Earlier this year, Lisa Halliday published her first novel, Asymmetry. The book, which has been rightly raved about, consists of two seemingly unrelated novellas and a coda that elegantly and gently ties them together. The second part of the novel is the first-person account of an Iraqi American, who has been detained in customs at Heathrow Airport. It’s excellent, pulling this reader in even as she groused that the first part was over. And she groused. Because that first part of the novel is a kind of high-water mark of literary delectability, the story of a witty and lovely May–December romance, begun over Mister Softee, and including baseball games, sex, the evaporation of sex, and many a Searle coat, all shot through with the thrill of reading great literary gossip.
Halliday dated Philip Roth in her youth, when she worked at a publishing house. The first portion of Asymmetry concerns the relationship between a young woman named Alice, who works at a publishing house, and Ezra Blazer, a hugely famous novelist 40 years her senior who is always losing the Nobel Prize. Asymmetry is in deep conversation with what it means to write a “semiautobiographical” novel. The second part of the book is a rousing testament to Halliday’s desire and ability to imagine herself outside of her own experience, to skirt the trap of the navel-gazing debut. Of the first part, which fictionalizes her own experiences and is told in the third person, skittering across the protagonist’s internal life like a perfectly tossed skipping stone, Halliday said, “The entire book is an amalgam of details and impressions derived from experiences both romantic and platonic that I’ve had over the years, plus a healthy dose of research and imagination. I can understand why some people would associate Philip Roth with Ezra Blazer, but really they are not neatly correlated.”
And yet, in the days after Roth’s death, Asymmetry is about as loving a eulogy to him as you will find anywhere—even though it is not only that. The book made me sweet on his fictionalized doppelgänger, with his jokes, his mellowness, his brain—“she marveled at how his brain was right there, under her chin”—and his attentions. After meeting Alice in the park just once, he knows she wants to be a writer, though she hasn’t exactly said so. He may have a habit of picking up younger women and insist on seeing Alice on his terms, but his terms are gentle and involve a gorgeous house on Shelter Island, goodies from Zabar’s, excellent relationships with his exes, and concern for the age gap and her college loans. They tend to each other, including to, yes, his ejaculations like a “weak water bubbler,” which fade away long before the end of the relationship. Despite the seeming power imbalance of their arrangement, despite Ezra printing Alice business cards with a fake name so as not to attract undue gossip, their relationship is a genuine pas de deux, embarked upon knowingly by two people who are both, as Ezra says early on, deeply “game.”
Roth, of course, is a great, complicated novelist, a postwar titan who did not or could not always see female characters outside of the context of the male libido. There is, perhaps, something loaded about reading a female novelist and her fully realized female character as a tenderizer of his particular macho genius. (Ezra is very compelling but imperfect; the coda includes him trying to pick up a married radio host with the same line he used on Alice.) I don’t want to suggest that Asymmetry is about Philip Roth, or that it contains the real Philip Roth, or the only Philip Roth, but it does contain a Philip Roth that you may not have seen before—and this glimpse of him is lovely.