Thursday, February 21, 2013

Obsession ("Give Me Everything You Have" by James Lasdun)

"On Being Stalked," the subtitle of James Lasdun's memoir Give Me Everything You Have, hints at a storyline that is thrilling and suspenseful; the tiny little envelope accompanying this subtitle, which also happens to be the only image on the entire cover, hints at the opposite. Stalking is a lurid crime based on obsession, drive, and more often than not delusion, something rare that requires planning to be done successfully. Mail, whether physical or digital--daily or instantaneous, based in bureaucracy and routine or based in time-insensitive whim--is omnipotent, unavoidable, and sloppy, dominated in all forms by pointless advertisements and junk messages. Stalking is pure emotion expressed dangerously on an individual basis. Mail, in the majority of instances and regardless of form, lacks any sense of emotion beyond the customariness of greetings and closings; it is something that can be done en masse--form letters, bank statements, bills, CC'ed and BCC'ed e-mails, reply-alls, newsletters, coupons, spam--and increasingly so by machines, no human input whatsoever, which only intensifies its mindlessness.

At the heart of Lasdun's book is where these two dichotomous islands are bridged together--namely, in the solitary obsession of a graduate student named Nasreen. An Iranian immigrant, Nasreen enters James' world as a shy but promising student in his college creative writing class; years later, after reuniting over Nasreen's developing novel, she becomes fixated on him, first in a playfully flirtatious way, then with increasing directness, until he must rebuff her advances. She seems embarrassed and regretful, but the e-mails soon become more aggressive and more frequent, culminating in multiple e-mails a day filled with accusations of sexual impropriety, racism, sexism, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Soon, Nasreen's web expands to include Lasdun's agent, publisher, colleagues, and former employers, to the point where his very life is dominated by the fear inspired by her e-mails, which are sent from hundreds of miles away. Nasreen never calls, and he never calls her--in fact, he doesn't reply to her e-mails after a certain point, which does little to stem their anger or slow their frequency. They live on those dichotomous islands--he in the land of slow-paced and emotionless texts, of college lectures and ancient tomes and print publications, she in a fast-paced land of obsession that can be dispatched at the press of a button. But they are, paradoxically, as close as two people could possibly be.

Eventually, Nasreen takes to posting anonymous comments, submitting critical reviews of his book, and impersonating others, including Lasdun himself, in the hopes of destroying him, both personally and professionally. And she does all of this digitally, using e-mail and online booksellers and discussion boards to attack from a distance that protects her both physically and legally. (You start to believe that, were Lasdun to confront her in person, she would crumble--the kind of person who uses the distance and anonymity of the internet more defensively than offensively.) Lasdun goes to the FBI, but they do nothing. He goes to his local police, but they can offer little. Even a specialist in stalking crimes to whom Lasdun is referred leads nowhere but a weak phone call and some heartless warnings. He's lost to a world that he cannot control--in fact, no one can control the online world, not even Nasreen herself--and throughout the book, we see our helpless victim slowly resigning himself to the understanding that, no, there's no way he can fight this onslaught.

At the same time, Lasdun tells us about himself at length--his research, his family vacations, his own novels, one of which bears striking coincidences to his own life at the time--a narrative choice that may have been included to make our writer more sympathetic but actually slows his book down and muddies the focus. Had Lasdun kept strictly to the story of he and Nasreen, even while preserving his occasional asides about technology and privacy in our modern age, his story would have been far more interesting, but the book itself would have come in at just under 150 pages--far from a marketable book. Add to this his incessant need to deconstruct and analyze--and to tell us his intentions as he's doing it--makes his story different than most firsthand accounts of stalking, but it also reduces his insight until many of his passages read like those of a cold lit-theory professor looking for something more where there's actually nothing much at all. Nasreen is unstable, clearly and simply, but Lasdun wants it to be more than just that--he wants to see the prisms of her disorder, the historical and personal foundations of her problems, and in trying to understand her he becomes obsessive himself. He is looking for solution by becoming the problem.

It's in this way that his book is one of contradiction. He's a man who wants his privacy and security back but has no problem opening up his private life to the readers of his book. He dismisses Nasreen for e-mails accusing him of stealing and selling her work as the work of a book about her, one that couldn't have existed without her, her work, and her words. In an age of cyber-stalking, cyber-bullying, and unregulated trolling, we're told that acknowledging the troublemakers will only encourage them--it satisfies their need for validation and attention--which is precisely the reason why Lasdun ignores her e-mails. This is perhaps the greatest contradiction of all--a man who ignores his stalker, who follows the standard procedures for dealing with an obsessive contact, and then undermines all of it by writing her into a book. In an age of e-mails that come and go, destined to appear and disappear with the same regularity and impact, Lasdun has written his villain into a book that will last--a bridge on which Nasreen can cross back and forth forever.