BOOK REVIEW: Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday — September 2018

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

The book’s title tells you what it’s about: asymmetry, which refers here to an imbalance in the power relations between the novel’s main characters, a young woman who works for a publisher in Manhattan and aspires to be a writer and her older lover, a highly acclaimed author, winner of important prizes, whose name is practically a household word. The novel’s mid-section concerns a young Iraqi man, raised in the United States (he has dual citizenship), who is on his way to Kurdistan to be with his family – his brother has disappeared. He’s being detained by airport security in Heathrow because of his ethnic background. In this case, the unequal power relation is not only between the young man and airport security, but between the two geopolitical units he represents, Iraq and the Middle Eastern Islamic nations on the one hand, and the predominantly Christian United States and Western Europe on the other. The book’s third section consists of a radio interview with the famous novelist conducted some years later by an NPR type. Almost a parody of the genre, its relation to the theme of power imbalance is initially unclear.

The concept of asymmetry is achingly portrayed in the first two-thirds of the book – the young woman is compliant to the point of self-effacement; Iraq is completely at the mercy of America’s giant military machine. But the situations are not exactly analogous. The young woman has a choice whether or not to remain in the relationship with the older man and, we’re never sure quite what she thinks of her renowned lover. There are periods of time in which she stays away from him with no explanation. The young Iraqi-American, on the other hand, cannot choose to leave Heathrow and, from several conversations about the war he remembers having been present at, we know that both he and the author view the war as a horrible mistake.

In part three, things become more complex. We learn that the young editorial assistant has become a published novelist herself, a hint that she’s written the book we’re now reading, which means she may be having the last laugh at her former lover’s expense, for while the older man in part one is depicted as thoughtful and kind in many respects—he pays off her large student loan, for example—he’s also narcissistic, quietly demanding, and self-important. Sometimes it seems as if we’re supposed to accept the relationship uncritically, at others to take her side against his. Are the two situations—young woman vs. famous author, and Iraq vs. the U.S.—supposed to illuminate one another? comment on one another? mirror one another? Are we supposed to have sympathy only for the individual or country that is being imposed upon? Or are we to find a way to understand and have compassion for the dominant figure as well? I finally decided that these open questions are a good thing, not a flaw. This novel makes us think: think about power imbalances (asymmetry) between the sexes, about power asymmetry between cultures and nations, about our own experience of these situations, about our own values, our own behavior, our own mistakes.

Beyond all this, the sheer virtuosity of the writing deserves attention. It’s hard to believe that this is a first novel, the writing is so assured, fluid, and well-paced. Lisa Halliday can command our interest in any incident or topic, whether or not it affects the plot or relates to the theme; her gift for keeping us absorbed in the moment is remarkable. There’s a wonderful passage where the young Iraqi holds forth on the subject of free will and predestination, and an incredibly life-like episode in which the young woman plays with the older man’s grandchildren, passages which, when I first read them, seemed unrelated to anything else. Later on, though, I realized that each subtly develops the subject of power and agency; you just have to look more closely.

The book’s third act–the radio interview–remains a mystery. The cat and mouse game that goes on between interviewer and interviewee represents a power struggle, but there’s more than one way to interpret it: for one thing, it’s not absolutely clear who has the upper hand. In any case, it seems like an anticlimax after the highly charged situations we’ve been involved in up until then. But maybe that’s the point: most situations we’re in contain a balance of power, whether it’s an interchange between heads of state at a world summit, or the interaction between you and the man who’s come to fix your TV. In the second instance the power relations for the most part remain unconscious, while in the first they’re front and center, but that doesn’t mean they’re not equally present in both cases. After reading this novel, you become more conscious of how much of your life is enmeshed in power relationships. A friend who’d spent his life working in Washington once told me it’s a good idea to ask yourself, in any situation, exactly how much power you do or don’t have. My guess is Lisa Halliday would have agreed with him. I’m not sure I do.~