Through the Looking-Glass: Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry

Asymmetry is Lisa Halliday’s debut novel and she is clearly a writer to watch.

The novel begins with a meet cute. Alice is a recent college graduate who works in publishing in New York. She is reading in the park when a man, much older, sits down beside her with an ice cream cone from the Mister Softee truck. Alice knows immediately who he is: Ezra Blazer, Pulitzer-but-not-yet-Nobel-prize winning writer of a series of famous and influential books. (Blazer is clearly modeled on Philip Roth, with whom Halliday was at one time apparently involved. The most preposterous thing in the book is that people whose lives his books have changed keep recognizing him; surely that doesn’t happen even to Roth.)


Blazer tells her a middlingly funny joke and invites her over. In no time at all they are having just-a-little-bit-disappointing sex (gingerly because of his back), and watching baseball (it is 2004 and Alice is a Red Sox fan, much to Ezra’s disgust). Alice is something between personal assistant and girlfriend, running by Zabar’s to get Ezra’s favourite brand of preserves. He gives her things, some little (a sheet of stamps with the portraits of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters he introduces her to, various CDs, a wallet), some not (he pays off her student loans). He invents a persona for her (complete with fake business cards), passing her off as Samantha Bargeman, his research assistant, so that she can join him at his summer place. He gives her books to read.

It’s a May-December romance. Well, not really. She is part caretaker, part lover. He is on the verge of failing health, all colonoscopies and forgetfulness. It’s a bit tender and a bit not. It’s a Pygmalion story. Alice is lucky. Alice is put upon. Alice is being used. Alice is some kind of man’s fantasy:

Sweetheart,” he said. “I can’t wear a condom. Nobody can.”


“So what are we going to do about diseases?”

“Well, I trust you, if you—“

“You shouldn’t trust anyone. What if you become pregnant?”

“Oh don’t worry about that. I’d have an abortion.”

Before too long, in other words, readers are likely to feel disquieted, indignant, uncomfortable, or worse about the relationship. Ezra is kind of funny and kind of wise but he’s also kind of insufferable. In the hospital after being beset by chest pains, Ezra watches spellbound as a couple across the cubicle lay hands on each other and pray to Jesus: “he could never get enough of humanity, so long as it slept in another room.”

This tart observation is Alice’s—the first third of the book is focalized through her. Clearly, Alice isn’t just a push-over. In fact, the book is more complicated and stranger than I’ve made it out to be. Take the opening. I said Alice was sitting on a park bench, reading. Here’s how it actually 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.

That opening clause carries the suggestion that Alice is restless, ready for something to happen. Is she waiting for someone like Ezra? Has she conjured him? The preciousness of Alice’s impatience with literary pretension sounds like something from a beloved, twee, almost certainly English children’s book. If Alice’s name weren’t clue enough, the epigraph to the first section—revealingly entitled “Folly—is from Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice. (Her last name is Dodge, too, pretty close to Dodgson.) From the beginning, Halliday is taking us down a rabbit hole. But it takes a long time to figure out just how intricate are its twists.

I can’t talk about the book anymore without revealing some secrets. They aren’t crime-fiction-whodunit secrets, but they explain what makes the book unusual and interesting. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

When Ezra plumps down beside her, she is wondering—“somewhat foolishly, for she was not very good at finishing things”—“whether one day she might even write a book herself.” And Alice does.

But we don’t know that until the end of the book, in a short section that is a transcript of Blazer’s appearance on the BBC radio program Desert Island Discs. Asked whether he has ever suffered from depression, Blazer starts riffing on how nations and economies can suffer depression, finding his way into a screed about the complacency of American power. Then he says:

A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel about this, in its way. About the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass [WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT ALICE?] and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own. It’s a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author, but in fact is as kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.

