Monday 17 June 2019

Asymmetry - Lisa Halliday (2018)

Rating: Excellent

There's a scene right at the end of David Bowie's twenty minute video Jazzin' for Blue Jean (1984) where Bowie's rock star character, Screaming Lord Byron, leaves with Bowie's every-man character's female interest (Bowie plays both characters). Every-man Bowie engages in a tirade against the retreating rock star and then breaks character and talks to the director (Julian Temple) and production crew about how the scene should be re-shot. Bowie and Temple then argue about the merits of being 'clever clever'. Asymmetry is just like Bowie and Temple's postmodern take on the music video; it is 'clever clever' and perhaps a bit too clever for its own good. It also uses most of the typical postmodern techniques that have become all too familiar and therefore a bit stale. The novel is arranged into three seemingly disparate sections - Folly, Madness and Desert Island Discs, yet they are connected by a series of clues. There are innumerable allusions to writers and novels and the female protagonist in Folly is called Alice and she does indeed descend down the rabbit hole into a relationship with a much older man, a writer called Blazer, whom is based on Philip Roth, whom Halliday had a relationship with when she was in her twenties. I could go on...(but I only write two paragraphs these days...)

I completed Asymmetry with feelings of ambivalence, cynicism even; however I had to admit to myself in the end that the novel was quite an achievement. The writing is tightly focused, littered with beautiful imagery and manages to be both playful and profound, in particular during the middle section written from the perspective of Amar, an Iraqi/American citizen held for questioning at Heathrow airport in the early 1990s. Amar's character is nicely rounded, but more significantly he becomes a mouth-piece that enables Halliday to talk about political issues whilst at the same time acknowledging how talking about political issues in literature is fraught with pointlessness and pomposity - now that's clever clever. Halliday manages to pack a lot of thematic juice into what is a refreshingly short novel. She covers relationships, aging, the anxiety of influence, the role of literature in culture and the existential difficulty of finding a meaningful path through life. Asymmetry may annoy you, frustrate you, but in the end it's worth the effort and indicates that just maybe there is life left in postmodernism after all.

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