‘Asymmetry,’ By Lisa Halliday
I read Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday. Why did I read this book? It was on the lists, and sometimes I like to read what’s on the lists. The New York Times, staffed by people who read, named Asymmetry one of the ten best books of 2018. It was available at the library, so I checked it out. But I knew absolutely nothing about it when I started.
Therefore, I was very surprised, upon opening the book, to find that Asymmetry is about having sex with Philip Roth. When Halliday was younger, she apparently actually did have sex with Philip Roth. However, in interviews, which I read after I finished the book, she claims that the Philip Roth character in the book is a composite. The experiences described in the book, she says, didn’t actually happen. Right. Lady, you fucked Philip Roth when he was old and gross. Just own it.
Unless she also had sex with Saul Bellow and, I don’t know, a three-way with Paul Auster and Issac Bashevis Singer, this feels pretty roman a clef-y to me. Sure, she fictionalizes some of the descriptions. Roth grew up in New Jersey, not Pittsburgh. But when Ezra Blazer, our Roth-manqué, complains about his bad back, or gives an annoyingly specific bagel order, or farts, it’s real, and authentically observed. He sounds like I’d imagine old Philip Roth to have sounded, pretentious, kinda funny, officious, and vaguely pathetic. At one point the narrator describes him as ejaculating like the burbling of a water fountain. Some people might find that disgusting. But the description has a you-were-there quality that I kind of like.
In fact, I found myself totally engrossed in the book for the first 120 pages. The relationship between Mary-Alice, our narrator, and Blazer, the not-Roth, has a genuine, sweet quality. It’s like a Roth novel, but from a woman’s point of view. What a fresh and welcome concept.
Not-Roth loves and manipulates in equal measure, and Mary-Alice is as passive and codependent as she is witty and likable. I thought, This is what it must have been like to have an affair with old Philip Roth. All Mary-Alice’s youthful yearnings, both romantic and artistic, feel real and well-earned. They almost justify the fact that nearly 25 percent of that opening section gets taken up by quotes from James Joyce books and by page-long transcriptions of terrible CNN Iraq War reporting. It’s Love In The Time Of Angina.
Then, just as the story almost gets good, Asymmetry cuts away to a 100-page novella about an Arab intellectual unjustly being detained in Heathrow Airport in 2008. An entertaining book of literary gossip suddenly becomes boring and pretentious and unreadable. I spent days savoring the first section, luxuriating in and cringing at a weird love affair. I zipped through the second half of the book while waiting for my son at the dentist, completely uninterested both in the story and the dull writing.
Why would she do this to us? Toward the end, in a fake interview, not-Roth says, “a young friend of mine has written a novel…about the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass an imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots of our own.”
Great. So instead of a juicy novel about fucking Philip Roth, suddenly I found myself reading a dumb puzzle box about how We Are All Connected. It became every other piece of literary fiction published in the last five years. On the one hand, Philip Roth got to spend half his career writing pretentious puzzle box novels about identity and the artifice of literature. On the other hand, most people hate those books and prefer the ones where he writes about masturbating. Mary-Alice could have written a pretentious novel, but we didn’t have to see it. We are not all connected. Sometimes it’s better to tell than to show.
Halliday, an obviously clever person, wrote a novel in the style of mid-career Philip Roth, complete with pretentious title. By gum, she did! Most people couldn’t do that. We could all dream of being blurbed by Charles Bock as having “all but exploded into the world.” But, in the words of old-school David Letterman, “we all know painful that can be.”
No one, other than maybe Pamela des Barres, wants to be defined by who they had sex with when they were young. But you only get so many unique experiences in life. If you have sex with Philip Roth, and if you write about it, then you have to go all the way. Otherwise, you’re just burbling like a fountain.