This information is slipped into a section that serves to amplify whatever reservations we have may had about Ezra. With increasing desperation and lack of self-consciousness he attempts to seduce the radio host, and his chutzpah sheds itself of the last vestiges of any charm. But readers of the book—as opposed to listeners to the program—will seize on the information, because it explains the second part of the book, titled “Madness”, which seems to have nothing to do with what’s come before and what comes after. “Madness” tells the story of Amar Jafaari, an Iraqi American, an economist, who is held by immigration officials at Heathrow on his way to visit his brother, a doctor, in Kurdistan. Amar reflects on his childhood visits to family in Iraq, in the schism in the family caused by his brother’s decision to return to Iraq, and his despairing feelings, shared by everyone in his extended family, of how much worse and less safe American intervention has made life. Halliday works brilliantly on our latent prejudices. The authorities refuse to allow Amar to enter the UK, and we keep wondering, despite all the evidence to the contrary, whether they know something we don’t. Could this intelligent, polite, and thoughtful young man be a threat? Is he part of some kind of terror plot?


The answer is no (though that doesn’t stop British officials have detaining him in airport immigration limbo until he can get on a flight to Turkey), but the point is that we’ve wondered. The epistemological uncertainty of this moment is encapsulated in a bizarre scene in which Amar is forced to undergo a medical examination even though there is nothing wrong with him. Everything in the immigration scenes feels threatening, deadening boredom adding to rising indignation. Even more amazing than these scenes in the airport are those set in Iraq and Kurdistan, in which Halliday shows the increasing despair of Iraqis, the way they begin to take precautions like never taking the same route home or to work; to this she adds the surreal parallel life of foreign reporters and NGO officials, where drunken pool parties manifest the heartbreak and cynicism that comes from reporting on others’ suffering.

Amar’s section—which resonates with Alice’s in all kinds of small ways: remember that exchange between Ezra and Alice about what would happen if she got pregnant? Well, Amar remembers accompanying a college friend to get an abortion—feels vivid, relevant, and plain old interesting. I feel like I know Ezra’s history (he explains it to the BBC radio host). And I feel like I know Alice’s world, and can imagine it intersecting with Ezra’s. But I don’t know much of anything about Amar’s (though I understand, in a much milder, safer, and more privileged way, Amar’s frightening and frustrating experiences with immigration officials).

Because Ezra and Alice’s worlds were familiar to me, I was able to note something a little destabilizing in Halliday’s portrayals of them—the way we were meant to see how Alice wasn’t only undermined or oppressed by Ezra, for example. But I don’t have a comparable seismograph for reading Amar’s story. Which is part of the point. My readiness to find Amar’s story not exotic—Halliday is too sophisticated for that—but fascinating because foreign is built into the novel. Maybe I find Amar’s story so fascinating and plausible because it fits with little snippets of things I’ve heard on NPR or read in the New York Times. Maybe I’m just congratulating myself on encountering foreignness, on expanding my readerly horizons.

Literature is good at introducing us to foreign worlds. But I think what Halliday is doing here is asking us to think about what we mean when we say that. In that sense, her book can be taken as an intelligent contribution to the anxious debate about cultural appropriation: as Ezra puts it, it suggests we can “penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own.” (The specific looking-glass here is the one-way mirror Amar knows is there in the immigration holding area but which he cannot see.) Ezra goes on to add that this portrait of the other, no matter how convincing and flattering to our liberal sensibilities, is really a disguised portrait of the self, such that any encounter with otherness might be deemed impossible.

That’s a compelling reading, but Ezra is shown to be such a fraud, or at least, such a pain in the ass, that I don’t think we should take it at face value. I think Halliday believes we can learn something from the stories of others as long as we don’t start congratulating ourselves for it, as long as we don’t forget that what we are seeing as the other might just be a version of what we’ve been told to see (which isn’t quite the same as seeing only ourselves).

In this way we come to see the justness of Halliday’s title. She isn’t just referencing the odd, unbalanced, only tangentially connected structure of her narrative. Asymmetry inheres not just in art but also in life. The relationship between the west and the rest, and between those who have and those who don’t is anything but balanced. The connection between art and life arises, for this novel, in the idea of storytelling. Whose story gets to be told? Whose stories are finished and whose are left hanging?


