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It’s Mister SofteeNamara Smith

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by Lisa Halliday.
Granta, 275 pp., £14.99, March 2018, 978 1 78378 360 1
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In​  The Portrait of a Lady, Mrs Touchett describes finding Isabel Archer ‘sitting in a dreary room on a rainy day, reading a heavy book and boring herself to death’. She adds, defending herself, ‘You may say I shouldn’t have enlightened her – I should have let her alone. There’s a good deal in that, but I acted conscientiously; I thought she was meant for something better. It occurred to me that it would be a kindness to take her about and introduce her to the world.’ Lisa Halliday’s first novel initially seems agnostic on the question of whether young women should be let alone. The first half of the book is set in New York in the early 2000s. Its narrator, Alice, is sitting on a park bench with a book in her lap, bored, when an elderly man she recognises as a famous writer sits himself next to her and asks what she’s reading: ‘Oh, old stuff, mostly,’ she tells him. The next weekend he’s there again. On the third sunny spring Sunday, he buys her an ice-cream cone from the Mister Softee on the corner; she takes it ‘because it was beginning to drip and in any case multiple-Pulitzer Prize winners don’t go around poisoning people’. She writes down her number and a week later he calls (‘Hello Alice? It’s Mister Softee’) to invite her over to his apartment, in a doorman building on the Upper West Side with double-height windows and a view of the midtown skyline. When she steps inside, he makes her turn out the contents of her handbag, as if to let her know she’s crossing an invisible yet carefully guarded border. He draws her in for a kiss, and she reflects that, at her office, ‘there were no fewer than three National Book Award certificates in his name framed on the lobby wall.’

The writer, whose name is Ezra Blazer, calls at odd hours, from a blocked number, and doesn’t always leave a message. Alice takes to sleeping ‘with her phone next to her pillow and when she wasn’t in bed carried it around with her everywhere – to the kitchen when she got herself a drink, to the bathroom when she went to the bathroom’. Her work, as a publishing assistant, is ‘boring and inconsequential’ (‘Fax this, file this, copy this’) and the men she knows are too preoccupied with their own careers to find her interesting. Does she want to write too? At dinner parties, her colleagues eat oversalted risotto and pass around cheap sparkling wine; Ezra has Vicodin, caviar and champagne. Lying in her stifling apartment, with the air-conditioning unit that he bought her cranked up to its highest setting, she decides she ‘could wait a very long time, if she had to’.

By this point, if not before, it’s clear that Ezra bears a strong resemblance to Philip Roth. The week Asymmetry was published, Halliday, in a very Roth-like two-step, gave an interview to the New York Times in which she revealed that she had met and dated Roth when she was an assistant at the Wylie Agency in her twenties and defended herself from readers who might assume that ‘Ezra Blazer’ was a thinly veiled version of ‘Philip’. The disclaimer is mostly unnecessary; the book’s account of Alice and Ezra’s relationship is not a confession so much as a venerable fantasy of New York cultural life, the romance between the much older successful man and his young female acolyte, signalled by walks in Central Park, evenings at red sauce Italian restaurants, and Jonathan Schwartz and the Great American Songbook on the radio. When they meet, in 2002, Ezra is in his late sixties. Alice is 25, but everyone tells her she looks 16. Ezra dusts off his old Polaroid SX-70 and shoots her topless, the Chrysler Building shining like ‘a tiny flame in white gold’ in the background; she crawls towards him on her knees purring, ‘Let’s do something awful.’ He squirts her in the ribs with a water pistol at a matinée of Duck Soup; she dances around him singing the nonsense song from Modern Times. They could be Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, or, from an earlier era, the Little Tramp and the Kid, alone together against a hostile world.

