Asymmetry (Halliday)

Lisa Halliday, 2018
Simon & Schuster
288 pp.

A singularly inventive and unforgettable debut novel about love, luck, and the inextricability of life and art, from 2017 Whiting Award winner Lisa Halliday.

Told in three distinct and uniquely compelling sections, Asymmetry explores the imbalances that spark and sustain many of our most dramatic human relations: inequities in age, power, talent, wealth, fame, geography, and justice.

The first section, "Folly," tells the story of Alice, a young American editor, and her relationship with the famous and much older writer Ezra Blazer. A tender and exquisite account of an unexpected romance that takes place in New York during the early years of the Iraq War, "Folly" also suggests an aspiring novelist’s coming-of-age.

By contrast, "Madness" is narrated by Amar, an Iraqi-American man who, on his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan, is detained by immigration officers and spends the last weekend of 2008 in a holding room in Heathrow.

These two seemingly disparate stories gain resonance as their perspectives interact and overlap, with yet new implications for their relationship revealed in an unexpected coda.

A stunning debut from a rising literary star, Asymmetry is an urgent, important, and truly original work that will captivate any reader while also posing arresting questions about the very nature of fiction itself. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1976
Raised—Medfield, Massachusetts, USA
Education—Harvard University
Awards—Whiting Award
Currently—lives in Milan, Italy

Lisa Halliday has worked as a freelance editor and translator in Milan, where she lives with her husband. Her short story "Stump Louie" appeared in The Paris Review in 2005, and she received a Whiting Award for Fiction in 2017. Asymmetry is her first novel. (From the pubisher.)

Book Reviews
Asymmetry is extraordinary, and the timing of its publication seems almost like a feat of civics.… Halliday’s prose is so strange and startingly smart that its mere existence seems like commentary on the state of fiction.… It’s a first novel that reads like the work of an author who has published many books over many years.… Halliday has written, somehow all at once, a transgressive roman a clef, a novel of ideas, and a politically engaged work of metafiction.
Alice Gregory - New York Times Book Review

A scorchingly intelligent first novel …a clever comedy of manners set in Manhattan as well as a slowly unspooling tragedy about an Iraqi-American family, which poses deep questions about free will, fate and freedom, the all-powerful accident of one’s birth and how life is alchemized into fiction.… [Asymmetry] will make you a better reader, a more active noticer. It hones your senses.
Parul Segha - New York Times

A brilliant and complex examination of power dynamics in love and war.
Sam Sacks - Wall Street Journal

It’s hard to deny, by the novel’s end, that Alice/Halliday has pulled off this stunt of transcendence. As with a gymnast who’s just stuck a perfect routine, your impulse is to ask her, what’s next?
Christian Lorentzen - New York Magazine

Lisa Halliday’s debut novel, Asymmetry, begins with a lopsided affair—a perfect vehicle for a story of inexperience and advantage.… Alice and Amar may be naive, but Halliday is knowing–about isolation, dissatisfaction and the pain of being human.

Asymmetry is a debut burnished to a maximum shine by technical prowess, but it offers readers more than just a clever structure: a familiar world gone familiarly mad.
New Republic

(Starred review.) [A] stellar and inventive debut, a puzzle of seemingly incongruous pieces that, in the end, fit together perfectly.… Any reader who values innovative fiction should treasure this.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) While the first story may have readers wondering about the characters' motivations…, the second builds a picture of life as a dual national, the eventual need to pick a side.… [T]hought-provoking…evocative. —Joanna Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Libs., Providence
Library Journal

(Starred review.) [A] beautiful debut…. Halliday deftly and subtly intersects the two disparate stories, resulting in a deep rumination on the relation of art to life and death. — Cortney Ophoff

(Starred review.) Two seemingly unrelated novellas form one delicately joined whole in this observant debut.… A singularly conceived graft of one narrative upon another; what grows out of these conjoined stories is a beautiful reflection of life and art.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Why do you think Halliday chose to title her novel Asymmetry? Discuss the central relationships within the book. In what ways are they unequal? Are there other things that are asymmetrical within the book in addition to the interpersonal relationships? Discuss them with your book club.

2. Alice tells Ezra, "I guess you could say … that I’m a good old-fashioned girl" (p. 17). Describe the context of this statement. How did you interpret the statement? How would you describe Alice? Did your perception of her change throughout the novel? In what ways?