The other asymmetrical relationship important to the book is the one between men and women. If anything is clear in this slippery book it is its indictment of white male privilege. Ezra isn’t as charming as thinks: his avuncularity is a mask for a pretty ruthless narcissism that requires that he fascinate women all out of proportion to the quality of his character. Halliday deftly makes us turn against Ezra.

But even as I admired her skill here—she never casts aspersions on his work, for example; too many people are doing that these days with Roth—I was troubled by her example of insufferable male privilege. Ezra doesn’t just happen to be Jewish; his Jewishness is at times part of what the book finds irritating about him. It’s true that a disproportionate number of the most prominent abusers who have come to light in the past year or so are Jewish. And in my opinion Jewish men need to have a reckoning about their masculinity and how it’s tied to some dangerous ideas about authority. But I don’t think this book is enabling that conversation. I don’t think it’s interesting enough about Jewishness, except to tie it in a careless way to Ezra’s (and by extension, through his friends and acquaintances and the cultural institutions they are shown to have built, to his generation’s) carelessness and entitlement.

That aspect of the novel disturbed me. But I liked how it kept evading my grasp. When we say a book is slippery we often mean it is confusing or that it is cutely self-referential. But this slipperiness is as thorough going as it is thought provoking. I’ll read her next book with interest.



Mihail Sebastian Giveaway


In the latest issue of Open Letters Monthly I write about the Roman writer Mihail Sebastian, whose rediscovered masterpiece For Two Thousand Years (1934) is available in a brilliant new translation.


Thanks to the good people at Other Press, I have an extra galley of the book to give away. If you’re interested, leave a comment below; I’ll draw a name at random at 6 p.m. Central Time on Sunday, October 8th (North American addresses only, I’m afraid.)

It’s such a good book–maybe my book of the year; I encourage you to enter!


“A Soviet Critic from Within”: a Vasily Grossman Q & A with Marat Grinberg


Over the last couple of weeks I’ve posted several times on Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate. You can read my introductory thoughts on the novel, my thoughts on Grossman’s use of character and lists, and the place of the Holocaust in the novel.

Although I’ve spent a lot of time with this book and even have some expertise with its subject matter, especially its use of the Holocaust, I don’t know much about Soviet writing, and I can’t read Russian. So I was eager to reach out to a friend who is an expert on these things.

Marat Grinberg received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and is Associate Professor of Russian and Humanities at Reed College. He is the author of “I am to Be Read not from Left to Right, but in Jewish: from Right to Left”: The Poetics of Boris Slutsky (2011) and co-editor of Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen (2013). His most recent essays on literature and cinema have appeared in the LA Review of Books, Commentary, Tablet Magazine, and Cineaste. His latest book is Aleksandr Askol’dov: The Commissar, a study of the great banned Soviet film.

I emailed Marat some questions I had about the novel, and he was kind enough to reply. I hope you enjoy his thoughtful responses as much as I did.

 Dorian Stuber: I’d appreciate some context for understanding Grossman. Where does he fit among other Soviet writers of the time? Would you say he is a Jewish writer?

Marat Grinberg: I would hesitate in calling Grossman a Jewish writer, although that, of course, depends on how one defines this contentious category. Clearly he was a Jew who never denied his Jewishness and was invested in figuring out the place of Jews in history. The Holocaust and post-war Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns made this awareness stronger as well as more profound, tragic, and personal. At the same time, if we think of a Jewish writer as someone who engages in dialogue with Jewish textual universe, both sacred and secular, and comments upon it, this would describe Grossman only to a limited extent. First and foremost, he was a Soviet Russian writer, shaped by the Soviet project, which is precisely why his eventual denunciation of it after the war was so stark and unpredictable. A celebrated writer in the 30s and even early 50s and a legendary war journalist, Grossman was always a Soviet critic from within and from the depth of Russian history.

DS: One of the most striking aspects of Life and Fate is the way it links Nazism and Stalinism. Specifically, it suggests these ideologies are linked through their treatment of Jews. Is Grossman arguing that totalitarianism is anti-Semitic?

