Is it fair to review a novel against its critical acclaim? Maybe not, but in this case due to the rainfall of praise, it is impossible to consider Asymmetry outside of this context. My expectations going in were sky-high.
This is a lovely and gripping novel that is well written and worth my time. I wish I could leave it at that. But one cannot ignore the collective gushing surrounding Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. The critics are enthralled. The verdict is unanimous. Everyone is stunned. A few emblematic quotes from major reviewers:
“Extraordinary. A politically engaged work of meta fiction.”
“Poses arresting questions about the nature of fiction itself.”
“Singularly inventive and unforgettable.”
“The book [sows] seeds that fiction will harvest for years to come.”
“A stunt of transcendence.”
I am wildly interested in novelists who courageously play with structure, who see the potential in moving beyond the mythical hero’s journey tale, who jettison the constraining traditional three-act form, who use dialogue inventively, who believe storytelling has the potential to be reinvented to reflect the realities of life all on its own, and not just as a prelude to a three-act screenplay.
Thus, I was excited to see these types of headlines when Asymmetry was released, anticipating a rewarding reading experience.
Asymmetry is structured in three parts. The first part is set shortly before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It is the story of Alice, a young aspiring writer who enters into a May-December (asymmetrical) romantic liaison with Ezra, a famous and admired author, a client at the literary agency where she works. They watch baseball, drink champagne, he pays off her school loans, he suggests books she should read, they talk about writing, they deal with his aging body.
The second part takes place after the Iraq invasion, and is set during a single night at Heathrow Airport where Amar, an Iraqi-American Muslim man, has been unjustly detained as he travels from California to Baghdad. As he sits, waiting, waiting, endlessly waiting, in the in-between bureaucracy of countries, he reflects on his life. First loves, first jobs, books he has read, and so on, mixed in (asymmetrically) with harrowing tales of the horror unfolding in Iraq.
The third part is a transcription of a radio interview with Ezra after he has, finally, been awarded the Nobel Prize. He talks about music, mentions a long-lost family, flirts with the host.
I turned the last page. It was good. I was engaged in the characters. Compelling even. But, while it was an intriguing distraction, I couldn’t figure out why it incited a collective critical swoon. I must have missed something.
And so, off I went, digging more deeply into the reviews.
Ah, yes, I did miss something.
At some point in the first section—and I had to go back later to find the exact place—Alice casually wonders if she might be able to write the “consciousness of a Muslim man.” One sentence inside the sea of their literary romance.
I uncover something else I missed. In the third part, Ezra mentions a young writer he knows (Alice, of course, but that’s left for us to figure out because she is cagily unnamed) has written a surprising novel about “the extent to which we are able to penetrate the looking glass, to imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own.”
Ah, I get it! Alice has written a novel about penetrating the “consciousness of a Muslim man” which turned out to be the second half of Asymmetry which was mentioned in the first part, and then lauded in the third part by her mentor-lover.
Okay, I’m tracking now. It’s a novel in which two writers comment on the craft of writing and one ponders writing about a Muslim man, and then she does that, and then later, the other writer tells us that’s what she was doing. A novella-within-a-novella, but sly, we're not really sure that Amar is a figment of her imagination. I suppose this is the innovative meta-fiction element the critics loved.
(An aside. Please read Erasure by Percival Everett. This is a brilliant novel that also relies on the novel-within-a-novel structure, embedding within its pages a commentary on the distorted depiction of race in a publishing world dominated by white gatekeepers.)
Back to Asymmetry. I wanted to like this book more. I wanted it to be a commentary about the accident of birth and circumstance. I wanted it to be a searing but sympathetic juxtaposition of the life of a privileged, somewhat vacuous, white woman trading her fountain-of-youth company for the literary connections of an aging white author with the life of a smarter, more insightful brown man who was threatened by casual whims of a world distorted by the very likes of the other two.
And while one critic did mention this juxtaposition as part of why she found the book exceptional, I had to force this interpretation on the novel retrospectively. That’s never good.
Herein lies the problem with this book. I found it lacking in any of the attributes with which the critics bestowed on it. Instead, it was two reasonably well-written novellas, or less charitably, character sketches, smashed together, with a pasted-on epilogue. It didn’t reinvent the novel. It was not innovative or especially creative.
A cursory look at online reader reviews suggests I am not alone in my reaction.
Given that I found it a pleasurable-enough book, is it fair to review the novel against its critical acclaim? Maybe not, but in this case due to the rainfall of praise, it is impossible to consider the book outside of this context. Perhaps this makes my words a commentary on the critical response, rather than the novel itself.
So, I try to understand. Why did the critics love this book so much? I come up with three possibilities.
Maybe because the professional reviewing cohort feel, justifiably, that the literary world has wandered into a wilderness of creativity (probably because of the corporatization of publishing and the drvie-to-the-bottom-line editorial decisions this demands, which would be a great topic for critics to discuss) and in this wilderness, Asymmetry was a lonely ember of gratitude for a work that wasn’t just another hero’s journey. They projected their collective hopes and dreams on to its pages. I can understand that. Sort of.
Maybe it’s because we rarely see Muslim men or women articulated as full three-dimensional characters in American fiction. And, on some level, critics were relieved to have a sense that the state of the novel is, well, more than (mostly) white people navigating their way through an existential crisis. Said another way, perhaps it's easier to confront the whiteness of publishing by raving about a book in which at least part of it might be loosely construed as confronting that racism. Guilt assuagement by proxy.
Or maybe it’s because the relationship between Alice and Ezra is ostensibly a fictionalized depiction of Halliday’s own May-December romance with Philip Roth, and it was fun for critics to be a fly-on-the-wall, witnessing heretofore hidden quotidian details of Roth's life. A young novice at the feet of a master who recently died goes on to publish a titillating sensation—that’s a cool literary fairy tale. But honestly, we all have more faith in critics than to think they fell into a hypnotic Philip Roth group-thrall, right?
I depend on critics to cull my reading list. I love reading reviews. They help me find escapist fiction along with a few authors who are boldly cutting against structural norms, destroying and reassembling fiction.
For example, Rachel Cusk, who also received glowing critical acclaim for her Outline trilogy, deftly succeeds in recasting the novel by using the conversations between protagonist Faye and those she comes into contact with in everyday life as the central structural element in the novel. This is life in real-time.
And in Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders ignores many structural conventions in favor of a fantastical pre-death lyrical world. He too was lauded by the critics, although not universally—there were a few holdouts. And while that novel didn’t work for me at all, I could see why it deserved acclaim for courageous stylistic innovation.
I cannot figure out what happened with Asymmetry. I’m flummoxed. But no matter. I still recommend the book. Enjoy it for itself without the critical context. And I’ll default to the assumption that maybe there's even more I missed, that the critics saw something I couldn't grasp. But I’m not going back into the book to look for any more breadcrumbs. Novels that need travel guides aren't interesting. I'd rather start a new book.
And if you are feeling like you need a vacation from the wilderness of recent American literature, revisit John Updike (specifically, the bold present-tense phenomenological structure that captures the existential crisis of Rabbit Angstrom) or Octavia Butler (her two-book Parable series in which she invents a new religion in between eerily predicting a post-Trump world of 2035) or Percival Everett (mentioned above. Please read Everett. You won’t regret it.)