“Alice was beginning to get tired of all this sitting by herself with nothing to do.” This is not Lewis Carroll’s Alice, although the two stories start in almost identical fashion, with a bored girl going down a rabbit hole. This Alice, in Lisa Halliday’s new novel Asymmetry, is an editorial assistant in New York who is seduced by a literary megastar named Ezra Blazer, a Philip Roth–like figure. He sits next to her one day with an ice cream in his hand and asks if she is “game.” Just like Alice in Wonderland, our Alice jumps, “never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.” There follows a romance of Red Sox games watched from bed.
Every time Alice goes to Blazer’s apartment he gives her some esoteric command. “Mary-Alice”—for he calls her Mary-Alice, the way the White Rabbit calls Alice “Mary Ann”—“I’m still looking forward to seeing you this evening, but would you mind first going to Zabar’s and picking up a jar of Tiptree preserves, that’s Tiptree preserves—T-I-P-T-R-E-E, preserves, as in jelly—and not just any flavor but Little Scarlet, which is the most expensive one they’ve got.”
“How surprised he’ll be when he finds out who I am!” Lewis Carroll’s Alice thinks to herself. But Lisa Halliday’s Alice trots happily about doing Blazer’s bidding. Her interiority is pretty nil. He is neurotic and maddening and calls her The Kid. Their dialogue is funny, but shallow.
Then the novel shifts from one surreal adventure to another. The second section takes us far away, to London’s Heathrow Airport. There, an economist named Amar is in detention. From his holding area, behind the two-way mirrors that cover Heathrow’s secure areas, Amar reflects on his life. He was born on a plane over Cape Cod, to Iraqi parents. He grew up in Brooklyn. He has been detained en route from Los Angeles to Istanbul, from where he had planned to travel to Kurdistan, to see his brother. We know nothing more about his situation than this, but the implication is that Amar has been profiled by an immigration service prejudiced by the whims of a government engaged in an illegal war.
The change in scene is tantalizing for its very abruptness: Are we about to receive a moral lesson? A globalized version of the Alice-and-Blazer fable? But what comes next is much subtler, a view of the world from the other side of the looking-glass.
The Alice section is called “Folly,” and the Amar section “Madness.” There is also a much shorter, third section called “Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs,” in which Blazer appears on a BBC Radio 4 show—a favorite of Amar’s—to discuss the records he’d most like to take with him to a desert island. (The transcript reveals him meditating on his life, before propositioning the show’s presenter.) This third part is an “aha!” moment that ties together the preceding sections, but, since it is so slim, the Alice and Amar stories really form two halves of the novel.
In King Lear, recall, there is reason in the king’s madness, and wisdom in the fool’s folly. The relationship between madness and folly as two useful and distinct categories was famously discussed in a 1998 essay by the critic Joost Daalder, which describes the two sections of the Renaissance play The Changeling. “The challenge of The Changeling is,” Daalder writes, “. . . to discover what it is ‘about,’ and if despite much recent activity critics have not been able to provide us with a satisfactory answer that is because they have failed to grasp how the sub-plot relates to the main plot.”
If we took The Changeling as a model for Asymmetry, we would see that the relationship between “Folly” and “Madness” is “one of irony,” as Daalder says. In Amar’s section, we witness a world overwhelmed by the madness of war, which causes the sudden disappearance of a person who had been a pillar for his family, while his kidnappers rule civilization and immigration officials ask him circular questions that have no answer. As in The Changeling, this subplot develops the theme of true madness so that it can be understood in the main plot, which is otherwise simply full of stupidity, or folly.
The war crops up here and there in the “Folly” section. For his birthday, Blazer and Alice “shared a praline tart and watched the president announce the invasion.” As the New Yorkers hop around and tell absurd jokes and run weird errands, actual madness is warping Iraq and those who have invaded it. “The seriousness of madness in a person is not to be measured by the ease with which it can be identified,” Daalder wrote of The Changeling. Although Blazer seems foolish, and Alice foolhardy, Amar is the one whose situation is reduced to the truly surreal as he is left to languish in a mirrored and stateless cell.
So the stories of Alice and Amar hang, of course, in asymmetrical tension. One is born lucky, one not so much. Both are American, but one was once Iraqi, and so is subject to a total recategorization by ethnicity. Crucially, Alice’s world is an unreal adventure, while Amar’s is totally concrete. Asymmetry is a debut burnished to a maximum shine by technical prowess, but it offers readers more than just a clever structure: a familiar world gone familiarly mad.