Every now and then, I get a book recommendation from someone who either thinks I’m a far more highbrow reader than I actually am or is angling for praise in a “look at how plugged in/existential/woke I am that I have read THIS book!” sense. In the case of Asymmetry, you should know that this book came as a recommendation from someone that I, for whatever reason, felt compelled to impress.
Like one time this guy I was dating gave me a copy of Mann’s The Magic Mountain for Christmas. I did lots of mental gymnastics trying to figure out why he wanted me to read it or what he was trying to communicate with this gift. This was a fool’s errand because we broke up five days before Christmas so really, his early gift was saying “Now that I’m no longer in your life, you’ll have plenty of time to dig through this tome.” I finally decided that the thing did exactly the opposite of sparking joy or whatever and donated it to a book drive. (You’re welcome, person who finds “deep” inscription on the inside cover of an unlimited edition from the Barnes & Noble Classics collection.)
I think that the friend of a friend who recommended Asymmetry to me had great intentions. After all, the book has been on a million lists since it came out in July of 2018. The New Yorker dubbed it “a literary phenomenon.” The Atlantic called the story “powerful and interesting.” “Asymmetry is a guidebook to being bigger than ourselves,” crowed NPR. EVERYONE was thrilled with this new piece of literature. I was so excited to read this damn book that I ordered in HARDBACK.
Now, I actually wonder if the entire literary world has conspired to gaslight me.
Full disclosure: I read approximately 57% of this book so I may be missing some major plot points but bear with me.
Here’s the thing—this book is two books. Two and a half if you count the interview segment tacked on at the end. Reviews suggested that the two stories are “loosely connected.” I could not for the life of me figure out this “loose connection.” If you know what it is because you read more than 57% of this book, don’t even tell me. I don’t want to know. It will likely make me feel dumber than I already do. (For more on this, see below.)
ASIDE: “Loosely connected”—I don’t why some editor somewhere along the line didn’t gently suggest marketing the twenty six dollar hardback as “TWO books in ONE!” I know the whole vignette style can work well (looking at you, A Visit from the Goon Squad) but why not just stick to the truth and mitigate the risk of alienating thirty-something less-than-highbrow readers who feel anxiety that they are missing some critical clue that the rest of the world seems to have hooked onto? Why does it say in tiny letters next to Halliday’s byline on the cover: “A Novel”? A. Novel. This is preposterous.
Here’s the other thing—the first half of this book is exquisite. It earns every word of hyperbolic praise and it may actually break your heart into a thousand pieces. The story of Alice and Ezra is perfect in its execution and the writing is addictive.
Alice and Era sat on the bench where they’d met. They rested quietly for a moment, until Ezra said something about the trees that Alice didn’t hear for her thoughts—about where she was in her life, where she was going, and how she might get there without too much difficulty from here. Considerations complicated by this maddening habit of wanting something only until she’d got it, at which point she wanted something else. Then a pigeon swooped in and Ezra shooed it away with his cane; the way he did this, with a debonair little flick, reminded Alice of Fred Astaire.
But then, when Halliday is finished squeezing your heart with all this beautiful prose, the first story abruptly ends and we are thrust into the second story. Again, if there is a thread of connection here, I missed it. If you do read this book, I suggest a break between what I have come to think of as NOVELLA #1 and UNRELATED NOVELLA #2. A snack, perhaps, or a nap, or maybe a yearlong sabbatical. It won’t matter. You won’t have missed anything and a fresh start with this second COMPLETELY SEPARATE STORY is best.
And here’s the problem—the second half of the book was not terribly written nor was the story uninteresting, but I could not get into it. I felt betrayed at being thrust out of Alice and Ezra’s messy relationship—a place I could have easily stayed for another two hundred pages. But we are asked to pack up our emotional baggage and transplant ourselves into a story about Amar, a Brooklyn man detained at Heathrow thanks to some post 9-11 racial profiling. And THEN, as if that weren’t jarring enough, when THAT story ends (I skipped) we are suddenly presented with a transcript of a 2011 interview between Ezra and a BBC interviewer. Again, there are supposedly threads linking back to the other two stories but at this point I felt too betrayed by logistics to give it a deep read. Supposedly, this intrinsic link to Alice and Ezra is Easter egged somewhere in the second half of the book but I never found it. I could not finish this book.
It occurs to me that perhaps I am not the target audience of this book. I really wanted to be. I was thrilled that the friend-of-a-friend thought I was. But I’m not. I admit that I’ve experienced shame for this.
It also occurs to me that maybe no one gets it but, like some emperor::clothes situation, no one wanted to admit to not getting this book. This is a slightly less likely scenario than the one where I just didn’t read closely enough because I was petulant about this thing not being A Novel.
So, I place this book right below Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius on my list of Books I Suspect May Be Gaslighting Me. These are books that I just don’t get; books that everyone loves but I didn’t and therefore have the effect of making me feel like I have completely missed something from the jump. Which makes me feel stupid and naive and I’m transported back to the fourth grade when I thought New Kids on the Block was an improv puppet group that traveled from elementary school to elementary school to teach us about tolerance. (I wasn’t 100% wrong on that one.) Everyone else around me seems to get it and I don’t and therefore something must be wrong with me. Lisa Halliday’s novel gives me itchy anxiety because I have weird FOMO of being intelligent.
Again: it’s highly likely that I missed something with Asymmetry. But as a reader who reads a lot of books—sometimes even highbrow ones!—I don’t feel like I should be asked to reach so far to connect the dots.
But seriously, don’t tell me if you loved this book and the connection is so obvious you can’t stand it. I don’t want to know.
For fans of: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (why tho?)