Ezra most obviously correlates with Roth when we discover he is also a decorated veteran of the sexual revolution. ‘I saw some action. I have a Purple Heart. I hit the beaches,’ Ezra says near the end of the book, paraphrasing an interview Roth gave in 1974 in which he called himself a D-Day invader of ‘the erotic homeland’. In Alice, he sees a chance to relive past victories. She is a Harvard-educated choirgirl from Massachusetts with nice clothes and an old-fashioned, precise way of speaking. Her father disappeared when she was five; her stepfather is a Christian fundamentalist who beats her mother and calls to inform Alice that ‘not a single Jew had reported to work in the towers on the day they came down.’ Ezra becomes at once romantic partner, surrogate father, physician, professor, benefactor and guardian. He gives her blackout cookies from the Columbus Bakery, Walnettos from the Vermont Country Store, and envelopes full of hundred-dollar bills from the Bridgehampton National Bank; he discreetly pays off her student loans; and he sponsors the purchase of a real winter coat, a goosedown puffer with a fur hood (‘like walking around in a sleeping bag trimmed with mink’) that makes her feel ‘pampered and invincible – also delirious with this city, which every day was like a mounting jackpot waiting to be won’.

The six-month relationship high is followed by a low: on the way back to her apartment, Alice slips on the ice and breaks her finger. Ezra makes her an appointment with ‘the best hand guy in New York’, arranges to have her groceries delivered for six weeks, gives her something for the pain, and puts her to bed: 45 minutes pass, and ‘a balmy effervescence flooded Alice’s insides and her skin began to feel as though it were vibrating.’ When the summer finally comes she takes the ferry out to his house on Shelter Island. Swimming laps in his flagstone pool, ‘heated to a temperature approaching that of blood,’ the scent of pine sap in the air, Alice imagines her hands, nearing each other under the water and then pulling apart in a slow breaststroke, as ‘the hands of someone once tempted by prayer but who had since renounced it for other means of mollifying herself: someone learned, someone liberal, someone literate. Someone enlightened.’

Ezra and Alice’s romance coincides with the period when the Yankees were riding high from three consecutive World Series victories and it seemed they might never lose. Ezra, a Yankees fan, teaches Alice how to watch baseball, tutoring her in the history of the league, instructing her in its rivalries and mythologies, showing her its moments of glory and reversals of fortune, how to take games seriously, when to follow the rules and when to break them. Like baseball, literature is both an art form and a contest. Beneath the story, like the noise of city traffic, is the constant jockeying for status, the book deals won and lost, the literary reputations made and broken. The winner of the Nobel Prize is announced every year on the radio like the baseball scores. ‘Blazer! You were robbed!’ a fan shouts after him on the street when the hometown hero fails to take the Nobel in 2004. ‘Next year, man! Next year!’ On Shelter Island, the table in Ezra’s living room is piled with book proofs: ‘I’m not asking for an endorsement, only that you might enjoy the book as much as all of us here at Gryphon have done, with surprise and delight at its confidence, its exquisite calibration, its searing wit.’

Alice’s own position in this hierarchy is ambiguous. One night at his apartment, after vomiting blackout cookie all over ‘the bowl, the seat, the lid, the edge of the bathtub, the toilet-paper dispenser, the floor’, she sees in the bin ‘a galley of a novel by a boy with whom she’d gone to college, his agent’s letter, requesting a blurb, still paper-clipped to its cover’. It’s a scene that encapsulates the trade-off Alice has made: she is inside the inner sanctum, the object of Ezra’s affection – but although her male peers are outside, they are writing the books. Halliday narrates Alice’s impressions in a flexible, telegraphic style that jumps lightly over weeks or months of experience, conveying her receptivity, the way she is swayed by each new input in turn. Her opinions are carefully withheld, coming through only indirectly in what snags her attention. When Ezra asks what she wants to write about, she answers: ‘War. Dictatorships. World affairs.’ He tells her to write about herself instead; one way or another, writers always do. ‘Don’t worry about importance,’ he says. ‘Importance comes from doing it well.’ His advice reflects his outlook on life. Don’t be too good. Don’t fixate on the Holocaust. Don’t make other people into instruments of your own righteousness. You can run from it, ignore it, try to hide it, but there’s no escaping the ego. Yet we can see something in this very light, very charming story about two people enjoying themselves with each other that Ezra can’t: the way his actions contradict his words. His instructions amount to a demand to be more like him. ‘Darling, don’t continually say, “I’m sorry,”’ he tells her. ‘Next time you feel like saying “I’m sorry,” instead say “Fuck you.” Okay?’ But Alice’s access to his world is entirely dependent on her not being like him. His love and affection, his air-conditioning unit, his envelopes of cash, his Walnettos, are all the spoils of playing the daughter/lover/protégée in a drama of his devising, a role stamped with a clear expiration date followed by an uncertain future. What war could she write about? What does she even have to write about besides Ezra – Ezra’s books, Ezra’s music, Ezra’s holiday home, the way the steam rises from Ezra’s heated swimming pool? No one is going to give you a Nobel Prize for a novel about Ezra. There are few other female characters in the novel; one of them is Alice’s neighbour, an elderly Jewish woman who lives alone and keeps reappearing with a jar that needs opening or some other request. She is the same age as Ezra but seems like an unwanted stranger in the city he has conquered. Is this the future in store for Alice after Ezra has gone?

