In this week’s literary review, Eliza Quinn examines Lisa Halliday’s critically-acclaimed debut novel Asymmetry. Quinn examines notions of power and domination in the affair between a young woman and a much older man, begging the question: is this ok?
I adored it, contemplated it, felt challenged by it. I obsessively and annoyingly recommended it to all of my friends, at the slightest lull in any conversation. I liked it, and will continue to like it, because it does what any work of art should do: it made me think differently about the world around me and made me see things more clearly.
As the title implies, Asymmetry is about imbalances of power. Divided into three sections, we follow first the story of Alice, a 20-something editor, working in New York. Early on in the novel, she has a chance encounter with Ezra Blazer, a world-famous, Nobel-Prize winning author who is much older than she is. They begin an affair, which lasts for several years.
Halliday describes their affair from the third person, but not necessarily from Alice’s personal perspective. Instead the focus rests intentionally on their dialogue, their conversations with one another. Throughout the book, you never gain insight into Alice’s actual thoughts concerning the affair with Ezra, instead, their words and actions are methodically written down by Halliday, like an empirical study of the relationship by a cool observer. This detached, objective writing style demands of the reader to make their own judgement, to apply their own emotions and experiences onto the skewed relationship they are reading about. Halliday offers no personal spin, no clear bias, compelling the reader to make one for themselves. Most importantly, it highlights the gross imbalance of power between these two people, and asks the reader to make a personal judgement call on the question that obsessively rang through my head like an alarm bell: is this ok?
Because the power imbalance is there, unavoidably and unsettlingly there. From the beginning of their liaison, Ezra phones Alice when he wants to see her, the words CALLER ID BLOCKED telling the reader he has done so. He can always reach her, but she can never reach him. Everything about their relationship is skewed, with Ezra holding all of the cards.
When they’re together, he tells her what to wear and eat, how to act, and what to read.
What does Alice get out of it? The brilliance of the novel lies in the fact that we simply have to make our own assumptions. Through imparting our own subjective experiences onto the text, we come to know ourselves better and are forced to question our assumptions.
Asymmetry is a sharp and thorough examination of unequal power dynamics, posing questions that stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. If it wasn’t already blatantly obvious, I highly recommend it as a must-read.