In the fall of 2003, James Lasdun taught a writing workshop at a university in New York City. One of the students in his class was a talented Iranian woman he, for reasons which will become obvious, pseudonymously calls “Nasreen’’ in this account.
Nasreen was writing a novel set during the fall of the shah, and amid the regular dreck of a writing workshop, her work stood out, even if the writer herself remained withdrawn in class.
After the class ended, prompted by her skill and an e-mail she sent to him in 2005, Lasdun did what any thoughtful professor would do. He offered advice about her work and tentatively promised to read it. One e-mail turned to a few, and awkwardly — for the power dynamic between student and teacher never recedes — they became friendly correspondents.
It was a decision Lasdun would live to regret.
“Give Me Everything You Have” tells the agonizing true saga of how, after Lasdun rejected Nasreen’s romantic advances, and the prospects of her novel being published diminished, a mildly flirtatious relationship escalated into a prolonged one-sided campaign of verbal terrorism against him, most of it occuring over the Internet.
Lasdun has always been a suspenseful writer, keenly aware of the boundary between obsession and madness. His 2002 novel, “The Horned Man,” portrays the grip of paranoia which overcomes a university professor who believes he is being framed for a series of sex crimes. “How had I managed to lay myself open to an act of such preposterously elaborate vindictiveness,” the hero wonders.
Here Lasdun asks himself the same question. Walking the reader through the early days of their friendship, he rarely chronicles an escalation without also interrogating his own response to it. Why did he not cease their exchange once it started becoming more personal? Of all students why did he decide to help this one?
These prismatic waves of self-questioning do not just make for a psychologically rich narrative. They also aptly recreate the vortex of doubt into which stalking — particularly cyberstalking — plunges its victim. Nasreen’s protestations of love begin to alternate with threats. Ten, twenty e-mails a day. When Lasdun goes quiet she flings two of the most radioactive words in academia: rape and plagiarism.
Splicing Nasreen’s e-mails into the text, Lasdun performs a kind of textual analysis on them, watching as she tries out a concept, seeming to weigh its destructive power, and then takes it public. Nasreen e-mails his agent, his colleagues, future and past employers, leaves notes in the comment section of newspaper articles he writes and in the Amazon.com feedback pages of his books.
There are, amid the rising moments of terror this book recalls, moments of humor. A future employer is willing to give Lasdun a pass on the sex stuff; he’s almost impressed. But he expresses concern about the allegations of stolen words. Nasreen begins calling companies in Lasdun’s name asking for brochures. One day the university calls him saying a representative from Hummer, the SUV manufacturer, wants to speak to him.
In Lasdun’s portrayal, she is her own worst enemy in the credibility department, though. No sooner does she raise a damaging claim — that he stole from her work — then she escalates it into something bizarre — that he sold stolen sections to other Iranian novelists. And she tops it off with a healthy dose of hateful anti-Semitic remarks (he is Jewish).
It gets weirder. When this doesn’t get attention, she claims he has orchestrated (somehow before they met) her rape while she worked at a magazine. “Would you like to see me in a veil, sir?” She alternates. “I’m sorry I offended you. You need a garden full of me. Get a toupee.”
The oscillation, from hostility to apology, from sanity to fantasy, is so aggressive it ultimately achieves its aim. Lasdun can think of nothing but her. When threats turn to hate speech and tilt toward describing violence (“die,” etc), the NYPD and FBI are called in, Shockingly, they say there is little they can do.
Once this book pulls you into its dark orbit, it refuses to simply spin round and round Nasreen’s abuses. Passages of light emerge, especially when Lasdun reflects on his childhood ambivalence with religion, his Anglo-Jewish background, and his titanically successful architect father, who designed, among other buildings, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. It’s as if Lasdun has resigned himself to self-examination, but on his own terms.
Bit by bit, as Lasdun examines the interior space Nasreen’s abuse tried to fill with herself, his sentences reclaim it by writing into the past, into the spaces she could not go because they are not public. They are his.
Threaded through these memoirs, as well as a beautiful description of a cross-country train trip he took in the middle of the worst time, Lasdun looks for literary antecedents to her behavior.
“A large part of understanding something is finding analogies for it,” Lasdun concludes. “What is it like?” So in this memoir he refers to Patricia Highsmith; he retells the tale of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” all nicely tuned references. But the reference points are largely unnecessary. The story is gripping and cold and ought to be read by every college professor in this country. But most importantly, after eight years of spinning out of control, now it’s his.John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of The Tyranny of E-mail.