Midway​ through the novel, Alice and Ezra’s story abruptly breaks off and the book begins again, this time as a conversation between two unnamed speakers:

Where are you coming from?

Los Angeles.

Travelling alone?


Purpose of your trip?

To see my brother.

The second voice belongs to Amar Jaafari, an Iraqi-American economist detained at Heathrow on his way to Turkey’s border with Iraqi Kurdistan. Amar’s story is a funhouse distortion of Alice’s. He too has been selected out of a crowd and pulled aside for unknown reasons: in his case, for holding dual citizenship in the US and Iraq. He was born in American airspace on an Iraqi Airways flight, which is enough for him to constitute a threat to the post-9/11 security state. After he is questioned, his baggage searched, and his phone and passports taken, he is left waiting in a windowless holding room while his case is decided.

Like Alice, Amar is a reader of old books. Though his voice has an expansiveness and ease that distinguishes it from Alice’s reticence, there is something similarly old-fashioned about the crispness of his delivery, as if he were trying on an older man’s three-piece suit. In baroque, cascading sentences, he embarks on the story of his life. ‘I was conceived in Karrada but born high over the elbow of Cape Cod,’ he begins, echoing Augie March’s opening lines and establishing his theme: this will be a story of citizenship, of assimilation in Bellow’s mode – or Roth’s. Amar grows up in Bay Ridge, where he collects baseball cards and acquires a Brooklyn accent. When he and his brother Sami go back to Iraq for a visit in 1988, Sami falls in love with a cousin and decides to stay, while Amar returns to the US and dates an Ivy League classmate. He wrestles with his conscience over whether or not to accompany her when she has an abortion; afterwards they drink Midori and listen to Chet Baker. But Amar’s story is not one of confident assimilation but of progressive disaffiliation. The first Gulf War divides the two branches of his family. Seven years later, Amar, newly graduated and interning at a bioethics council in London, watches the BBC footage of the British-American bombing of Baghdad ‘in two contrasting but equally mesmerising palettes: one dim and grainy, with palm trees silhouetted against sepia plumes and orange flares, the other awash in the Midori-green of night vision.’ He doesn’t return to Iraq until December 2003, seven months after Bush declared his mission accomplished and the UN lifted most of its sanctions, a trip that requires hiring an armoured Chevy in Amman for the ten-hour drive across the border to Baghdad.

