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.