Henry Miller to musical lyrics and health pamphlets. They quote, read and have sex a lot, until they don't. By now Alice knows how to pronounce some words, has read some books, has gotten critical of Ezra’s writing and mostly she wants to make ART not be stuck with an aging man with health problems.

 

Part two called “Madness” finds us experiencing exactly that at Heathrow Airport's immigration holding pen where a young man is being racially profiled while they “just check some things.” Amar Ala Jaafari has “two passports, two nationalities, no native soil.” He was born in flight over Cape Cod as his family immigrated from Baghdad to New York. He is very American, but his name seems to be a problem, and his honesty about those two passports seems to find him even more. So Amar Jaafari sits in small rooms at Heathrow and thinks. His thoughts are a meditation on a variety of subjects from love to his profession to his family and lurking under it all is the state of Iraq and the war. In this section the writing conveys big thoughts, and there is very little work to be done, since Amar, his friends/acquaintances and family only say meaningful things and quote meaningful quotes. Plus Amar may be the most exacting and insightful person ever to enter an airport. Still, I liked him, and he is the only character about whom I can say that.

 

While Amar sits there, he thinks about things like his old girlfriend and their divergent religious views and says, “But never mind. We all disappear down the rabbit hole now and again. Sometimes it can seem the only way to escape the boredom or exigencies of your prior existence -- the only way to press reset on the mess you’ve made of all that free will. Sometimes you just want someone else to take over for a while, to rein in freedom that has become a little too free. Too lonely, too lacking in structure, too exhaustingly autonomous. Sometimes we jump into the hold, sometimes we allow ourselves to be pulled in, and sometimes, not entirely inadvertently, we trip.” (Get it, Alice?)

 

There are a lot of these big thought meditations, at a time when most people’s thoughts would include at least a few mildly pissed off diatribes, especially given the circumstance we eventually find out he’s dealing with. But instead he thinks about the self, the way we look at the world, never being able to subtract ourselves from it, “the incessant kaleidoscope within.” Mostly he thinks about the mess that is Iraq as he waits. But large and small keys to the earlier story are dropped throughout. Finally there’s another girlfriend memory: he wanted to call her because Sue Lawley’s Desert Island Discs reminded him of her.

 

So it’s not entirely shocking when the little coda comes and it’s in the format of a Desert Island Discs. The person they’re interviewing this time is Ezra Blaze himself. He’s just won the Nobel Prize - unlike Philip Roth -- after being snubbed by them for decades, just like Philip Roth. He shows himself to be the lecherous jerk I already realized he was, and he pulls the bits together a little more.

 

Again, maybe I’m really stupid. I am not a writer and I am certainly no literary critic. I am a voracious reader and a passionate advocate for good books and reading in general. So as a person who purchased a copy of this on the constant high praise and buzz, I’m just not impressed. But I’m sure everyone at the Times and Philip Roth’s circle would just say I’m pretty lowbrow.

 

 

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review 2013-05-15 00:00
You, Maybe: The Profound Asymmetry of Love in High School - Rachel Vail Good book. So true about first loves!
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review 2012-10-18 00:00
You, Maybe: The Profound Asymmetry of Love in High School - Rachel Vail Due to copy and paste, formatting has been lost.WARNING THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. THEY ARE NOT MARKED. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.Well. That was dumb. I don't think that I can even summarize this book without making it sound ridiculously stupid...grr. My reading slump has become part of life, people. It sucks. Big time. So, I just have a few things to say about this book. *glances at watch* First: I spent three hours on this book, and I don't...no. Just no. How could....never mind.I'll start off with this: Josie sucked. In the beginning I was all for her, because she did seem, (to quote the book jacket) independent and fierce. She seemed really awesome. She had her own opinions, and she wasn't afraid to express them. She was completely unique, (she was a clown!) she was funny, and I really liked her. For the first three pages. Then she started talking about how "Nobody dates anymore, they just hook up." "I've hooked up a lot. I like it. I'm fifteen." Then I was like, no. No freaking way. I don't think I'll like you, Josie.You're kind of ditzy. And worse yet, she doesn't want a serious relationship. She just wants to hang out and hook up! And she does, with two different guys at once! (Because that's so realistic.) And then, lo and behold, I want to be exclusive with Carson, the school's golden boy, who everyone likes. But I'm gonna tease him first. I'm gonna be a jerk, then maybe he'll like me! *DITZY*I shall date him, because he wants me so very much! He loves me! Why don't I love him? NEWSFLASH GIRL, HE DOESN'T LOVE YOU. He likes you. Big difference there. I know, that's very hard to believe. I'll change everything about myself, just so he'll like me! FLASHING NEON SIGN: DON'T DO IT, SERIOUSLY.She does it. She changes everything about herself to make him happy, and then he's a total freaking jerk, tells her that he doesn't love her (do you see my point??) and dumps her, then starts dating someone else. Plus, the ending was ridiculous.NOTE: I have nothing against this author, and I'm sorry if this rant has upset anyone. I guess I've just been in a ranting mood lately...sorry guys. :(
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review 2010-10-01 00:00
You, Maybe: The Profound Asymmetry of Love in High School
You, Maybe: The Profound Asymmetry of Love in High School - Rachel Vail I'm not ready to rate this book with stars. Its not that it wasn't good, just the opposite - it is truly excellent young adult literature that I wish I had read when I was fifteen (like our heroine in the book). The problem for me was that I went into reading it thinking that it was a light fluffy teen romance. I was having a really stressful week and I wanted to read something that would help me relax, unwind, and just generally get me out of my own head for a little while. This is not a book for that. It caused me to feel, well more, I guess, when I really needed something that just left me feeling dopey-happy/satisfied. The extended title probably should have given me a clue that it wasn't just another teen romance, and maybe next time I won't be as quick to judge a book by the cover art (which (in my opinion) contradicts the tone of the book).
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