Asymmetry poses questions about the limits of imagination and empathy—can we understand each other across lines of race, gender, nationality, and power? The fluttering way in which Halliday pursues her themes and preoccupations seems too idiosyncratic and beautiful to summarize ... The book richly considers the diffusions of life into art, of my consciousness into yours. It is also a musical document, with characters that play the piano or devote a great deal of energy to considering which CDs they’d want to bring with them to a desert island. Like music, Asymmetry possesses the mysterious quality of a created thing moving through time, expressing its own patterns, its meaning subsumed in the shifting symmetries of its form ... Asymmetry stops short of arguing that novelists can leave themselves entirely behind; no person has the power to turn a mirror into a rabbit hole. The book does, however, evoke how our lives can sometimes blur with the lives of others, how a stranger’s features can occasionally ripple up the glass like an arpeggio.
Halliday’s novel is so strange and startlingly smart that its mere existence seems like commentary on the state of fiction. One finishes Asymmetry for the first or second (or like this reader, third) time and is left wondering what other writers are not doing with their freedom ... Halliday’s prose is clean and lean, almost reportorial in the style of W. G. Sebald, and like the murmurings of a shy person at a cocktail party, often comic only in single clauses. 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 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 novel shifts from one surreal adventure to another … [The] subplot develops the theme of true madness so that it can be understood in the main plot, which is otherwise simply full of stupidity, or folly … The stories of Alice and Amar hang, of course, in asymmetrical tension. One is born lucky, one not so much. Both are American, but one was once Iraqi, and so is subject to a total recategorization by ethnicity. Crucially, Alice’s world is an unreal adventure, while Amar’s is totally concrete. 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.
...a scorchingly intelligent first novel ... The two stories never explicitly intersect. A third section, a radio interview with Ezra, hints at the link between them, but the game — and real pleasure — for the reader is to trace deeper resonances. What does it mean that these lives coexist? ... this book is musical, not architectural in structure; themes don’t build on each other as much as chime and rhyme, repeat and harmonize, so what we receive is less a series of thesis statements than a shimmering web of associations; in short, the world as we know it ... On every page, you interrogate every detail: What are you doing here? Why do you matter? Asymmetry is not complicated, but it cannot be read complacently. Like it or not, it will make you a better reader, a more active noticer. It hones your senses.
Lisa Halliday’s debut, Asymmetry, a brilliant and complex examination of power dynamics in love and war, begins by redressing a longstanding imbalance in the world of fiction ... In countless books by a pride of literary lions from Saul Bellow to John Updike to Philip Roth, vacuous young mistresses have served as symbols of erotic salvation for the aging men who command our attention. Ms. Halliday has at last turned the tables ... The novel touches on the imbalances that skew and distort relationships between genders, between nations, between citizens and the State, even between writers and their subjects. Ms. Halliday matches her voracious intellectual curiosity with storytelling restraint, so these myriad thematic resonances never drown out the book’s comic flourishes and tragic twists ... But perhaps the most interesting thing about this stimulating novel is its fundamental instability.
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 ... 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 ... 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.
Halliday’s coruscating work takes you down roads you hadn’t planned on taking. Alice’s name is no accident; Lewis Carroll’s heroine is invoked several times. Even the book’s structure is initially bewildering. Asymmetry delivers two seemingly disconnected novellas, followed by a brief third coda. And that is the magic of this exquisite, impressive book: the way it plays with influence and assumption … The moment Asymmetry reaches its perfect ending, it’s all the reader can do to return to the beginning in awe, to discover how Halliday upturned the story again and again.
For the first few chapters, it seemed too tired and too insular a story to hear again all for the meagre reward of watching a lightly disguised Philip Roth ejaculate ‘like a weak water bubbler.’ But as Asymmetry progresses, its quietly subversive undercurrents grow stronger and the story resolves into an interesting meditation on creativity, empathy, and the anxiety of influence … Years pass, measured in Nobel prize announcements (Ezra, like Roth, always misses out), and then Asymmetry suddenly molts its feathers, as if a pigeon you had been idly watching from a park bench turned into a beautiful, startling flamingo in the middle of Central Park. A new book begins … Asymmetry is a guidebook to being bigger than ourselves.
...a book whose unusual structure is part of its fascination … It becomes clear that Asymmetry can be read as Halliday’s response to one of Roth’s own most famous books, The Ghost Writer. This, too, is a tale of apprenticeship, but in this case the sexual dynamics are different, since both idol and worshipper are straight men … The leap from the novel’s first section to its second is so great, and yet so intuitively logical, that it forces the reader to rethink the Alice section entirely: It is now clear that she is not a version of Lisa Halliday, but just one of the many voices Halliday can invent, if she chooses. In its subtle and sophisticated fable of literary ambition, and the forms it can take for a young woman writer, Asymmetry is a ‘masterpiece’ in the original sense of the word.
