Despite its title, Asymmetry comprises two seemingly unrelated sections of equal length, appended by a slim and quietly shocking coda.
– Alice Gregory, New York Times review (2018)
Gregory’s phrase “shocking coda”—and her “seemingly,” I suppose—has ruined me for this book. I am reading like a doctor.
The novel, by Lisa Halliday, starts with a young woman half-reading a book on a park bench. She is an editorial assistant in New York, and on this day she meets a famous author several decades her senior. The meeting is headed toward another meeting, and then toward sex, and a relationship, and a cliffhanger of sorts. The young woman calls herself Alice but the author calls her Mary-Alice, the name on her license. For some twenty pages Alice refers to the author only as “the writer.” On p. 24 we learn his name is Ezra and on p. 43 his full name is spoken: Ezra Blazer. The title of this section is Folly.
After Folly comes Madness. This section describes the thoughts of Amar Ala Jaafari, born to Iraqi parents on a plane “high over the elbow of Cape Cod” and raised in New York, who is in 2008 being held for questioning somewhere in Heathrow Airport (131). Amar’s flashbacks and musings recall family debates, romances, and deaths in Iraq and Kurdistan; his job with a bioethics council and volunteer work at a children’s hospital in London; his friendship with a wartime reporter; and his childhood in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, before and after his brother Sami’s return to Iraq. Mostly, though, the reader hears what Amar, an economist, thinks about time, consciousness, memory, ambition, and Iraq’s present and future.
There is, I gather, no definitive link between the first and second sections except in traces—a scrap of a quotation, a composer’s name, an idea of Amar’s that sounds like one of Alice’s, or Ezra’s. That link will materialize in the final part of the book, called Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs, about which Gregory writes: “Only in the short third section—not even 30 pages—do we begin to understand how their stories fit together.”
I am eager to become one of Gregory’s “we.” Her promise has honed my reading into a single-minded drive to discover; I have become more attentive to detail, yes, but only because I’m hungry for the answer and I don’t want to miss it. Here in the midst of Madness, I read everything as a potential clue, a possible key. How will the stories fit together? Did Amar’s name appear in that strangely prominent list of names Alice records at jury duty, each one on its own line? Or is he the Muslim man Alice overhears saying his uncle “live[s] in suspicion of music” (105)? Will Alice appear somehow in one of Amar’s flashbacks? Will he find an Ezra Blazer novel on the table in the holding room, among the newspapers and German edition of Eat Pray Love and the Japanese Vogue?
What I’m doing here is turning an inventive, bracing, unusual novel into a Law & Order rerun, scanning any new face for signs of villainy so that I can guess who the bad guy is before they tell me. This analogy reveals two premises: 1) I believe there is only one answer to be found and 2) that answer will soon become obvious. I’ll be like House, M.D., or the hero in a recent headline for Dr. Lisa Sanders’s “Diagnosis” column: Her Various Symptoms Seemed Unrelated. Then One Doctor Put It All Together.
Indeed, it is in this hyperattentive mode that I cannot help but notice, and process as a sign, the frequency with which medical descriptions, procedures, instructions, settings, treatments, turning points, and personnel crop up. I take this to mean that the novel is in some important way about medicine. Granted that about-ness, I take my oddly driven experience of reading to mean that in some slanted way, Asymmetry is representing medicine, or at least the search for a diagnosis, as an impatient, single-minded endeavor that leaves little space for anything but detection.
At this point, however, my investigation lacks the necessary information. I can’t tell you how the symptoms of Alice, Ezra, and Amar relate because I don’t yet know. I am on p. 236 and the third section does not begin until p. 245.
* * *
Tendering the above interpretation—that Asymmetry is a critique of modern medicine—before reaching its end is my weak impression of the scientific method. After the experiment was over and I had finished the novel, though, I found my hypothesis to be wrong. Halliday’s wispy metafictional webbing is far looser than the last act of a Law & Order episode, and I would call the coda more brow-furrowing or winking than shocking. Taking this section at its word, it is interested in the songs and their associations Ezra would want with him on a desert island. While the interviewer asking Ezra questions could be said to stand in for a diagnosing urge, the prevailing mode here is not medicine but music.
My misreading stems from an overreliance on a book review, of course, but it unearths a second misreading: the caricature of the doctor-as-ruthless-detective, who sees puzzles rather than patients (or partners) and whose main motivation is not to heal but to diagnose.
Let me close with three rebukes to that caricature. First, the novel’s. Amar, who bucks the family’s hopes by becoming an economist rather than a doctor, is the one constantly looking past the present in anticipation of some future reward, not his doctor brother Sami: “my mind is always turning over the question of how I’m going to feel later, based on what I’m doing now. Later in the day. Later in the week. Later in a life starting to look like a series of activities designed to make me feel good later, but not now” (149). Sami, by contrast, “lives in the moment” (149)—and he is described as serene and contented even after his job shifts from “nose jobs, breast jobs, liposuction, and hip replacements” to treating bomb victims and victims of torture (208). Contrasting orientations toward the future are also explored at length, and with humor, when the topic of New Year’s resolutions comes up at Sami’s in-laws’ home in Kurdistan.
Sami’s specific trait, and not just the fact that a doctor character has a fine personality, is the point here. His ability to encounter the story as it unfolds rather than mentally speeding past it stands against both Amar’s tendency toward self-distancing and my own readerly rush. He thwarts both of my misreadings. (Quick aside here: do seek out Mark Currie’s superb work on narrative and structural prolepsis in fiction, where he mounts a rich and convincing argument that traditional retrospective narration, along with proliferating digital media, is teaching us to be more like Amar.)
The second rebuke to my argument is this recent post by first-year medical student Catherine Parker, in which she reveals a medical training geared to creating Samis, not Amars. Parker describes the many steps that take place between clinician and patient before an exam is performed or a test considered: the great attention paid to how one enters the room, the imperative to use open-ended questions and listen actively to the answers, and the in-the-moment check-ins with patients to confirm that they are being heard.
Finally, in the 2016 The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine, Rita Charon writes on behalf of the book’s authors about what the methods of narrative medicine make possible for medical education and practice. Here’s the line that caught my eye: “An egality that emits from storytelling itself levels even hard-bitten power asymmetries” (5). Then Charon proceeds, as Halliday does, from medicine to music. “Overtones, or harmonics, of care and unity are achievable in a healthcare that becomes a service at the command of patients rather than a professional monopoly that serves the interests of the institutions who deliver it. All who seek care and all who seek to give care can unite in a clearing of safety, of purpose, of vision, and unconditional commitment to the interests of patients. This is the vision of narrative medicine” (5). In one way a brilliant object lesson for Charon’s vision, Halliday successfully engages asymmetries of age, money, health, fame, stability, and culture through storytelling. In another way, though, Halliday seeks not to level these asymmetries but to take their measure.
Charon, Rita, Sayantani DasGupta, Nellie Hermann, Craig Irvine, Eric R. Marcus, Edgar Rivera Colón, Danielle Spencer, and Maura Spiegel. The Principles and Practices of Narrative Medicine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Currie, Mark. “Prolepsis.” In About Time: Narrative, Fiction and the Philosophy of Time, 29-50. Frontiers of Theory Series, edited by Martin McQuillan. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.
Gregory, Alice. “Three Lives, and the Tenuous Ties That Bind Them. Review of Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday.” New York Times, Feb. 12, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/12/books/review/lisa-halliday-asymmetry.html
Halliday, Lisa. Asymmetry. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.
NOTE: This post was revised on February 27, 2018.