Our lives rarely turn out the way we plan. Perhaps it’s to counter this pervasive sense of uncertainty that so many people feel compelled to write memoirs of perseverance, reframing the shifts their lives have taken into a sure-footed narrative arc. But confusion is the reigning feeling in James Lasdun’s new memoir Give Me Everything You Have (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A highly regarded, New York-based British novelist, essayist, and poet, Lasdun writes about being stalked for more than six years, unable to do a thing about it. “I’m not so sure of anything anymore,” Lasdun tells us early on in the book. His memoir is a portrait not of growth but of paralyzed shock at the Internet’s capacity to turn one of his best students into an encroaching virtual monster.
Give Me Everything You Can is Lasdun’s last-ditch effort to finally stop his stalker, a former student whom he calls Nasreen, after several failed attempts to involve the police. Every day, Nasreen, an aspiring Iranian-American novelist, sends him a vicious, incessant stream of e-mails that are often anti-Semitic; in one message, she calls him a “fucking faggot coward” and in another she says, “I think the Holocaust was fucking funny.” Sometimes, Nasreen writes e-mails to his colleagues in the literary world—editors and writing department chairs—in which she accuses Lasdun of sleeping with his students and selling their drafts to burned-out writers who can’t come up with their own ideas. (Her claims are usually ludicrous, but Lasdun, who finds nothing about his situation funny, is vehement when he assures the reader that nothing Nasreen says is true.)
Nasreen was once the star student of the graduate-level fiction workshop Lasdun taught at a New York university he calls Morgan College. In the classroom, Nasreen was pleasantly self-effacing. She was in her early thirties, working on a novel based loosely on her family’s experience during the Iranian Revolution, while most of her younger classmates were writing short stories about romantic misadventures in Brooklyn. In person, Lasdun recalls, Nasreen was poised and private. She rarely spoke about personal matters, but during one of their meetings she made quick reference to a fiancé. “There was something novelistic in the attitude to life it evoked,” Lasdun writes of her impending marriage. “I approved.”
Two years after graduating, Nasreen sends Lasdun an e-mail seeking his advice about publishing her book. Lasdun is reluctant, at first, to respond—while he admired Nasreen’s work, he’s no longer teaching and he’s busy with books of his own, including a travel guide he’s co-writing with his wife. Still, they start corresponding. Lasdun, who has turned 50 and is feeling ambivalent about it, writes Nasreen chatty, casual e-mails, fearful of otherwise appearing too avuncular; she addresses him coyly as “sir.” As Nasreen breaks up with her fiancé and makes little progress with her novel, her messages become more frequent and desperate. Her attachment to Lasdun appears to be in direct proportion to the number of literary rejections she receives elsewhere; when she’s at her lowest, he seems the only tether to her identity as a writer. Ignoring Lasdun’s insistence that he is happily married, she professes her love.
Dozens of e-mails begin to arrive from Nasreen each day. Sometimes they’re pleas (“why do you deny me???”) and other times reproaches (“you’re unethical, an ‘irresponsible hippy’”); later on, they become directly hostile (“I wish ill health and disaster ... for you and your family”). Nasreen seems to regard the Internet as a place without consequence, a virtual Las Vegas, where different versions of reality can compete for public attention. Online, she is so detached from her own identity that she freely shares her private exchanges and giddily sends articles from other people’s e-mail addresses. She forwards Lasdun a series of emails between her and a lawyer concerning another man she is suing for sexual harassment. Nasreen shows occasional flashes of self-awareness, writing, for example, “You are a kind man, James. I don’t think you’re the caricature of a white man but I’m hoping I’ve pissed you off. It brings color to the cheeks.” In addition to e-mailing Lasdun’s colleagues and editors, she posts cruel, verbose reviews on his Amazon page and on other websites where he’s mentioned. She’s clear with Lasdun about her goal: “I will ruin you.”
Lasdun’s book makes vivid the permeability of online identities and reminds us how terrifyingly difficult it is to redact what is written on the Internet. One false statement—by anyone—and a legacy is forever questioned. For those of us who don’t know code, spending time online carries the risks of traveling to a foreign country where we don’t speak the language. Nasreen isn’t even a hacker—her tech skills are rather basic—and we wonder after the reading the book how much of our online identities and activities we should expect to control.
The memoir’s opening chapters, rattling with tension, are meant to be read with an obsessiveness that recalls the woman we’re reading about. Lasdun’s background is literary noir; building suspense is his forte, and a thick, early uncertainty around the narrator adds to the sense that anything could happen to him. But then, a third of the way through the book, instead of inquiring into Nasreen’s past and further unfurling the perverse mystery he’s begun, Lasdun turns inwards. He ponders whether he has done anything to instigate such frenzy. He recalls the first time he received positive feedback on his writing from a professor, and how that experience ended up transforming the student-teacher relationship. “By giving me explicit authorization to think of myself as a writer, he had become entangled in my fate, which in turn had imbued him—or more precisely, caused my mind to flood its image of him—with godlike powers,” Lasdun writes.
Lasdun concedes, too, that the attraction had been mutual at first. “If I had not been married, or if I had been less than happily immured in my own domestic existence, things might have developed in a very different way between me and Nasreen. It makes me wince a little to acknowledge this.” Lasdun is too well-mannered in these intellectualized passages to delight in his own fecklessness, as Philip Roth would. While he can write about the procedurals of an online relationship in precise, dramatic prose, he seems unsure about how to express one’s feelings about the Internet, or whether one’s supposed to have feelings about the Internet at all. He’s interested less in Nasreen—his once sweet, now clearly unstable former student—than in her terrifying avatar, and it’s as if he hasn’t quite parsed the connection between the two. “As soon as you reduce human behavior to a pathology,” Lasdun writes, “it becomes, for literary purposes, less interesting.” If he were to look into Nasreen’s medical records, his memoir would quickly turn into a confrontation with mental illness. But this is a book about the Internet.
At one point, Lasdun commiserates with a few friends who have also been victims of stalking. “A writer friend who had judged a literary competition was being plagued with abuse by one of the entrants … A therapist I knew was being sued by a former patient whom she had helped find a job that hadn’t worked out.” All of these friends, like Lasdun, started out holding more power than the people they consider their oppressors. He points this out not to understate the extent of his victimhood—he truly feels that Nasreen has ruined his life—but to highlight an overriding sense of confusion. His situation with Nasreen is even toying with his political identity, provoking him to set aside his self-conception as a man of good, liberal values and exert power through writing in an uncharacteristically dramatic way. Judging from his many apologetic asides, Lasdun seems slightly uncomfortable with his choice to publish this memoir in the first place.
In the final section of the book, Lasdun travels to Israel and reflects on Palestine, anti-Semitism, and the legacy of his father, a prominent English architect. He muses about Isaac Singer, a fresco by Giovanni Canavesio, and a woman he meets in a hotel elevator and later pretends not to remember. He’s flailing, adjusting to a reality in which he’s at risk of things he never thought possible. The Internet is still a fairly new frontier, where a degree of power can be claimed by anyone with a Twitter account. Lasdun’s diffuse, anxious memoir is in many ways its perfect reflection.