MG: I don’t think Grossman is arguing in Life and Fate or in other works dealing with the nature of totalitarianism, such as Everything Flows, that totalitarianism is inherently anti-Semitic. What fascinates him about Nazism and Stalinism and what makes them so similar in his eyes is how they both sacralize ideology and deny any value to individual human life. Like Hannah Arendt later in Origins of Totalitarianism, he views anti-Semitism as a convenient tool of totalitarianism, but I also think his understanding of anti-Semitism is limited by how he ties it to totalitarianism. Anti-Semitism is for him essentially a hatred of the other – Sartre’s “Anti-Semite and the Jew” comes to mind – but he overlooks the deeper roots of it in the polemical wars between Judaism and Christianity. The secular humanist that he was, he could never quite decide in Life and Fate whether the Nazi (and others’) hate of the Jew was an aberration or an ingrained part of human psyche and its capacity for evil.

DS: Can you tell English-speaking readers about the connotations of the two terms that give Grossman his title—and that he uses all the time?

My hunch is that fate is not simply a neutral term—not just the name for things that happen to us—but rather a way of referring to some kind of larger structure that makes human life intelligible and that even acts as a kind of judgment or way of making sense of that life.

By contrast, I sense that life is, if not antithetical to fate, then at least in some kind of struggle with it. Life is where value resides for Grossman. But is it possible to think of life without fate?

MG: I think you’re absolutely right, fate for Grossman “is not simply a neutral term—not just the name for things that happen to us—but rather a way of referring to some kind of larger structure that makes human life intelligible and that even acts as a kind of judgment or way of making sense of that life” and “life is where value lies for Grossman.” In this, he, of course, is following very consciously in the footsteps of Tolstoy. Life and fate is in many respects a paraphrase of war and peace, keeping in mind that the proper translation of Tolstoy’s epic would be War and World. Grossman mimics Tolstoy structurally, thematically and philosophically – Tolstoy also thinks of history as governed by larger structures, grand fate or destiny of a sort. It should be noted that War and Peace was the book that Russian intelligentsia and writers, in particular, turned to during the war. Boris Slutsky would later write a poem about how everyone was incessantly rereading and memorizing War and Peace in those years. So Grossman’s choice is not accidental, but what is also interesting is how he critiques the great novelistic projects of Russian literature, by Tolstoy as well as Dostoevsky and Turgenev, co-opted by the Soviet regime. He locates in them precisely the same obsession with totalizing explanations of human history which he identifies in totalitarianism and which invalidates the individual. Thus, the other key term in his novel, apart from life and fate, is freedom, which very much implies the individual’s ability to make choices and resist evil even when that evil becomes history’s organizing principle. It is through this type of phenomenological freedom that life can be salvaged for Grossman. In terms of Russian history and literature, he locates the potential for it in Chekhov, the least totalizing of Russian writers. Ultimately Grossman wants to have his cake and eat it too: write the 20th century version of War and Peace and question the very foundations of epic novelistic writing.

DS: Viktor Shtrum, one of the main characters, often said to be a stand-in for Grossman, is a particle physicist. Grossman himself trained as an engineer. Do you think Grossman’s background as a scientist affected his writing of the novel? (I’m especially wondering about its structure.) Or does science function in the novel mostly as a way of critiquing the Soviet state’s ability to politicize every aspect of life?

MG: So it’s Tolstoy’s proclivity toward discerning structures in history that mainly impacts Grossman’s systematizing thinking in the novel, but his engineer background might very well have had something to do with it. Overall the link between art and science is at the core of early utopian Soviet vision and the later Stalinist version of it. As a nuclear physicist, Viktor serves the state, which turns against him as a Jew, and exemplifies both the potential and the horror of human progress. Russian literary thinker Lydia Ginzburg defined Tolstoy’s characters, such as Levin in Anna Karenina, for instance, not as auto-biographical, but auto-psychological, in other words their task is to replicate the author’s psychology and his intellectual, moral and spiritual crises. Viktor is very much a character in that mold. His rediscovery of his Jewishness in the context of anti-Semitic assaults and the split he experiences as a result between being a member of Russian intelligentsia and a Jew reconstructs Grossman’s own trajectory in this regard.

