If you are a person at all familiar with the internet, you will be aware of one of its most problematic features: the pop-up. It is a thing that strikes at will, a spring-hinged box conjured by inadvertent clicking, containing within it a combination of image and text that is likely to make you feel dirtier than you are. The text is usually a sort of announcement, speaking in the second person to a vague audience, casting an absurdly wide net in hopes that the “you” of casual address will fall safely into it.
“YOU WILL GET LAID TONIGHT”
“YOU WILL MEET RUSSIAN WOMEN”
The narrator of these statements will often assume that “you” are male, and following that, that “you” have an interest in Russian women and in sexual imagery of the most generic variety. Already it seeks to know you, to speak to you, and in speaking to you to shoulder you with an identity it finds it convenient for you to possess. It’s an odd sort of rudeness, but most of us are used to it. We’re well aware that the internet is a place of wild assumptions with very few opportunities to verify or stabilize any kind of truth about who or what one is. It’s understood that it doesn’t quite matter there. It is a realm in which the fabula of one’s life—that is, the series of chronological events that comprise the story of one’s life—is at the total mercy of the syuzhet—the way that story is told, chronologically or not, truthfully or not, realistically or not. Though the syuzhet is half the fun of any story getting told, the problem is that it is not always ours to control—as those few ambivalent Facebook stragglers finally forced to adopt Timeline have come to find out. It is something half in our control—through the tools of omission, embellishment, and full-on fabrication—and half imposed. The internet encourages a person to lie about their identity by making lying as easy as choosing, meanwhile gleaning whatever it can from the choices we make. In this way the same system that allows a male to lie about his gender by checking the female box doesn’t allow for another person to be truthful about their own by providing only two boxes to check.
It is this atmosphere, specific to this exact time and place and evolutionary stage of the internet that makes James Lasdun’s new memoir Give Me Everything You Have not only possible, but pertinent: a sort of artifact of this awkward stage of internet culture. It is this ease with which identity can be reinvented that defines its main character, a woman whose “porousness in her sense of who she actually was” goes hand in hand with the medium through which her expression thrives.
This is Nasreen, a Persian-American woman in her mid-thirties whom Lasdun taught in a graduate fiction workshop in 2003. Years afterward she reconnected with him via email, sparking up a correspondence destined to turn from friendly to psychotic with something of the same mystical progression of Glenn Close going from sexy to crazy in Fatal Attraction, the story of which bears many unsettling similarities to Lasdun’s own. Only his is nonfiction, and there’s no sex to speak of. So what, in this seemingly innocent relationship, went wrong?
This question belongs to the first section of the book: a chronologically told, clinically written case study in which Lasdun recounts his first encounter with Nasreen as a student. He recalls seeing her as being somewhat aloof, sitting apart from the rest of the class and not saying much, revealing her talent only later in the term during a workshop where she unveils her ambitious work-in-progress, a sweeping sociopolitical drama of 1970s Tehran.
Two years later, Nasreen contacts Lasdun to show him the revised product, with an eye toward selling it. Lasdun shows the work to his agent, who finds it too incomplete to take on at the moment. Nasreen takes this news well, and their correspondence continues amicably for a time until her increasingly romantic overtures toward the happily married Lasdun force him to be more “explicitly discouraging.” When this doesn’t work, he tries ignoring her altogether. Her response to this is a multi-fold attack on Lasdun’s character via Wikipedia entry, Amazon reviews, the comment section of his Guardian column and, of course, his inbox. She tries her best to smear his name, accusing him of sexual misconduct, alerting his colleagues to her belief that he stole her work, and emailing him countless times a day with confrontational, wounding accusations that are somehow never quite deadly enough for the police to feel the need to get involved. Her remarks range from the nasty to the paranoid to the anti-Semitic (she claims Lasdun and his agent plotted to steal her work as part of a Jewish conspiracy) to the occasionally lovelorn.
On message boards and public forums she tends to write in her own voice. Private correspondence is more complicated. At a certain point, Nasreen discovers she can pose as others by forwarding random articles and substituting another person’s email address for her own on the submission form, and using the personal message space to write something disturbing in the voice of that person. The discovery of this weird loophole enables her to speak though email in the voice of Lasdun’s agent, his colleague, or himself. The one internet-enabled persona she does not take advantage of—perhaps unsurprisingly—is anonymity. In her early emails she’d been fond of alluding to the Angel of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, a character for whom, Lasdun quotes Heidegger as saying, “borderlines and differences…hardly exist any longer…” No matter how many personae she takes on, the voice remains the same, aggressive and illiterate.
As herself: “You fucking faggot coward, say something!”
“i hope your kids die…Die traitor-ugly-bitches…DIE”
As one of Lasdun’s colleagues: “Look, I got breast implants!”
As Lasdun: “Don’t you know that art is dead and Israel is great?”
But this is mere fabula, and one whose tabloid proportions are riveting enough for a less interesting author to have let stand alone. It is at this point, having laid out the “facts,” that Lasdun busts out the syuzhet: a retracing of events infused with hypothesis, deliberation and meditation. Lasdun now gives us the story of hidden clues and tangled perspectives, unfolding Memento-like in a rough approximation of how it actually went down. The pace of this over-the-shoulder backtracking builds at a neurotic speed, slow, yet ominous. What’s going to happen next? We’re now in the vice grip of the story, treading over seemingly covered ground to see what we’ve missed.