3. Discuss the structure of the novel. Did the titles of each section frame your understanding of the narrative that follows? If so, how? Who or what do you think "Folly" and "Madness" refer to?

4. Amar recounts how at a dinner with Maddie and one of Maddie’s high school friends, the conversation turned to religion. Were you surprised to learn that Amar was religious, given that he identifies as an empiricist? How does he reconcile the two belief systems that are seemingly at odds? Explain his argument in favor of religion.

5. Amar says that his mother has told him, "You would be happier …if you were more like your brother. Sami lives in the moment, like a dog," and then notes with irony that Sami’s name means "high, lofty, or elevated—not traits you’d readily associate with [a dog]" (p. 149). Did you find yourself making certain assumptions about the characters based on their names? If so, what were they? Ezra’s name isn’t revealed immediately when he starts spending time with Alice. What’s the effect?

6. Amar "once heard a filmmaker say that in order to be truly creative a person must be in possession of four things: irony, melancholy, a sense of competition, and boredom" (p. 152). Do you agree? What do you think leads to creativity? As a well-respected author, Ezra is viewed by many as "truly creative." Do you think he possesses all the characteristics enumerated in the statement? Share some examples.

7. When they are discussing a homeless man in their neighborhood, Ezra chastises Alice, telling her, "Don’t sentimentalize him" (p. 38). Explain this statement. Why does Ezra object to the way that Alice is speaking about the man? Are any of the other characters guilty of sentimentalizing others within the narrative? What are the dangers in doing so?

8. Ezra asks Alice, "Do you ever think this isn’t good for you?" (p. 49) of their relationship. Why might it be detrimental to Alice? What do you think of their relationship? Did your feelings about it change as you got to know Ezra and Alice as a couple? Why or why not? What do you think they see in each other?

9. Amar muses, "Sometimes I wonder whether we hide lovers from others because it makes it easier to hide ourselves from ourselves" (p. 179). What are the reasons that Alice and Ezra give each other for keeping their relationship hidden? Do you think they’re being truthful about the rationale behind their actions? Explain your answer.

10. When Amar is speaking with Hassan, Hassan tells him to "think about the future." Upon reflection, Amar says, "If I were to articulate the prevailing impression of the… weeks I spent in Iraq …it would be to venture that the future meant something very different there from what it means in, say, America" (p. 222). Based on Amar’s descriptions of his visit in Iraq, do you agree? Why is it so hard for Zahra’s family to understand the concept of making New Year’s resolutions? Compare his world view to that of Zahra’s family. Do Ezra and Alice also experience different perceptions of what "the future" means? Explain your answer.

11. Amar tells Sami that the more time he spent in the Middle East, the more he understood why Alastair said "the more time a foreign journalist spends in the Middle East, the more difficult it becomes for him to write about it" (p. 226). Explain the sentiment that Alastair expresses. What causes Amar’s view to evolve? Why does Sami disagree? What does Sami think the role of art should be? What do you think?

12. Passages from several books are interspersed within the text of Asymmetry. What books do these excerpts come from? Why do you think that Halliday has included these passages? Did the excerpts affect your reading? If so, how?

13. Both Amar and Alice make unexpected disclosures to strangers—to the doctor in the airport and to the judge during jury duty respectively. What are the disclosures that each of the characters share? Why are they able to make these assertions in front of virtual strangers? Were you surprised by their pronouncements?

14. Consider the parallels between Asymmetry and Alice in Wonderland, beginning with the first sentence and including all the foods and beverages (and pills) Alice and Ezra eat and drink, the description of Alice's first ride up Ezra's elevator, Amar's reflection on rabbit holes, and Ezra's reference on page 261 to penetrating the looking-glass. Discuss these and any other similarities between the two books. What might this connection be trying to say?

15. Chad Harbach praised Asymmetry, saying, "Halliday’s debut novel starts like a story you’ve heard, only to become a book unlike any you’ve read. The initial mystery is how its pieces fit together; the lasting one is how she pulled the whole thing off." Were you able to solve the "mystery" of how the seemingly disparate stories related to each other? Talk about it with your book club. Did you find the stories more powerful by reading them in tandem?
(Questions issued by the publishers.)

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