DS: Do you think there are qualities to Grossman’s writing—in Life and Fate in particular, but more generally too—that are underrated? Are there aspects of his style or even of his preoccupations that don’t come across well in translation?

MG: In Russian criticism of Grossman there’s a tendency to view him as a great thinker, but not a great writer and because of that, some believe, he does not lose much in translation. The moral courage and breadth of his project in Life and Fate make discussing it as an aesthetic work almost impossible or at least very difficult. Certainly there are parts in it that are much more psychologically nuanced than others and it can be overly sentimental and sociological, which can be explained by his uneasy relationship with the genre of the novel. Hence some prefer his shorter works, such as Everything Flows and “The Hell of Treblinka.” Perhaps it’s the Greek and Roman historians, such as Thucydides and Tacitus, both artful writers intent on figuring out structure within history and how the human variable fits into it, that Grossman resembles most closely.


Thank you, Marat! So interesting to get your expert opinion on these questions.



The Dead Secret–Wilkie Collins (1857)

My (very slow) journey through the complete works of Wilkie Collins continued this weekend with The Dead Secret (1857). This was Collins’s fourth published novel, the one right before he hit the big time with The Woman in White. It’s really quite good, absolutely enjoyable if a bit soppy at times and a little baggy. But there are a number of wonderful characters and some genuinely creepy and atmospheric scenes.

In his preface to the one-volume edition of 1861, Collins describes the phrase of his title as if it were a familiar idiom (he mentions it couldn’t be translated into French). I’d never heard the phrase “a dead secret” before, but apparently it means an “absolute secret, not to be revealed under any circumstances.” In this sense, Collins’s title is ironic, since the secret the story revolves around is supposed to be revealed in the first chapter—and it sort of is, though not conclusively enough for readers, or at least this one, to be sure what it is—but the person who is supposed to reveal it chooses not to.

As I observed recently in regards to The Law and the Lady, Collins here too anticipates Freud’s belief that “no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips.” Collins is fascinated by the idea that whatever is buried will eventually come to light. The Dead Secret begins with the maid Sarah Leeson attending the deathbed of her mistress, Mrs. Treverton, in a remote and falling down Cornish mansion called Porthgenna. Mrs. Treverton writes a letter to husband revealing a secret only she and her maid have known about until now, and just before she breathes her last she is on the point of making Sarah swear that she will pass the letter to Captain Treverton. Instead Sarah—whose hair is shockingly gray even though she is still a young woman, a sign of some terrible thing in her past—hides the letter in a locked room in the disused wing of the house and runs away from the Captain and his five-year-old daughter.

Ben Nicholson--Wrong Century, Right Place

We pick up events fifteen years later when that little girl, Rosamond Treverton, marries a young man, Leonard Frankland. Frankland is blind, blindness being a motif, I gather, that reappears in later works, and of course fittingly literalizes the figurative state of most of Collins’s characters. Collins uses Leonard’s blindness as a way to mediate the telling of the story even in the midst of the action. In this sense it seems an even more sophisticated version of his preference for shifts from third or first person narration to epistolary, or amongst various narrators or between various interpolated texts. These shifts emphasize the telling of the story over the events that are told. So for example Rosamond must describe everything she is doing to Leonard, especially once they find themselves caught up in trying to find the mysterious letter in a place Leonard has never been. This has the effect of slowing down the action while also ratcheting up the suspense, even in instances where there shouldn’t be any. We know where the letter is hidden, after all.

Although the mystery—which concerns them more than anyone—couldn’t be solved without them, Rosamond and Leonard are the book’s least interesting characters. The most interesting is Sarah—certainly she gets the most extraordinary scenes. She’s not really the heroine—the book’s attention is too diffuse, too decentralized among so many characters to have a heroine, and besides it’s unclear for the longest time whether or not we’re even supposed to like her: she’s continually rubbing other characters the wrong way—but she is at the heart of its enigma. Collins loves disguises, and in the scenes that most stuck with me Sarah hides her identity without actually lying about who she is. In the first, under the name Mrs. Jazeph, she becomes the nurse to Rosamond when the latter’s journey back to Cornwall is interrupted by the early arrival of her first child. The nurse, who has been nervous and flighty all evening, keeping herself at an unnatural distance which makes her charge increasingly uneasy, finally approaches Rosamond—but now she comes too close:

[T]he nurse was stopping midway between the part of the room from which she had advanced , and the bedside. There was nothing wild or angry in her look. The agitation which her face expressed, was the agitation of perplexity and alarm. She stood rapidly clasping an unclasping her hands, the image of bewilderment and distress—stood so for nearly a minute—then came forward a few steps more, and said inquiringly, in a whisper: —

‘Not asleep? Not quite asleep, yet?’

