LISA HALLIDAY’S DEBUT, Asymmetry, is not a mystery novel, at least not in the way that we typically think about that genre. But there is most certainly a mystery at the novel’s core, one that arises from the book’s structure — two seemingly unrelated novellas appended by a short coda — rather than its plot. “Folly,” the first of the pair, centers on the romance between Ezra, a famous novelist in his 70s, and Alice, a twentysomething aspiring writer. The second, “Madness,” features Amar, an Iraqi American raised and living in New York City, as he reflects on the ways that his life has diverged from that of his older brother Sami, a Georgetown-educated doctor who has made his life in Iraq. These disparate narratives, each featuring a discrete cast of characters, invite readers to question whether there is a thread that connects the two novellas — and if so, what it might be? These questions will keep all but the most perceptive readers wondering until the novel’s final pages.
Less mysterious are the patent asymmetries between the novel’s actors — imbalances of age, worldview, values, and experience, which create persistent internal conflicts and affect how the characters view one another and themselves. Amar’s story opens with his detention at Heathrow Airport en route to join his family in Iraq. During his long wait and questioning by immigration officials, Amar recollects his childhood in New York with his parents and Sami, his previous family visits to Iraq, and past times spent with his estranged American girlfriend, Maddie.
Despite a shared upbringing by immigrant parents who very much wanted their sons to be and feel themselves fully American, the boys’ lives take very different paths. Amar lives with Maddie on the East Coast and works toward his doctorate on the economics of risk aversion. Sami, meanwhile, is drawn back to Iraq, where he uses his medical degree to care for casualties of the country’s sectarian violence, marries a local woman, and has a child. Although Amar admires Sami’s choice, he cannot fully comprehend his brother’s willingness to sacrifice a comfortable Western life for the hardships and dangers of Iraq. But there are fissures in Amar’s facade of a fully assimilated American. His penchant for postponing even the simplest gratifications, his need for consistency, and his belief in religiously ordained destiny chafe against the views of Maddie and their friends.
I could see why she [Maddie] thought me hypocritical. On the face of it, it’s paradoxical to be so cautious in life, so orderly and fastidious, while also claiming to place one’s faith in the ultimate agency of God […] But theological predestination and free will are not necessarily incompatible […] Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. God has not predetermined the course of human history but rather is aware of all its possible courses and may alter the one we’re on in accordance with our will and the bounds of His universe.
In “Folly,” Ezra’s and Alice’s philosophical differences are, in many respects, the result of their vast age disparity. For Ezra, each day is a series of reminders of his own mortality. At the same time, Alice eagerly anticipates her bright future, and she uses Ezra’s fame and wealth as opportunities to expand her experiences and enjoy a luxurious lifestyle. While both Alice and Ezra find the 50-year age difference to be titillating in its impropriety, Alice becomes wary and impatient of the way that Ezra’s failing health dominates his conscience and, as a result, their relationship.
Alone together, together alone … Except of course they weren’t alone. Ezra’s pain was with them. Ezra, his pain, and Alice, barely tolerable envoy from the enraging world of the healthy.
The constancy of Ezra’s illnesses and Alice’s awareness that medical visits and prescription refills will be ever-present in their life together causes Alice to question the relationship. Will she be able to remain with him out of loyalty or gratitude?
Significantly (and without giving away Asymmetry’s secret), a common theme is present in Amar’s and Alice’s stories. In each, Halliday subtly examines whether fiction-writing has a purpose beyond art. That is, do authors, particularly privileged white authors, have an obligation to look beyond their lived experiences to write and engage readers about social and political issues? Or, conversely, is an author’s depiction of a culture or a place other than her own an inherently bankrupt act of cultural appropriation? Should authors write only what they know? Is autobiographical fiction the only authentic fiction? For Ezra, the answer is simple: there is no need for a writer to look beyond the boundaries of her personal life to create her art. Any work that is well done is an important work; its significance is not derivative of its topicality. Amar, on the other hand, struggles with the issue, because it is so closely tied to the way that he wants to be perceived, to his self-identification as an American.
Amar keeps a journal during his extended visits to Iraq, but finds that he is unable to write about the ongoing violence and how it affects the daily lives of his extended family. He reasons that his difficulty rests in the fact that he is an outsider. He cannot, in good conscience, claim to depict what he does not know personally, does not feel intimately.
After all, humility and silence are surely preferable to ignorance and imperiousness. And maybe East and West really are eternally irreconcilable — like a curve and its asymptote, geometrically fated never to intersect.
Amar marshals the writings of famous authors like Stephen Crane and Stendhal, as well as the opinion of his friend Alistair, an English journalist who spent time in Iraq, to bolster his justification for not writing about the turmoil in Iraq and to assuage his heavy conscience.
In exploring the creation of art and its purpose, and the authorial risks of cultural appropriation, Halliday has produced a skillfully executed, layered work — a novel about writers engaged in, and contemplative about, the act of writing — without the self-consciousness and overt intention that burdens so much metafiction. And while Asymmetry impresses at the structural level, it is above all Halliday’s superb storytelling that shines, a gift that she demonstrates by conveying with warmth, power, and empathy the individual journeys of diverse people aligned in their struggle to find identity, belonging, and purpose.
Lori Feathers is a co-owner of Interabang Books in Dallas, Texas, and the store’s book buyer. She writes freelance book reviews, sits on the Board of the National Book Critics Circle, and is a fiction judge for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award. She can be found @lorifeathers.