What do the private lives of privileged Manhattanites have to do with the invasion of Iraq? At the end of the novel, Ezra returns in a brief coda that takes the form of an appearance on Desert Island Discs. He reveals that a ‘young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel’ about ‘the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blindspots in our own’. Amar’s story, it seems, is the book about war, dictatorships and world affairs that Alice wanted to write. Alice and Amar’s stories can be read independently of each other, as variations on two of Roth’s great themes, one about sex, the other about secularism. But Asymmetry’s conjoined halves can also be seen as an effort to resolve Alice and Ezra’s views about fiction by showing both sides of the looking-glass. Halliday has carefully constructed each part: minor details of Alice’s story recur in Amar’s; words and phrases spoken by one character in New York come out of the mouth of another in Baghdad. By showing author and character side by side, Alice’s raw material and Amar’s polished sentences, Halliday attempts to demonstrate how experience becomes a work of the imagination and then holds up the result to be evaluated alongside its origins. Alice’s book within a book clearly owes something to Ezra’s advice, his coaching, his library. It also hints at her conflicting feelings about him. Aspects of Amar’s time in the holding room – the tedium while waiting to be seen, the ‘almost filial affection’ he begins to feel for the customs officer managing his case, his involuntary arousal while being fingerprinted – seem drawn from Alice’s own asymmetrical relationship with the more powerful Ezra, reframing what had seemed like an airy confection as something darker and more ambiguous.

In a radio interview, Halliday described living in New York during the early years of the Iraq War and writing Asymmetry in part ‘to explore the results of what was happening during that time while I was doing something else, which is to say living my life’. The war, unobtrusive on a first reading of Asymmetry’s Manhattan sections, is unavoidable on a second: it’s in the satellite images of camouflage-wearing troops watching the World Series from Baghdad, the sportscasters piously intoning that ‘not a city in this country … reminds me more of the sacrifice and freedom that we enjoy because of our men and women’ in uniform. And Ezra is less attractive the second time around, and more fallible. The night before his birthday, he and Alice share a praline tart as they watch Bush announce the invasion on television. ‘This man is so stupid,’ Alice says. ‘This is going to kill me,’ Ezra says. At first you think he’s speaking about the war, then you realise he means the tart. Nor does Ezra’s assumption that his power is inherently benign – that he is rescuing Alice from her tyrannical stepfather, educating her tastes, teaching her how to enjoy herself, alleviating her pain, giving her the right books, the right music, liberating her – seem quite so innocent. This was also, after all, the story the American political establishment used to justify Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In Roth’s novels, the greatest enemy is often an overactive conscience. ‘That tyrant, my superego, he should be strung up, that son of a bitch, hung by his fucking storm-trooper’s boots till he’s dead!’ Alex Portnoy screams. The forms of domination in Asymmetry are more subtle. Pleasure is not a reliable index of freedom; games are not a reliable substitute for war; American democracy is not a reliable check on American imperialism. Music, synonymous throughout the book with the pursuit of happiness, can seduce you into an imaginative connection with others or it can divide you from them.

Late in Alice’s romance with Ezra, she is summoned for jury duty. After watching a short orientation film, she is let out early. ‘It reminded her of social studies and in the end did not really ask of her very much – only that she not take her civil liberties for granted, and when had she ever done that?’ On her way back to Ezra’s apartment, she stops at a bar and drinks two glasses of wine, then puts her money down ‘next to a section of newspaper containing the headline Baghdad Bomb Kills Up to 27, Most Children’. At the opera house, a big band is playing and people have gathered in the square to dance.

Under a wide white sky the sea of bouncing arms and swinging hips rocked metronomically; every now and again a limb was flung with such enthusiasm it looked liable to dislodge. A few bodies moved sluggishly, with concentration, irony, or age, but a gritty determination to keep moving at all costs appeared to be unanimous. Tall men danced with short women, tall women with short men, old men with young women and old ladies with old ladies; near the bag check three children skipped around their maypole of a mother on red-blinking heels. Some dancers danced alone, or with invisible partners, or, in a few rogue cases, in a well-sealed zone of avant-gardist expression. Teenage girls rolled themselves easily under bridges made by their own arms while less elastic bodies snagged halfway and let go in favour of a baggy Charleston.

It’s the final scene of a feel-good movie about New York; but the mood is all wrong. The dancers are like sleepwalkers, each lost in their own private delirium. One elderly couple, swaying in oblivion, are so caught up in the music it seems nothing can disturb them. Only in hindsight do you realise the cost of abdicating your responsibility.

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