Asymmetry is not a mystery novel, at least not in the way that we typically think about that genre. But there is most certainly a mystery at the novel’s core, one that arises from the book’s structure — two seemingly unrelated novellas appended by a short coda — rather than its plot … Significantly (and without giving away Asymmetry’s secret), a common theme is present in Amar’s and Alice’s stories. In each, Halliday subtly examines whether fiction-writing has a purpose beyond art … While Asymmetry impresses at the structural level, it is above all Halliday’s superb storytelling that shines.
I might not have made it up the slope of Part 1 but for the rigorous constructedness of the book’s world and its sentences. Throughout the novel there is a sense of shimmering, almost Nabokovian artifice, only without the great man’s exuberant glee in showing the authorial hand — here, we’re never allowed to forget that the author is not a self-delighting puppet master but an anxious young woman … In the end, the novel succeeds admirably on its own terms. By gently politicizing her book’s aesthetic asymmetry, Halliday manages to have it both ways.
Lisa Halliday’s cunning tri-part novel is one of the most exciting debuts I’ve read in a long time. Asymmetry works on several levels, beguiling readers with two absorbing, seemingly unconnected narratives while exploring questions about what literature can do to transcend our personal experience and 'reduce the blind spots' in our lives ... we come to realize that Halliday’s book, like so many first novels, is about searching for one’s place in the world. What isn’t like so many first novels is the assurance and brilliance with which she manages this.
Lisa Halliday’s debut novel, Asymmetry, begins with a lopsided affair – a perfect vehicle for a story of inexperience and advantage. This romance is between Alice, a young woman in publishing, and Ezra Blazer, a literary éminence grise, who resembles a certain real-life novelist who is chronically on Nobel wish lists. The details of their relationship are sometimes painfully precise, but Alice’s emotions are mostly left to guesswork ... The shift in subject matter complements one in style: the writing is now explicitly emotional, and so far from the understatement of the first half that you might think it was a different book written by another author. Which is Halliday’s delicious trick ... Alice and Amar may be naive, but Halliday is knowing – about isolation, dissatisfaction and the pain of being human.
Halliday’s novel is a gutsy meditation on the despoilment of symmetry in literature and the lives flung somewhere about its orbit. Her structures and characters interrogate — sometimes with journalistic precision, sometimes with journalistic ambivalence — the imbalances upheld in establishment publishing circles, the costs of projected self-worth, Western imperialism, and what might be achieved by writing whose creator aches to feel personally responsible for it. Refreshingly, it’s a roving book about intersecting lives in which fate is never invoked; each major association between characters is forged quite nakedly from authorial ambition.
Halliday’s beautiful debut novel is written in three distinct parts … Halliday moves from sparse, purposeful prose in the first to an almost brooding narration in the second, and only the lightest touches seem to link them, until one final moment. The third and final section is an interview with Ezra, and it is here that Halliday deftly and subtly intersects the two disparate stories, resulting in a deep rumination on the relation of art to life and death.
In her first novel Lisa Halliday adopts a conceptual strategy declared in the book’s title, Asymmetry. It’s a title with multiple valences, but it signals that Halliday won’t be imposing coherence on her protagonists and their two very different stories ... In terms of tone and style, Halliday stacks the deck in favor of the latter: Amar’s first-person narration is more lushly furnished on the prose level than the fragmentary scenes between Ezra and Alice, which are told in the third person and largely through dialogue, with enough peeks into her head to convey the familiar ups and downs of the young side of asymmetric love ... It’s hard to deny, by the novel’s end, that Alice/Halliday has pulled off this stunt of transcendence.
The first section of Asymmetry feels sketchy, but the novel gains considerable momentum in ‘Madness.’ The prose becomes poetic and precise … In a third and final section, wherein the two novellas come together, Ezra tells an interviewer, ‘We have very little choice other than to spend our waking hours trying to sort out and make sense of the perennial pandemonium.’ Asymmetry is a thoughtful look at many forms of disorder and the eternal struggle to reconcile them.
Lisa Halliday signals that the world of her first novel, Asymmetry, will be more like that found behind Lewis Carroll's looking glass than the more prosaic one in front of it...Then, as if slipping through that looking glass, the novel shifts to the story of Amar Jaafari, the son of California immigrants from Iraq … In their asymmetrical divergence, Halliday's two tales straddle our off-plumb world in the first decade of the 21st century … Deftly combining two stories that are distinctive in style and content, Whiting Award-winner Lisa Halliday's Asymmetry is a stellar piece of writing and a bold debut.