Rosamond tried to speak in answer, but the quick beating of her heart seemed to rise up to her very lips, and to stifle the words on them.

The nurse came on, still with the same perplexity and distress in her face, to within a foot of the bedside—knelt down by the pillow, and looked earnestly at Rosamond—shuddered a little, and glanced all around her, as if to make sure the room was empty—bent forward—hesitated—bent nearer, and whispered into her ear these words: —

‘When you go to Porthgenna, keep out of the Myrtle Room!

The hot breath of the woman, as she spoke, beat on Rosamond’s cheek, and seemed to fly in one fever-throb through every vein of her body.

The creepiest part of this passage is the qualifying clause “as she spoke,” which seems initially redundant—did we think the breath came from anywhere else?—but which in the end focuses our attention on the almost animalistic quality of Sarah. Similarly disquieting is the ambiguous pronoun at the end, which makes it hard to distinguish Sarah from Rosamond. (Shrewd readers will guess already that this suggestion of symbiosis is fitting.)

The scene could easily have been risible—and depending on your appetite for sensation fiction maybe it is—if it weren’t so true to the proto-Freudian theory of the unconscious (later Sarah will marvel that she said the last thing she wanted to say, or at least the last thing she thought she wanted to say) and so well executed.

Similarly dramatic is the second scene with Sarah that impressed itself on me. Sarah and her uncle Joseph (more about him in a second) rush to Porthgenna in advance of Rosamond and Leonard and brazen their way into the house, but Sarah is unable to retrieve the secret letter because she is overwhelmed on the threshold of the nfamous Myrtle Room by guilt and anxiety and maybe a genuine ghost. I’m too pressed for time to cite the passage: suffice it to say Sarah confuses the flapping of loose wallpaper with the admonitions of her late mistress and collapses in a dead swoon. Collins shows his genius in making us feel anxious and upset even though we know the (ostensible) cause of the disturbing noises. You can see Collins figuring out how to unsettle readers, and two years later he’ll write a masterpiece in which the kind of scenes I’m talking about here, which here are scattered across the book, will be much more prominent.

But The Dead Secret isn’t just apprentice work. I was disappointed by Ira Nadel’s introduction to the Oxford edition (unusual for that estimable line). Nadel meanders through the novel’s motifs, content simply to point out similar instances in other books by Collins. He never tries to interpret this book on its own merits. I was especially let down because the blurb tells me Nadel is the author of a book called Joyce and the Jews. And my pet theory about this book is that Sarah’s uncle, Joseph Buschmann, is in fact Jewish. Collins never says so, and he never resorts to the typology of this and other periods (hooked nose, swarthy, lecherous, usurious, etc) that would telegraph to readers, even unconsciously, a character’s Jewishness. We do know that Joseph is German, though he proudly asserts that he is also a citizen of England. We know he loves music—his prized possession is a music box given to his elder brother by Mozart himself: this automaton is just part and parcel of the book’s fascination with the uncanny, the Gothic, etc. We know he’s not quite five feet tall. He’s endearing in his insistent guilelessness, and kind and loving to Sarah despite all her troubles. Basically he’s a total mensch and I really wanted him to be Jewish not just because he was my favourite but because he is so determinedly not characterized by negative stereotypes. But being musical and short and kind and a little schmaltzy isn’t enough to make someone Jewish—though it’s a pretty good start.

Can anyone who’s read this book help me out here, and support this fancy of mine?

Either way, The Dead Secret doesn’t deserve to be one. A great book for your vacation reading.