Double Jeopardy

Asymmetry: A Novel BY Lisa Halliday. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 288 pages. $26.

The cover of Asymmetry: A Novel

There’s a food truck that roams Manhattan, offering a Belgian waffle piled with bananas, strawberries, chocolate fudge, and whipped cream called the WMD—the “Wafel of Massive Deliciousness.” That WMDs can now be casually vended around the city signals the end of one era and the beginning of another. We’re still in the midst of indefinite war, but September 11 is no longer the center of our civic life, and the memory of it, like a kidney stone in the national consciousness, is being pulverized and passed, in cultural remnants, here and there. The activist books are still being written, but the post-9/11 era is now material for historical fiction.

Asymmetry, an astonishing debut novel by Lisa Halliday, revisits the early years of the twenty-first century, when the original WMDs were being invoked as reason to invade Iraq. As the title suggests, the novel is divided between two apparently incongruous sections, with a brief coda serving as a bridge between them. The first half, “Folly,” set in New York City between 2002 and 2005, follows Alice, a twenty-five-year-old editorial assistant, as she begins a relationship with a charismatic elderly novelist named Ezra Blazer. The second, “Madness,” pivots from Alice to Amar Jaafari, an Iraqi American who is being detained in Heathrow on his way to Baghdad. Though the stories initially seem unrelated, it becomes clear that they work in counterpoint, offering two perspectives on the aftermath of 9/11: one through the eyes of Manhattanites; one from the other side of the world.

In Halliday’s post-9/11 New York, war is a shadow over everything—a news broadcast here, a foreign halal cart owner there—though Alice and Ezra rarely talk about it. The two meet on the first page of the book. Ezra approaches Alice while she’s reading on an Upper West Side park bench and inquires into her taste in fiction; after she tells him she prefers to read “old stuff, mostly,” he asks for her name. When she visits his apartment for the first time, he searches her purse. Looking for what? Disapproving of her ragged wallet, he throws it away and buys her an expensive new one. From one angle, it’s flirtatious and endearing. From another, it’s domineering and paranoid. Halliday leaves the question open. Their relationship unfolds in this manner: myriad small interactions that may be read as either charming or sinister. He buys her an air conditioner for her walk-up (which he never visits) in the summer and a Searle jacket in the winter. He tells her to order whatever she wants from the Vermont Country Store and put it on his account. She never learns his phone number, because he blocks caller ID, so she can only wait for him to call her and invite her over. When he does call, sometimes they have sex and sometimes they watch baseball.

Halliday has said that Ezra’s character is partially modeled on Philip Roth, whom she dated when she, like Alice, was a young woman in the publishing industry. Yet the book is anything but a tell-all. Alice’s story, narrated in a detached third person, offers nothing to the reader in the way of interior drama. Her character comes into focus indirectly, through the stray remarks of others, the passages she underlines in the books she’s reading, and her interactions with Ezra, which Halliday presents without comment. Though the novel provides a few biographical particulars—a troubled relationship with her father, an ambition to become “a writer living in Europe”—her life seems to lack definition.

This is the basis of Alice’s attraction to Ezra. She takes on his literary sensibility (Genet, Camus) and sense of humor (corny). A budding novelist, she wants to adopt his life and memories. She starts reading histories of the Holocaust in order to be closer to him—or rather, to his New York, an intellectual world intent on historical memory but blind to the violence being perpetuated by the US under the banner of freedom. Ezra himself seems almost willfully blind to his own potentially damaging influence on Alice. “I’m afraid some man is going to come along and fuck you up,” Ezra tells Alice in a sentimental moment, the thought never dawning that he could be anything but her protector. A section break, and they watch together as Bush announces the invasion of Iraq on TV. “We have no ambition in Iraq except to remove a threat and to restore control of that country to its people,” says the television, echoing Ezra’s paternalism. Similarly subtle but audacious juxtapositions between their asymmetrical relationship and America’s presence abroad recur throughout Asymmetry, so deeply woven into the story that the reader has to work to notice them.

In Amar’s story, politics intrude in more obvious ways, beginning with the slight but never explicit racial profiling that lands him in a holding room at the airport. The second section, like the first, is full of carefully chosen details, but Amar’s story, narrated in an intimate first-person voice, differs markedly in tone from Alice’s—an abrupt shift that shows off Halliday’s impressive range. In Alice’s story, the frenetic noticings of a young novelist seem to close inward, making the world of upper Manhattan smaller and her life more claustrophobic than it is. (She is fixated, for instance, on tightening the screws in her toilet seat so it doesn’t slide around. What does it mean?) Amar tells his story with the same level of attention, but more lyrically, so that his life, even as he tells it from custody at Heathrow, seems to open out onto a wider view of the world.

