Review: Give Me Everything You Have, by James Lasdun
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by Bonnie Altucher
A memoirist meditates on the experience of being stalked
To date, James Lasdun’s website remains cryptic, informing us that we have reached the only reliable source of information about the author of two highly praised novels and several collections of poems and short stories, while divulging little else about him. Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, Lasdun’s tense new memoir, sheds light on this evasiveness. While teaching a writing workshop in New York in 2003, Lasdun encouraged a talented young Iranian student he calls “Nasreen” to pursue her first novel; two years later she contacts him again. A lively email exchange ensues, the somewhat older, married man gamely assuming the role of “avuncular, eunuchy” mentor, while Nasreen’s tone swings from muted deference to manic flirtation. Eventually alarmed by the tempo and seductiveness of her communiqués, Lasdun permanently signs off, unleashing a “torrent” of emails, in which Nasreen accuses him of being a “stereotype of a Jew” as well as having engineered her rape by proxy. She also charges him with running a student-fiction plagiarism ring and systematically bedding female classmates. Similar smears surface in an Amazon review and his Wikipedia entry. Employers and colleagues are copied on the lurid emails. “I began to consider the word ‘honor,’” Lasdun says, describing his dread upon checking his inbox, “as something more than an antique formula, and the word ‘reputation’ as something other than an index of value in the literary marketplace.” Helpless to stop — or to stop obsessing about — the daily unraveling of his electronic reputation, he becomes “a compulsive self-googler….like a malady from some Victorian hygiene pamphlet.”
Well, that would explain the low web profile.
To a reader of Lasdun’s fiction, this noirish scenario sounds like a case of life mirroring art. In The Horned Man, his elegant, twisty first novel, a prim professor who sits on his college’s sexual harassment committee begins to suspect that he is being framed as a violent sexual predator. What begins as a poetically menacing cat-and-mouse story develops into an abstract study of guilt, identity and their tricky reciprocity. Similarly, in Give Me Everything You Have, Lasdun interrogates the uncanny bond of harasser and victim. “I want to understand this tormentor…who knows the workings of my mind so intricately and uses them so cleverly to make me suffer.” When Nasreen accuses him of drawing on her student fiction as an inspiration for a recently published short story, he considers whether he is in fact “guilty of appropriating some kind of echo or semblance of her ‘essence’ for literary purposes.” “We are in the realm of the Gothic here,” Lasdun muses uneasily, of “mind control, telepathic metamorphosis.”
Lasdun weaves an associative mediation on honor, plagiarism and the zombie-like eternal resurgence of anti-Semitism through allusions to Tintin, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Macbeth and Sylvia Plath. We follow his pilgrimages to D. H. Lawrence’s last residence in Santa Fe — Lasdun has written on Lawrence — and finally to Jerusalem’s Western (Wailing) Wall, where he travels to research an article about his architect father’s aborted assignment to reconstruct the symbolically freighted Hurva Synagogue. Throughout these digressions, Lasdun’s instincts remain solidly novelistic, with the “shape-shifting, quasi-phantasmal” persona of Nasreen persisting as Give Me Everything’s core enigma. “There was…something manifestly creative in her unstoppable productivity, a vitality I couldn’t help envying,” admits Lasdun, after five years of daily harassment. The memoir delivers substantial chunks of her “delirious” and sometimes witty emails, from which its title is appositely plagiarized. Will the real “Nasreen” recognize herself in this heavily transcribed likeness? It’s a testament to Lasdun’s empathic portrayal that we care.
He concludes his investigation in Jerusalem with a stupendous local metaphor for the agglomerated desire, fantasy and impotence that drive the internet. This “seething electronic data cloud” to which one “attributes a kind of human consciousness” emerges as his memoir’s most troubling subject. “Spite,” says Lasdun, “has never had such an efficent instrument at its disposal.”
Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked (224 pages) will be released on February 12, 2013.
— Bonnie Altucher writes fiction in Manhattan. You can find her here.