Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $26
This is not a mystery.
I so would show off if I could do what Lisa Halliday can as an author. I felt the same way about David Mitchell after I had read “The Cloud Atlas.” Halliday seems capable of effortlessly creating different, authentic-sounding voices.
In the first section of her book, Halliday gives us the strange relationship between a sixty-something big-name author, Ezra, and a twenty-something, Alice, who can’t quite admit that she wants someday to be a big-name author. The relationship begins as a flirtation which becomes sex on demand for Ezra. In return, Alice at least gets writing tutorials and a pile of classic books to read. They only see each other when Ezra wants to be seen. We don’t know, really, what Alice feels. Sometimes we get a glimmer of warm feeling and appreciation and maybe even love. But mostly we view a fairly demure presentation of the relationship, punctuated infrequently by erotic or profane exclamations.
The second section of the book is from the first person viewpoint of a 40-something American citizen of Iraqi heritage. In the most current part of the story, Dr. Amar Jaafari is trying to get back to Iraq. It is around 2010 and security has tightened enormously around the world. He is stuck as far as we are concerned in terminus at Heathrow Airport, caught in a blind bind because he has been to Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries, because he is Iraqi, because he is Muslim, because of other wayward facts. Stories from his past are told in serial moments, other visits to relatives in Iraq, his first real American relationship with a woman, his ties to his family who are all affected by wars and terrorism.
I won’t discuss the third section because.
We are meant to think about the connection between the two. Halliday said in an interview that she first attempted to draw more direct lines between the two sections, but they grew naturally as separate tales.
Here is the real-life tale that actually plays an interesting part in Halliday’s book: When she was in her twenties she had an affair with Philip Roth, who was about seventy at the time. Don’t get your “ah-hahs” out, because it’s a red herring, I believe. It is Halliday who writes so convincingly from the viewpoint of a middle-aged Iraqi economist and his tales of life in both America and a war-challenged country. It is obvious that that is fabrication, since Halliday is a thirty-nine-year-old American white woman. So why can’t the first part also be a fabrication. Both stories have feet planted in reality, but it is Halliday’s gifted pen that tells both tales. By discreetly revealing her relationship with Roth to the press, Halliday perhaps has the last laugh.
Here is, I hope, a passage from "Asymmetry" that doesn't give much away. Jaafari is talking about "the metaphysical claustrophobia and bleak fate of being always one person":
But then even someone who imagines for a living 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's always the one holding the mirror. And just because you can't see yourself in a reflection doesn't mean no one can.