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Saturday, July 28, 2018

Asymmetry (2018) by Lisa Halliday

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First time novelist Lisa Halliday has found an audience and critical buzz by virtue of the publication of Asymmetry.

Book Review
Asymmetry (2018)
by Lisa Halliday
Published by Simon & Schuster

      One of the vagaries of the interaction between the capitalist-market economy and artistic production is that an unknown artists best opportunity to become known is with the publication of their FIRST book, movie, album.  If an audience eludes an artist on their first try, whatever the circumstances, the chances do not grow, but rather diminish over time.   This is not, of course, what is taught to aspiring artists, who often focus on growing their skills and resulting audience over time.  Perhaps because the idea that if people don't read your first book they will never read any subsequent book is too grim to internalize.

   Conversely, if a new artist does obtain a popular audience and critical acclaim for, say, a first work of literary fiction, as has been the case with the novel Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday, it buts that author in a superior position to have all subsequent books taken seriously by both a popular audience and critics, and inevitably sets up the possibility of canonical status, often for the writing of the first book itself.

  The fact that a work of serious literary fiction can land a place on the New York Times Best Seller list, which is a hodge podge of celebrity, self help books and genre works.  Any place on any list by a work of literary fiction is impressive.  That, plus a sheaf of high profile, laudatory reviews in the critical organs of record: New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, etc is about as good as it gets for a first time

  If a prospective reader is looking for a "why" beyond the description of a smart book that combines a transgressive roman a clef with the problems of a Muslim-American trapped at Heathrow on his way to search for his missing brother in Iraq, there is the inclusion of Ezra Blazer as the much older love interest for twenty something Alice, a Harvard graduate, albeit one who doesn't know how to pronounce the name of the author Camus, who is trying to find her way in contemporary New York City.

  Blazer is clearly and obviously based on Nobel Prize NOT Winning author Philip Roth, with whom Halliday had an affair, in her 20's, when she was working for Roth's New York based literary agent's office.   As other reviewers have mentioned, much of the pleasure gained from Asymmetry from combining this no doubt interesting but hardly uplifting may-september affair with the story of Amar, an Iraqi American stuck in Heathrow airport.  The reader is led to suspect that this portion has been written by Alice, the character in the first section.  This gives rise to a series of interesting questions that can be loosely described as "meta fictional" paradoxes or complications.

 Asymmetry is, in a word, more than the sum of its parts.  As a first novel it represents an opportunity for critics to get in on the ground floor of an exciting new talent, and while a Pulitzer seems outlandish, Asymmetry does seem like the kind of debut that might grab the attention of the National Book Award, which has shown a fondness for young, female writers in recent years.

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