Fiction: Three Lives, and the Tenuous Ties That Bind Them

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Together, Alice and Ezra watch baseball games on TV, eat appetizers purchased at Upper West Side delicatessens, hone inside jokes, attend concerts, read side by side and have sex. In many ways, Ezra, who has everything he could want besides a Nobel Prize, is Alice’s tutor — instructing her on whom to read (Primo Levi, Hannah Arendt), how to think (unsentimentally) and where to buy a proper winter coat (Searle on Madison Avenue). But Alice is early in her career and herself talented, which gives her an underrated sort of power, the prospective and untested kind. It might not have a name, but any young woman who has it or has seen it harnessed knows it’s real.

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Lisa Halliday Credit Phil Soheili

When Ezra suggests that their relationship might be “a little bit heartbreaking,” Alice refutes it. “I don’t think so,” she says. “Maybe around the edges.” The peripheral sadness is mostly a result of Ezra’s physical frailty (aqua fitness, a quintuple-bypass scar, 27 pill bottles in the bathroom), which is relentlessly remarked upon, both by Alice and by Ezra himself, though almost always leavened with sly deadpan exposition: “She gave him a cord for his reading glasses. He gave her another thousand dollars to spend at Searle.”

An otherwise traditional narrative of their romance is interrupted every few pages by modernist intrusions of text. A passage from “Tropic of Cancer,” one of the books that Ezra has bought for Alice, is presented, italicized and unsourced. So is part of a news article about the invasion of Iraq, and the phrase “CALLER ID BLOCKED,” and abortion clinic literature. In a novel that is ultimately about writing itself, it’s a clever device that allows for a realistic depiction of what it means to be a person who considers reading an emotionally instructive and intellectually legitimate form of lived experience.

The first-person second section — “Madness” — belongs to Amar Jaafari, a funny and morally serious Iraqi-American economist who is being detained at Heathrow in 2008. “Madness” switches between a present-tense account of “Mr. Jaafari’s” interrogation, and “Amar’s” memories of his childhood spent first in Baghdad — “a place in which you could not forget about politics for one minute, never mind the time it takes to eat a meal or read a poem or make love” — and then in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Though Amar’s problems are larger and more historic in scale than the ones that afflict Alice or Ezra (he is racially profiled; members of his family get killed), Halliday grants him apolitical, intricately private thoughts. Both his memories and his moment-by-moment experience of British immigration officials’ tedious, unjust bureaucracy are refracted through what Amar himself calls “the incessant kaleidoscope within.” He recalls first seeing the woman who would become his girlfriend and thinking she was “beautiful in the way some girls are beautiful despite having bypassed pretty entirely,” and instead of finding London “fabulous and enviable,” Amar feels there “the way you do when you take one step too many at the bottom of a flight of stairs: brought up short by the unexpected plateau and its dull, unyielding thud.”

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Credit Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times

Trapped at the airport, Amar lets his consciousness wander. He tries to reconstruct periods of his life of which he has no memory — “Contemplating the blackouts in their aggregate makes my breath come short” — and pursues epistemological puzzles with the casual and discursive intelligence of the truly bored. Even a novelist, he thinks, “is forever bound by the ultimate constraint: She can hold her mirror up to whatever subject she chooses, at whatever angle she likes — she can even hold it such that she herself remains outside its frame, the better to de-narcissize the view — but there’s no getting around the fact that she is always the one holding the mirror. And just because you can’t see yourself in a reflection doesn’t mean no one can.”

Throughout Amar’s account, tiny details from Alice’s story echo dimly though, enough to seem like coincidence: offhand descriptions of purple clothing, the music of Janacek, the vague phonetic qualities of Amar’s own name. Only in the short third section — not even 30 pages — do we begin to understand how their stories fit together.

The book ends with the transcription of “Desert Island Discs,” a BBC radio program in which cultural figures select their favorite pieces of music, which are played on air between interview segments. The guest is Ezra Blazer, and the year is 2011. He tells charming boyhood anecdotes, flirts with the host, and at the end of a convoluted answer to a question about depression exposes the secret logic of “Asymmetry.” The reveal is both astonishing and retrospectively inevitable.

Halliday has written, somehow all at once, a transgressive roman à clef, a novel of ideas and a politically engaged work of metafiction. “Asymmetry” is extraordinary, and the timing of its publication seems almost like a feat of civics. The effect on the reader feels identical to the way Ezra describes a piano suite by Isaac Albéniz, which he selects near the program’s end. “Each of the pieces builds on the last,” he says. “They’re discrete and yet all the richer for being heard together, and you just ache with the mounting intensity of it.”

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