At this point, the first question reasserts itself, but is posed in more sensitive language. How does a seemingly sane, talented, together person turn into a self-described “verbal terrorist”? What, asks Lasdun, were the signs and symptoms? Lasdun at this point is very much aware of himself as the narrator of a tale whose logic he still doesn’t quite understand, a duality which may at any point in time be pointed out to counter his narrative reliability. Because of this, the voice is also cautious, checking and balancing at every turn, and favoring careful conjecture over blind assumption. Lasdun, it becomes clear, wants to understand his tormentor, to get inside her head and to see himself and his own actions from this unfamiliar vantage point. He also seems aware that this is impossible. Gallantly he retraces his steps, make the greatest possible allowances for how all of it came to pass. Gallantly, he refuses to see himself as innocent in the matter. “Did I bring nothing to the encounter, no half-finished narratives of my own?” he wonders, having admitted earlier to a “kind of latent, hereditary entitlement to be interested” in Persian culture, stemming from his father’s (the architect Sir Denys Lasdun) professed love for the visual culture of Iran, which translates, in Lasdun’s own dealings with Nasreen, as a sexless exoticization of her falling just shy of Orientalism. He describes her as possessing an “enigmatic exterior” (most likely due, he admits, to “the corniest archetype of demure Middle Eastern womanhood as concocted in the Western male psyche”), with a style of communication in their early correspondence he finds to be like “something of another era…even of another culture.” The shape of her eyes put him “in mind of the scimitar-like flourishes of Arabic script.”
The point at which Lasdun begins to look at himself first looking at Nasreen, seeing himself making assumptions about her, is the point at which the syuzhet begins to digest the fabula in a way that makes this account of the story far more interesting than whatever the truth of it might be. This process is the book’s stylistic high point: neat and circular, but frenzied, a metaphor for paranoia itself. Narrative chains of thought seem to spin miles away from the thought that began them only to somehow sweep back around and meet up with it again. Circular, but not repetitive. In the book’s most beautiful segment, Lasdun travels by rail through the American Midwest. A short sketch of his neighbor leads him to reflect on what he actually saw separated from association and assumption (“Memory wants to place a mustache on his lip…”) which leads to memories of watching footage of Nicholas Berg’s decapitation, to the guilt he feels at the urge to simply for drawing a mental line from his neighbor’s Egyptian heritage to thoughts of terrorism, to Nasreen, to the process of writing a poem about his father, a discussion with his son and their shared love of Tin-Tin, which leads to thoughts of beheading again, and to terrorism again, to theories on “bodily ecstasy as the secret basis of terror”, to the story of Gawain and the Green Knight and its symbolic relevance, and finally back to Nasreen. The book’s last long chapter is aptly titled “Mosaic,” and leads us to the Wailing Wall where Lasdun tries to make sense of what this sudden lash of anti-Semitism means to a person whose identity has never clung especially to its Jewishness. There is a running discourse throughout on the sometimes hidden-in-plain-sight nature of modern anti-Semitism, part of an attempt to place the Tourettes-like nature of Nasreen’s particular strain of it in the context of a larger political landscape in which anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are often confused.
Of hypotheses regarding Nasreen’s particular madness, we get mercifully few. Instead Lasdun places the paranoid atmosphere brought on by Nasreen’s hate speech within the “realm of the Gothic,”
“a realm of stricken enchantment in which technology and psychology
overlap, where the magical thinking of the primitive mind, with its
susceptibility to spells, curses, witchcraft of every kind, converges
with the paranoias peculiar to our own age.”
Within this realm, Lasdun must use his own emotional response to Nasreen’s actions as a way to understand them. Conveniently, Lasdun’s emotions tend to lead back to literature. Nasreen’s fury is linked to the Diana and Actaeon myth as well as the Macbeth witches, both cases of a spiteful, powerful, ultimately unexplored female perspective in fiction. These associations, along with the earlier one of “scimitar lines” and demureness, and compounded with the rather medieval conflation of what is likely a woman’s mental illness (at least in part) with magic are all part of a greater abstracting influence. That Lasdun goes to such lengths to weave such things into a cohesive structure is part of his gentlemanly need, in discerning the primary fault in the matter, to keep his own susceptibility to her as ‘an object of fantasy’, high in the running. What seems a flaw at first in Lasdun’s refusal to ask point blank “Who is Nasreen?” is legitimized by an understanding of the many ways in which this would be an irresponsible question to ask. Any answer Lasdun could give within the confines of his book, of which he is sole author, would only serve to create a character out of her, to fictionalize her and her point of view much as he had when he first met her. It is somehow better that she remain opaque to him, and to us, than become part of the arrogant move of trying to place oneself in a person’s body about whom, at the end of the day, one knows little about.
As there are versions of people, there are also versions of events. In an early email, Lasdun quotes George Eliot as saying: “the last thing we learn in life is our effect on other people.” He and Nasreen had compared memories of a particular workshop: in Nasreen’s version, he “snapped” at her, while in Lasdun’s version he did not. How many of these opposing memories exist between them and whose, if any, is right? How to do a person justice by offering only one’s own version of them?
In many ways, it is this concern that rests at the story’s heart. As Lasdun remarks,
“…other than having to share the same physical appearance, there
is no reason why other people’s versions of oneself should bear a
complete or even a remote resemblance to one’s own.”