Lasdun progresses from confusion to horror as he realizes the scope of Nasreen’s campaign to “ruin” him. From her voluminous correspondence (with himself and an expanding array of his associates), Lasdun gathers that he is racist, misogynist, and Zionist; that he has appropriated Nasreen’s ideas for use in his fiction, slept with his students (although not Nasreen herself), and conspired with his agent and an editor to sell material from Nasreen’s novel-in-progress to other writers. He hopes that most of her accusations are obviously absurd, but he also believes in the power of words—and in the tendency of people to believe what they read.
The Internet, he suggests, has perhaps reversed the modern tendency to favor verified fact over rumor, allowing notions of reputation and honor to regain the traction they had in the past. Online we’re not so different from medieval knights or Victorian governesses: All we have are our good names, and any outlandish smear may tarnish them. You will be judged based on “this strange new emanation of yourself, your Internet presence.” Fortunately for Lasdun, though, the eerie weightlessness of online words can also allow them to vanish: Lasdun reports Amazon slanders and they go away, as does the fart joke Nasreen slipped into his Wikipedia page. Years later, a thorough Googling won’t turn up much to damage his reputation. (GoodReads, unlike Amazon, has no “report” function, so her one-star review of his “racist and horribly frightening” story collection remains.) But the most visible sign of Nasreen’s handiwork is Lasdun’s own extreme vigilance. “This is the official website of the writer James Lasdun, and the only reliably accurate source of information about his work,” announces jameslasdun.com.
“You don’t have to be a writer to imagine how it feels to find yourself the object of a malicious attack on the Internet," Lasdun writes, and indeed, his story makes a thoughtful addition to broader conversations about “cyberbullying.” Still, he seems uncomfortable with the implications of writing about his own life. “Why should anyone but me be interested in these intimate, personal matters?” he wonders while working on a poem about his father, chiding himself for not addressing more “self-evidently important subjects.” This concern seems to haunt his memoir as well, and he addresses it partly by engaging with Nasreen’s attacks in the same geopolitical vocabulary she’s adopted. “It seemed to confer a more dignified solemnity on our conflict,” he writes. “Better to be found complicit in the original sins of Israeli history than in some act of petty plagiarism.”
Late in the book, in fact, Lasdun actually travels to Jerusalem, which doesn’t quite seem like the most effective response to Nasreen’s “verbal terrorism”—either for practical purposes or literary resonance. What a reader might find to be a more persuasive understanding of her behavior—that it’s a product of mental illness—Lasdun admits that he prefers to ignore. “As soon as you reduce human behavior to a pathology,” he writes, “it becomes, for literary purposes, less interesting (at least to me).” But his own response to that pathology, his attempts to resist its chaos, are interesting; much more so than the disquisitions on Israel and literature that he presents in an apparent effort to establish his story’s broader significance.
Lasdun is scrupulously polite, self-deprecating, and deliberate as he presents his saga. He’s at pains to acknowledge any burdens placed on his audience’s interest or belief. His account is salted with little apologies for subjectivity; I lost count of the number of asides along the lines of “(at least to me).” But his flights of writerly fancy can provoke impatience, and (at least for me) guilt over that impatience. Reflections on his father, an account of a train trip—he’d been so generous with his empathy for me as a reader, and I couldn’t even allow him this? No, evidently I could not. Come on, back to the crazy lady. Paranoia begins to seem like Nasreen’s lasting curse. In her wake, Lasdun’s self-flagellation is exhaustive and sometimes exhausting. He admits everything (unseemly attractions, unfair judgments, vestigial prejudices) before any imagined adversary can accuse him.
Also paranoiac, in a different sense, is the endlessly evolving network of literary analogies he assembles. The Duino Elegies, The Penitent, Sylvia Plath, DH Lawrence, Strangers on a Train, Tintin, Gawain and the Green Knight—after a while it begins to look like everything is connected to everything else and it all connects back to Lasdun. In an acutely stressful and irrational situation, he explains, “you start to attach great importance to any circumstance that resonates with your own. These things become your signs: the clues that, if you follow them correctly, will enable you (so you believe) to penetrate the mystery that stands before you.”
Of course Lasdun doesn’t actually think everything is all about him. He’s too modest and too self-aware, as his constant apologies make clear. But the palpable effort required to analyze online experiences without sounding like an egotistical maniac (IS EVERYONE LOOKING AT ME?) comes to seem like the book’s central concern. While Internet privacy (timely!) and stalking (scandalous!) are snazzy talking points, Give Me Everything You Have is most revealing as a psychological portrait of lives split online and off, and difficulty of weighing what happens in one world against the other. Nasreen’s behavior and Lasdun’s response suggest different solutions to the same problems: They’re both struggling to keep themselves in balance, without the steady certainty of solid ground.
Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
TODAY IN SLATE
More Than Scottish Pride
Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself.
What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture
Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You
Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows
Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?
The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.
Happy Constitution Day!
Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.