Ed Atkins, Safe Conduct, 2016, three-channel HD video, color, sound, 9 minutes 5 seconds. Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York.
Ed Atkins, Safe Conduct, 2016, three-channel HD video, color, sound, 9 minutes 5 seconds. Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York.

Amar grew up in Bay Ridge, but his family has been ambivalently split between two continents since his birth—his brother, Sami, dedicated to Iraq’s rising status, chooses to return to Baghdad as an adult; Amar, studying for a Ph.D. in economics, remains in America with his parents. By moving from Amar’s childhood memories of Iraq to his encounters with it as an adult, Halliday presents an understated yet devastating account of the effects of the invasion. In the 1980s, it was possible for Amar and his parents to return to Iraq with relative ease; when they attempt to visit Sami in late 2003, seven months after Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” declaration, they have to hire a car in Jordan for the ten-hour drive across the desert to Baghdad.

For a while, Amar’s relatives faced the chaos with patience. “It’s not as though things can continue like this forever, right?” one of their friends says. By early 2005, when Amar visits again, Baghdadis have lost hope and stamina, and the city has sunk into a paranoia that hurts to read about. As the political situation deteriorates, Amar’s uncle Zaid, who had been optimistic about the country’s future, is kidnapped and traded among various gangs as a hostage. He is eventually shot and his body left at his house in a plastic bag.

It’s on a second read that the details of Asymmetry, and its meta-narrative, bloom with intricacy—even the most lightweight and slightly nauseating of minutiae reveal themselves as carefully chosen. Different as Alice and Amar are, their stories echo each other, bringing up the same images and cultural remnants in different contexts, and thereby revealing the inequities at work: The same piece of music will arise, the same speech about Medicare. Alice attends a New Year’s party: “‘Any resolutions?’ she asked the boy slumped beside her; someone had told her he had a book of poems coming out in the spring. ‘Sure,’ he replied. . . . ‘Quality and quantity.’” Almost two hundred pages later, Amar’s brother explains the concept of resolutions to his fiancée’s family, who find it insane. “Who are you, they asked, to think you can control your behavior in the future? Well, you know, my brother replied, some things you can control. You can decide you’re going to eat more vegetables. . . . To which Zahra’s mother . . . replied: But how do you know you’re going to be able to afford vegetables next month?”

Behind these seemingly minor asymmetries are deeper ones. Politics barely figure in Alice and Ezra’s conversations. In Iraq, all the conversations are about politics. Early in Amar’s section, he describes how as a young man Sami recorded his life in a diary to keep it from slipping away. Sami must constantly be on watch; Americans are able look away, watch baseball, and trust that everything will continue undisturbed. At the end of the novel, the American characters are alive but many of the Iraqi ones are not. In the last short section of the book—an episode of Desert Island Discs featuring Ezra Blazer—we see him, still vigorous in his late seventies, making a pass at the interviewer. (“I find you a very attractive woman and I’ve enjoyed this enormously.”) Sami, meanwhile, has disappeared, and Amar is still being detained. Alice’s last appearance is with Amar in the holding room, sniffling, in the Searle jacket purchased by Ezra. She has apparently followed her dream of becoming a writer in Europe. But she, too, is detained at the border, having left the protection of her father figure.

The novel never quite equates the geopolitical imbalances of the second half with the unequal romance of the first. Alice’s situation is not at all the same as Iraq’s, and Ezra is kinder, generally, than the US. But our personal lives do pick up the tone of our country’s actions—even our New Year’s resolutions have the mark of the Enlightenment, or of capitalism. And the US is now embarking, in the post-post-9/11 era, on an accounting of its treatment of both women and the rest of the world. While these conversations are usually separate, the genius of this book is that it recognizes the connection between them. Alice and Amar spend much of their inner lives constructing their relationships with Ezra and the US, respectively. But there’s no reciprocity there. On Desert Island Discs, Ezra half jokes that his ideal woman is a blow-up doll, because he doesn’t want “friction” (of an emotional kind) with women; earlier, Amar’s brother points out that Americans don’t want to spread freedom to Iraq, they want “simply not to be inconvenienced by the Middle East.”

Nausicaa Renner is the digital editor of Columbia Journalism Review and a senior editor at n+1.