Books on GIF #101 — 'Asymmetry' by Lisa Halliday

Welcome to the latest edition of Books on GIF, the animated alternative to boring book reviews. This Sunday's selection is ‘Asymmetry’ by Lisa Halliday.

I’m not going to take up too much of your time this week, but before we get into the review I want to take a quick sec to remind you that Books on GIF ‘Hard G’ T-shirts are still on preorder over at booksongif.bigcartel.com. Hurry up and snag one before they sell out!

I bought this book for Donna as a Christmas gift. She’s a big Philip Roth fan (we have almost his entire oeuvre stacked in a place of honor in our apartment), and when she heard ‘Asymmetry’ was partly a roman a clef about a relationship with Roth, she was like:

‘Asymmetry’ is divided into three sections. The first focuses on Alice, a young woman working for a book publisher who begins a relationship with a famous and much older author/Roth stand-in named Ezra. The second is about a man who’s detained by customs agents in Great Britain while trying to reach his brother in Iraq. The third ties them together in a way that’s so subtle you might miss it. I know I almost did, and had to go back and read it again like:

I won’t give it away here, but a clue is an early line about stories without quotation marks. My guess is that the intended reaction is supposed to be:

But I don’t care for books like this that hinge on some kind of literary trompe l’oeil. This is a nitpick, but I was also irked by how Halliday would mention an object, and then come right back and describe something else as being the color of the object. You’ll see an example in the excerpt below with watermelon, but I remember that she also did it with Midori. I am all for writers attempting to be clever in the pursuit of engaging storytelling, but I don’t think that happened here. I think the story was supposed to be about what a drag it is to get old, but also how in a May-December relationship the older person can be the inspiration or muse for the younger. I don’t know. Maybe I completely missed the point. Honestly, I was often bored, and by the end of the book, I was like:

When Donna and I discussed ‘Asymmetry,’ she wondered whether it would have been such a critically acclaimed debut novel without the Roth connection. I wondered that, too, and I can’t help but believe that it wouldn’t. Still, it’s clear that Halliday is a talented writer who can move a story forward quickly with punchy sentences, and I look forward to her future work. This book just didn’t do it for me.

How it begins:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of all this sitting by herself with nothing to do: every so often she tried again to read the book in her lap, but it was made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have any quotation marks?

She was considering (somewhat foolishly, for she was not very good at finishing things) whether one day she might even write a book herself, when a man with pewter-colored curls and an ice cream cone from the Mister Softee on the corner sat down beside her.

“What are you reading?”

Alice showed it to him.

“Is that the one with the watermelons?”

Alice had not yet read anything about watermelons, but she nodded anyway.

“What else do you read?”

“Oh, old stuff, mostly.”

They sat without speaking for a while, the man eating his ice cream and Alice pretending to read her book. Two joggers in a row gave them a second glance as they passed. Alice knew who he was—she’d known the moment he sat down, turning her cheeks watermelon pink—but in her astonishment she could only continue staring, like a studious little garden gnome, at the impassible pages that lay open in her lap. They might as well have been made of concrete.

“So,” said the man, rising. “What’s your name?”

My rating:

‘Asymmetry’ by Lisa Halliday was published by Simon & Schuster in 2018. 271 pages. $16 at Strand Book Store.

In case you missed it: Books on GIF #100 featured ‘No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again’ by Edgardo Vega Yunqué.

What’s next: In two weeks you’ll get a review of ‘Thin Rising Vapors’ by Seth Rogoff. Also in the queue are ‘Postcards From the Edge’ by Carrie Fisher, ‘Our Lady of the Nile’ by Scholastique Mukasonga and ‘The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish’ by Katya Apekina, among others. 

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Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this review!

Until next time,

MPV