Like many Philip Roth fans, I have been sitting shiva ever since the novelist’s death last May and have since gone deep on the master, rereading, reading for the first time, or leafing through, his body of work. As a ghoulish little exercise, I wanted to find which of his 27 novels speaks most to our times.
As much as I love the deft lyricism and pyrotechnics of The Counterlife (horny Jewish dentist becomes a West Bank settler), it felt almost a little too timeless for my purposes. Many critics note that The Plot Against America, which recasts Charles Lindbergh as a proto-fascist president, foreshadows the Trump era, but amid so many of his major-league novels, it feels like minor ball. (If we’re talking alternative history, I prefer his essay on Franz Kafka, whom Roth reimagines as a bumbling émigré from Prague, a survivor of tuberculosis who becomes a New Jersey Hebrew teacher and hits on the narrator’s Aunt Rhoda.) A cautionary, febrile tale about identity politics that foreshadows academic excesses and intolerance, The Human Stain probably comes closest to what I was looking for – prescient and profound.
But the Roth novel that’s preoccupying me most lately is not written by the late master, but by a woman who may have beaten him at his own game. Early last summer my sister, Jill, suggested the Lisa Halliday novel Asymmetry, which is more Roth than Roth; in some ways, even more subversive, captivating and labyrinthine.
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While Roth never had children, his literary DNA is all over this book, which starts off with a depiction of a brilliant Jewish author who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and is an also-ran for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
A three-part novel, Asymmetry opens in post-9/11 New York with a section called “Folly,” detailing the lopsided love affair between a young literary agent named Alice (I mean, what other patrician WASPy name would she be called?) and the Rothian Ezra Blazer. Written in third-person, it’s replete with many details about Blazer’s many remedies – from priapic to back pain – orders from the high-end bagel shop Zabar’s, and wonderful, cringey descriptions of oldster prowess: “He came like a weak water-bubbler.” Apart from novel’s soundtrack of classic music and golden oldies, there is a little additional background noise in this section: Halliday told the media that she had, in fact, had an affair with Roth, and in one of his final interviews, Roth said this of the novel: “She got me. "
It’s tempting to call this novel a cold dish of #MeToo comeuppance, but this novel is a literary event, one of the most engaging, witty novels I’ve read in ages – and maybe Blazer is Roth – but you certainly get the sense from the writing that Alice is not Halliday. One of Alice’s most rebellious acts is using dental floss to make a bow-tie for a dildo, but the writer is far more subversive than Alice.
In this Roth-like house of mirrors between memoir and fiction, voyeurism and artifice, Alice is presented as perceptive but largely passive: Dyson-like in her ability to suck in the details of scene, but little demonstration of much will or reflection. Instead, it’s all about the Great Man imposing himself on her. When the dazzling Blazer first puts his creaky moves on Alice, she is sitting on a bench, reading. After handing him a bookmark on which to write his phone number, he warns her she’ll lose her place but she says she doesn’t mind. From the get-go, Halliday ensures that her protagonist has lost the plot, but the novelist remains firmly in control.
The next section, entitled “Madness,” unexpectedly introduces readers to an American-Iraqi economist, Amar Ala Jaafari, detained in London for unknown reasons. A soulful reflection of statelessness in a post-Iraq War world, “Madness” bears no perceptible relationship to “Folly.” At the onset, I wanted Blazer to come back and chew the scenery again, but then recognized the writer’s versatile and dazzling talent within the worldly and empathetic Jaafari. Like many readers, though, I had trouble connecting the two parts of the puzzle. Of course, a deliberate device to keep us reading. Was there an allegory here between love and war – a convenient parallel between the patriarchy of Blazer and the imperialist United States? But Halliday is too sophisticated for that grad-school reductivism. I told myself to be patient.
In the brief final section, “Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs,” there is a moment in which, almost by accident, the novel suddenly fits together in a swift, chiropractic snap. Without spoiling the moment, suffice it to say it is one of the more satisfying moments I’ve had as a reader, one of Halliday’s many genius turns that I never saw coming. She got me.