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BooksAugust 7, 2018

How to make the story of an affair between a young woman and a much older man seem original


Stephanie Johnson suspects the debut novel by English writer Lisa Halliday is “the first flaring of a great talent”.

Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry is divided into three parts. “Folly” is the first and longest, and concerns a love affair between Alice, a young publishing assistant, and Ezra Blazer, a famous Pulitzer Prize-winning author many years her senior. The second story “Madness” gives us an Iraqi American doctor in transit in Britain and detained because of his nationality. The third returns us to Ezra and takes the shape of a transcript of his Desert Island Discs interview.

“Folly” begins with a nod to Alice in Wonderland. Alice is sitting in a New York park struggling to read a book with no quotation marks and tired of being on her own. A man with “pewter-colored” curls sits beside her and engages her in conversation. He does so the next Sunday and the next, and then invites her to visit him in his apartment, where he seduces her.

Alice is well aware of what she is doing by getting involved with Ezra. Like millions of young women before and since, she trades her youth, high spirits and beauty for an older man’s wisdom, fame and wealth. They have a mutual interest in literature and baseball. He extends her reading, feeding her the novels that were regarded as the Greats by his generation. The narrative is liberally dotted with excerpts from Huckleberry Finn and the work of Albert Camus, Jean Genet and Charles Dickens. When Alice seizes upon a novel by Camus, she rhymes the writer’s name with “Seamus”. Ezra gently tells her, “It’s Ca-MOO, sweetheart. He’s French. Ca-MOO.”

When Ezra reads aloud a letter from James Joyce to his wife Nora where he recalls how she farted while he fucked her, Alice is understandably disgusted, as she is by other writers. There is good reason why Henry Miller and his ilk have been dropped from any feminist-influenced reading list – their treatment of female characters is usually glancing, shallow, sexualised and disrespectful. It is likely that an older woman would not find Ezra so entertaining, or so loveable, but Halliday never stoops to lecturing or portrayal of victimhood.

There are aspects of the relationship that sit uncomfortably: at his summer house he gives her a fake name so that gossip about their affair doesn’t spread to the publishing industry. He sometimes calls her by the name of a predecessor. It takes him a long time to allow her to stay the night, with the usual pattern being for her to leave after they have made love. The first time she stays all night he wakes in the morning and tells her that it was a very bad idea. Alice is not dissuaded.

As the affair progresses Ezra’s health declines more and more, until there is no more sex. Ezra is aware of the unjustness of this, and worries that Alice should be with someone younger. But of course, as any reader will expect, having got to know the smart, decent and loyal Alice, she is in love with him and will stick by him no matter what.

Halliday and Philip Roth, on whom many believe Ezra was based

The lovers talk about everything and everyone, books, art, history and a little too much about baseball. Their conversation is witty, tender and amusing; their communication full of humour. Ezra can be cantankerous, made difficult by pain, and too full of the mid-twentieth century Lothario attitude. Throughout “Folly” the pace is fast and the narrative fascinatingly discursive.

The static nature of the second part of the novel, then, takes a while to adjust to. Ezra and Alice are good company and it’s easy to miss them in the melancholy of Dr Jafaari’s situation, walled up in an unnamed UK airport. Border officials come and go, the same questions are asked again and again, and between times the doctor relates the story of his birth on a plane in an international airspace, of his Iraqi family and war-torn nation, his American childhood and brother Sami, who is missing in Iraq. He recalls an early love affair, his years of study, his traumatic service as a doctor with the UN in Grozny and deep friendship with Alistair, a world-weary English war correspondent.

There are no speech marks and very little dialogue, which if Alice is correct on Asymmetry’s first page, should make dull reading. It’s true a certain amount of effort is needed to remain close to the narrator, but the world Halliday paints is so beautifully expressed, detailed, complex and colourful, that the harder read is worth it. She inhabits Dr Jafaari’s world as if it is her own. He’s courageous, knowledgeable, big-hearted and erudite, an admirable man.

The short third section, Ezra’s interview in the February before 9/11, is puzzling. It’s as richly informed as the rest of the novel, with asides on the writing life, depression, family and love, as well as riffs on music and art. Among the records he chooses is Kiri Te Kanawa singing with the London Symphony Orchestra.

But Ezra is also occasionally arrogant, repetitive, and tries to pick up the interviewer at the end. It’s as if Halliday feels she has to make a few things plain, as if she wonders if she has transgressed her generation’s current ethos with too sympathetic a portrayal of an old roué. The character becomes just a little puppet-like, whereas in the first part of the novel he is flesh and blood.

Although Asymmetry shifts in perspective, setting, era and voice, there is one constant throughout, and that is the sense of the fine mind working behind the scenes, spinning the trinity of tales. The sting on the cover is right: Halliday is the real deal, a truly unique, intelligent voice for our times. This is a novel that resonates long after finishing reading, which in this clamorous age is saying something. If this debut is the first flaring of Halliday’s great talent, then we have much to look forward to.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday (Allen & Unwin, $32.99) is available at Unity Books.

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