At first, Asymmetry seems like a story we've heard before: Young, pretty would-be writer Alice launches an affair with Ezra, a literary celebrity several decades her senior. He gets a stent, she gets an abortion, he teaches her to pronounce Camus ("It's CA-MOO, sweetheart"), she picks up his meds, he calls her a "good girl," she calls him "cradle robber."
For the first few chapters, it seemed too tired and too insular a story to hear again all for the meagre reward of watching a lightly disguised Philip Roth ejaculate "like a weak water bubbler."
But as Asymmetry progresses, its quietly subversive undercurrents grow stronger and the story resolves into an interesting meditation on creativity, empathy, and the anxiety of influence. In the most obvious of the book's many asymmetries, Alice struggles to escape from Ezra's certainty, his awards, his taste in books, his boulder-sized talent, always dragging along behind them.
How could she be a writer? "After all, hadn't he already said everything she wanted to say"? His success seemed to preclude the possibility of hers — making it seem like her romantic and creative liberation must go hand in hand: "[A]s she lay with her bra around her waist and her arms around his head she marvelled at how his brain was right there, under her chin, and so easily contained by the narrow space between her elbows. It began as a playful thought, but suddenly she distrusted herself to resist crushing that head, turning off that brain."
Among Ezra's many literary injunctions is one against sentimentalizing strangers. Focus on those close to you, he advises, when Alice is overanalyzing the homeless man wearing too many coats, or a struggling halal hot dog vendor. As a result, Alice starts to "consider really rather seriously whether a former choirgirl from Massachusetts might be capable of conjuring the consciousness of a Muslim man ..."
Years pass, measured in Nobel prize announcements (Ezra, like Roth, always misses out), and then Asymmetry suddenly molts its feathers, as if a pigeon you had been idly watching from a park bench turned into a beautiful, startling flamingo in the middle of Central Park. A new book begins, one about a Muslim man, though not a hot dog vendor.
Amar is an economist and the American son of Iraqi Kurdish immigrants. He is detained at Heathrow Airport on his way to Iraq, where his brother has disappeared. From the holding area in Terminal Five, he remembers his brother: "Who disappears? Not a man with a belly laugh. Not a man whose hands, when he plays a piano, make an octave look like an inch. The last time I saw my brother, leaning gigantically back in his plastic garden chair, he grinned and brushed unseen particles from his biceps, then lifted his face to scan the clouds fleeting west like an exodus across the Kurdish sky."
Amar's story, in contrast to the meek stylishness of Alice's, is bold, mournful, and unabashed, told in a graceful, forceful first person. Though Amar's section could stand on its own (Alice's might not), the juxtaposition of these two stories is wonderfully suggestive: To what extent can we inhabit each other? What can we know about each other? How do we think about the suffering of others, and where do we put the blame? Can Alice inhabit Kurdistan, and Amar inhabit Alice? Asymmetry is a novel not only about the creation of that novel, but about the borders of empathy.
The book's final chapter is an interview with Ezra, some years later, which – and this might be a spoiler — confirms our suspicion that the previous section was Alice's creative jailbreak. As Amar thinks, "We all disappear down the rabbit hole now and again ... Sometimes you just want someone else to take over for a little while, to rein in freedom that has become a little too free. Too lonely, too lacking in structure, too exhaustingly autonomous. Sometimes we jump into the hold, sometimes we allow ourselves to be pulled in, sometimes, not entirely inadvertently, we trip." Amar is talking about God, but what he says is true of any power asymmetry. That Amar is so much more alive than Alice is her triumph.
"Everyone's hourglass was running down," Alice thinks. "As soon as you are born the sand starts falling and only by demanding to be remembered do you stand a chance of it being upturned again and again." By herself, Alice is forgettable, but in Amar, she demands to be remembered. Asymmetry is a guidebook to being bigger than ourselves.