Give Me Everything You Have

Animals caught in leg-hold traps have been known to go so far as to chew off their own limbs to get free. Ensnare a writer and he does his own version of self-liberation: he writes his way out. Spring by spring, lever by lever, he dismantles that which was meant to dismantle him. Then he uses the pieces to build his own trap, this time for the reader. When the writer in question is James Lasdun, one is practically joyous at having been caught. The adroit narrative he builds from the ugly hardware of his tormentor, a former writing student who stalks him for years in an escalating barrage of online hostility, is as complex as insanity itself, as addictive as the obsession it describes. 

 

There was no forewarning -- or was there? In Give Me Everything You Have, Lasdun cross-examines himself tirelessly, preempting the reader's curiosity that he bears any complicity in inciting the latently fatal attraction of the woman he names Nasreen -- Persian for "wild rose," perhaps his reminder that some flowers come with thorns -- and determines that the evidence is borderless. He searches for it for over wide territory both intellectual and literal, at D. H. Lawrence's Kiowa Ranch and in Jerusalem, in the "redistributive accuracy" of meaning transferred to his present situation from literature as diverse as Patricia Highsmith, I. B. Singer, and (most hauntingly) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He concludes that the trials of both that hero and himself leave each "a man forgiven everything by everyone but himself." Lasdun is as fine a reader as he is a writer, and that is saying something.

 

It starts simply enough, then. He admires the work Nasreen produces in his graduate writing class; a couple of years later, she initiates a chatty correspondence exactly like the dozens every writer of note conducts with those who seek him out, and that are made instantly intimate by the illusory proximities of email. 

 

To say Nasreen's messages become mixed is to say that the forest fire burned a few twigs. Her communications veer from declarations of desire ("I do love you and am in love with you"; "you love me james") to venomous accusations that he had affairs with students, had somehow arranged for her to be drugged and raped before he met her, had pilfered pieces of the life story she had so amicably shared, for use in his own fiction -- he is a lauded novelist, short story writer, and poet -- and schemed to sell her unpublished work to other Iranian writers who then received the international acclaim she deserved. Too crazy for belief? Absolutely. But in the interwebs, one statement on the glowing screen is equal to any other. There's no Good Housekeeping Seal for online book reviews, or Wikipedia edits. 

 

Nasreen's crusade became ever more serious: "I will ruin him." It operated simultaneously inward and outward, in a stream of invective ingeniously crafted to abrade not only his reputation (she sent accusations of impropriety to his employers, agent, editors) and character (the acid of anti-Semitism and taunts of declining virility were thrown in his face) but his very sense of self-determination. You really can't escape email: it has become the sole interlocutory voice in our conversation with society. Lovers sitting side by side in bed instant message each other; family members eschew talk for type; Google, not self-reflection, is how you find out who you are in the world. Lasdun could block her messages, but he knew they were there, and she knew he knew, and that becomes one of the most deadly weapons in the peculiar assault that is stalking.  Once sent, a message arrives; a dozen are as easy to fire off as one. Besides, he had to open himself to their poison, in case a threat became legally actionable. Pressed finally to seek help from the authorities, he instead found himself the object of suspicion. It's a wonder she did not succeed in making him permanently mad. Online stalking is a gyre that draws in the victim and turns him around and upside down. 

  

These curious effects are all considered in depth by the author, who teases out the strands of this tight braid: the nature of obsession; how one can be drawn unawares into "the realm of stricken enchantment" (lovely phrase, as is just about every other one on these 200-odd pages) where "the magical thinking of the primitive mind...converges with the paranoias peculiar to our own age"; and the downright strangeness of a writer being given the occasion to attempt a book like this. He remarks on nearly every implication of doing so, even to embedding the ideal promotional copy within the text itself -- he aimed to write the type of book "that would interest me, both as writer and as reader: wide-ranging, unpredictable, but unified by a single, elemental conflict" -- yet the final irony goes unsaid. 

 

Nasreen had baselessly accused him of plagiarizing, and although he praises her writing, it is flatly incomprehensible that the author of nine published works, among them a novel longlisted for the Man Booker Prize (Seven Lies), prizewinning poems, and a collection of stories that impelled an important critic to assert, "When we read him we know what language is for again," would be inclined to steal. Still, the urge to defend one's honor -- as representative, really, of one's essence, therefore one's life -- is so acute it's like the need to surface after being held underwater. He will never get back all that she stole -- "everything you have" -- but he has made sure to inflict some perversely beautiful damage of his own. The final irony goes unsaid because it is enacted: James Lasdun has now published Nasreen's words in a book bearing his name. It is his revenge to take full possession of her accusations in an act of true forgery.  He works the hot metal of her anger until it becomes wholly his creation, cool, smooth, and exquisite: literature at last.

April 19: "What you see first, after the starting gun's crack, is a column of bobbing runners, thousands of them, surging downhill..."

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