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In 2003 the English novelist James Lasdun, who lives in upstate New York, taught a fiction workshop; among his students was an Iranian-born woman he calls Nasreen.
He admired her writing, and a couple of years later, when she had completed the draft of a novel, he put her in touch with his agent and met her for coffee. By then a friendly e-mail exchange had begun.
But her frequent messages burgeoned into a flood that exploded into an “electronic tsunami.” He stopped responding. Then she turned hostile.
As Lasdun recounts in “Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked,” Nasreen accused him of stealing her work and giving it to other young novelists and, even more outlandishly, of arranging to have her raped (though she never claimed they had had any sexual contact).
She soon began sending crazy e-mails to his colleagues and employers, Lasdun says. Sometimes she signed them with his name. Her charges showed up on his Amazon (AMZN) and Goodreads pages and in the comments sections of his online book reviews.
The harassment never crossed the threshold of bodily threat that would have sent the cops into action. By the time Lasdun sought their help, she had moved to California, and they didn’t think the D.A. would find the case grave enough to have her extradited. Still, they advised him not to block her messages in case she sent him one that was truly actionable.
False accusations are such a primal offense against ethics that their prohibition is enshrined in the Ninth Commandment. They leave you feeling besmirched however innocent you are.
“Surely something as black and billowing as these e- mails,” Lasdun writes, “must indicate that I was guilty of something.” He goes searching down a hundred back alleys in his own mind and imagines almost as many in Nasreen’s.
Often he’s hard on himself, but toward Nasreen he’s more bewildered than hostile. In the context of Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” for example, he notes that his stalker’s “gleefully uninhibited aggression” suggests a “likely proximity to some unendurable pain.”
A graceful critic, he finds many such literary parallels. He cites apposite twists in the medieval English poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and in novels by Patricia Highsmith (“Strangers on a Train”) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (“The Penitent”).
Lasdun is of Jewish extraction (though not religious himself), and Nasreen’s e-mails were viciously anti-Semitic. The book closes with a contemplative visit to Jerusalem. But this ending is both unresolved and unsatisfying, a flaw in an otherwise stinging little book.
It’s easy to see what went wrong. The story hasn’t ended: “Nasreen’s e-mails continue.” There’s a deeper evasion at work, though.
The hyperconscious Lasdun isn’t the kind of writer to leave an irony unpalpated. Yet he tells his story as though he’s oblivious of the poison tree that looms over his whole project.
All along Nasreen’s e-mails were saying, “Pay attention to me!” What greater gift could you give such an unbridled narcissist than this memoir? In showing the world how a head case had the force of will to make the figure she was obsessed with obsessed with her, it’s a stalker’s dream come true.
The melancholy reflections that close it may not make it sound like a cliffhanger, but my guess is that every reader who’s been riveted by the tale will shut the book hungry for the next installment and prey to the same thought I had:
How is Nasreen going to react?
“Give Me Everything You Have” is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S. and Jonathan Cape in the U.K. (218 pages, $25, 14.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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