This well written, often funny, but also tender and subtle first work demonstrates significant talent and has been acquired by publishers in some seven countries ... Halliday – who won the 2017 Whiting Award for Fiction – writes in a fresh, unobtrusive manner and seems easily capable of the stretch. Each of her three leading characters emerges with a credible, compelling perspective but most beguiling of her creations ... This is a strikingly mature and entertaining first work. Lisa Halliday’s first excursion is one to note.
... more Roth than Roth; in some ways, even more subversive, captivating and labyrinthine ... this novel is a literary event, one of the most engaging, witty novels I’ve read in ages ... there is a moment in which, almost by accident, the novel suddenly fits together in a swift, chiropractic snap. Without spoiling the moment, suffice it to say it is one of the more satisfying moments I’ve had as a reader, one of Halliday’s many genius turns that I never saw coming.
Halliday’s big revelation isn’t some jaw-dropping plot point. Her politics aren’t bleeding out of every turned page. You discover what she’s writing about as you go along, and then re-discover and re-discover.
...the rarest of literary beasts: a work with proper avant-garde credentials whose warmest reception might well be among gossip columnists ... Having introduced her characters so vividly, Halliday does little to develop them, and keeps hitting the same few beats. Most frustratingly, we get only occasional glimpses of Alice’s inner life ... Asymmetry is a clever and provocative mix of the kind of writing that gets read as autobiographical, and the kind that doesn’t. But it’s a bit of a lopsided read.
The asymmetries of Halliday’s assured debut, its daring structure placing three distinct sections obliquely alongside each other, might be similarly described, though the experience of Asymmetry is often one of withheld rather than released intensity ... a testament to the great intelligence of this novel, and to Halliday’s trust in the reader, that she allows us to connect the parts for ourselves ... a masterfully written book ... It is difficult to summarise without resorting to dichotomies (it offers one thing, then quickly reverses or questions it), and becomes more fascinating after you’ve finished reading.
...slyly ambitious ... The book’s two halves are also a contrast in styles. Either section could operate as an intelligent, stand-alone novella ... As the shared elements between the book’s halves become increasingly conspicuous, they begin to suggest a shared consciousness, in a twist that the coda makes explicit.
...deftly textured ... Asymmetry is a remarkably well-modulated novel, drunkenly sober, whimsically somber ... What Halliday sustains more broadly is an exacting control ... It hardly needs saying that Halliday’s dissonant hum resonates right now, that we (who?) are presently, constantly asking troubling questions about the personal and political asymmetry — and continuity — of disparate lives.
His [Ezra's] love and affection, his air-conditioning unit, his envelopes of cash, his Walnettos, are all the spoils of playing the daughter/lover/protégée in a drama of his devising, a role stamped with a clear expiration date followed by an uncertain future. What war could she write about? What does she even have to write about besides Ezra—Ezra’s books, Ezra’s music, Ezra’s holiday home, the way the steam rises from Ezra’s heated swimming pool? No one is going to give you a Nobel Prize for a novel about Ezra ... The second voice belongs to Amar Jaafari, an Iraqi-American economist detained at Heathrow on his way to Turkey’s border with Iraqi Kurdistan. Amar’s story is a funhouse distortion of Alice’s ... By showing author and character side by side, Alice’s raw material and Amar’s polished sentences, Halliday attempts to demonstrate how experience becomes a work of the imagination and then holds up the result to be evaluated alongside its origins. Alice’s book within a book clearly owes something to Ezra’s advice, his coaching, his library. It also hints at her conflicting feelings about him. Aspects of Amar’s time in the holding room—the tedium while waiting to be seen, the ‘almost filial affection’ he begins to feel for the customs officer managing his case, his involuntary arousal while being fingerprinted—seem drawn from Alice’s own asymmetrical relationship with the more powerful Ezra, reframing what had seemed like an airy confection as something darker and more ambiguous ... Only in hindsight do you realize the cost of abdicating your responsibility.
...a stellar and inventive debut … A singular collision of forms, tones, and arguments, the novel provides frequent delights and never explains too much. Any reader who values innovative fiction should treasure this.
Two seemingly unrelated novellas form one delicately joined whole in this observant debut … Though nothing is obvious about the connection of Amar’s story to Alice’s, the author gently highlights notes from the first story, and the juxtaposition of the two tales is further complicated—and illuminated—by the addition of a third and final section that brings them together. A singularly conceived graft of one narrative upon another; what grows out of these conjoined stories is a beautiful reflection of life and art.