In a 2009 YouTube clip that looks like a scene from David Lynch’s Inland Empire, a news reporter interviews a Pennsylvanian costume shop owner, kitted out in a bunny costume, who has been apprehended for cyberstalking her competitor. When the reporter solicits a response, the accused tears off her hirsute crown, only to reveal another, more sinister mask lurking beneath.
Once a bedfellow of unrequited love, stalking has mutated at a breathtaking rate in our virtual times, feeding off our fascination with radically open modes of communication. Rather than the aggression of a physical pursuit, cyber misconduct thrives on the net’s invisibility cloak. Its perpetrators are characterised by a particular slipperiness of identity, and its modus operandi are pathologically invasive, breeding that most ugly of subspecies – the internet troll. There’s no prurient waiting for a light to go on in an upstairs window, just an obsessional trawling through Google’s stash of private-data-made-public.
Anglo-American poet, novelist and critic James Lasdun’s latest work ponders these techniques of harassment, which he brands “verbal terrorism.” Part-memoir, part writerly ramble through literary symbolism and chivalric romance, Lasdun’s book is an angst-ridden, chilling account of cyber-manipulation told by a master storyteller.
The story begins in 2003, when Lasdun is teaching a creative writing workshop in New York. Among his students is a young Iranian woman, he calls Nasreen, whose literary ambition and talents single her out as the star of the class. At first their exchanges are brief and professional, focusing on her novel-in-progress, a dense historical work based on her family’s experience in pre-revolutionary Iran. Lasdun remarks on Nasreen’s “undemonstrative confidence” and self-deprecating humour, and deems her “unflustered” reaction to praise “the mark of a real writer.”
Two years pass. Nasreen gets back in touch, asking Lasdun to read over her finished draft. He refrains; but an email exchange is kindled. Lasdun assumes the role of “avuncular” mentor-figure, sending accounts of his family life and vegetable garden; Nasreen is bored, working a dreary day job in the city and has just split up with her fiancé. At first their exchanges are amicable, but the frequency and amorous nature of the emails steadily begins to alarm Lasdun. When he protests, he receives a gracious, thoughtful response. But then he sends Nasreen’s two provocative emails, inquiring how she feels as a Muslim in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. She responds curtly: “Would you like to see me in a veil, sir?,” triggering a deluge of delusional emails, in which motifs of gender, race, capitalism and Middle Eastern politics commingle in schizoid narratives.
The memoir subsequently slips into a defensive treatise, wherein the narrator asserts his moral rectitude, informing his readers of his devotion to his wife, his happy marriage, and his honourable intentions towards his former student. He attempts to regain control of his narrative by projecting his own knight errant fantasy, fending of the wily woman’s “asymmetrical warfare.”
Much of the book navigates the problematic territory of professing to be the wrongly accused, and the paranoia that ensues from obsessive self-censorship. The story is at times uncannily reminiscent of Lasdun’s 2002 novel, The Horned Man, whose narrator, Lawrence Miller, an English professor at a New York college, sits on the board of a sexual harassment committee. Miller’s warped perceptions and duplicitous storytelling makes him a paragon of male sexual guilt. The literary parallels do not go unnoticed by Lasdun; or by Nasreen, who self-identifies with multiple personae in Lasdun’s stories, and cunningly puts him in the position of the protagonist of his own book.
When Lasdun finally stops responding to her onslaught, she ups her psychic warfare, “as if,” he writes, “my rejection had given [her] licence to evolve in a kind of negative space, feeding off [her] own extravagance.” She files a discrimination suit on the grounds of gender and race, and her correspondence turns flagrantly anti-Semitic. “By a certain point,” Lasdun writes, “we were both, in effect, creating or re-creating each other in the image of our crassest fear, our most cravenly stereotyping fantasy: the Demon Woman, shall we say, and the Eternal Jew.”
The memoir is a fascinating study of how identity is fabricated and maintained, and how the internet acts as the natural facilitator for motiveless abuse. Lasdun counterpoints the persona that Nasreen creates of him (built up through slanderous emails sent to colleagues and defamatory online reviews) with an attempt to account for, and make sense of, his doppelganger. Nasreen, for her part, refers to her cyber play as “performance art,” drawing in a wide range of esoteric and geopolitical references, which aggrandise their relationship to that between the imperialist and the lone jihadi.
Most interesting is Lasdun’s view that the internet – that ultimate usurper of facts – makes us more subject than ever to other people’s opinions, allowing us, in effect, to be created in their image. He argues that it reinstates the role that reputation played in pre-modern culture, where one’s livelihood depended on trust and hearsay. Lasdun attributes Nasreen’s attacks to her amorphous identity, to a lack of regard for borderlines or difference. Since we experience Nasreen nearly exclusively in the form of paranoid emails, she stands as a kind of spectre of our virtual reality.
For all his stylistic panache, documenting how Nasreen’s own obsession achieves “perfect symmetry” with his own, Lasdun’s memoir falters when it insists on the “sheer singularity” of Nasreen’s case. He refuses to concede that she might be “mentally ill,” that her paranoia is pathological, rather than of the symbolic kind, associated with Rilke’s Angel. Accounting for her personality disorder would, Lasdun concedes, make the whole writing procedure “meaningless,” a phrase that would serve as ample ammunition to Nasreen’s case that he exploits her to his own fictional ends. It creates an odd distancing effect, which might work in fiction, where it could be deemed a foible of the narrator; but in memoir, it alienates. Lasdun’s trouble – like Nasreen’s – is an allegiance to overarching narratives, rather than to the messy particularity of his subject.
The memoir is at its finest in its deviations, in its readings of literary works that ponder themes of sexual guilt and secret complicity, drawing on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Tintin, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and DH Lawrence to excellent effect. But these exquisite self-contained essays are not enough to draw together the threads of what is otherwise a disjointed tale, swamped with allusions and hampered by the teller’s self-aggrandising tone. As the narrative progresses, Nasreen becomes a mere footnote to the author’s own usurping narrative, charting his heritage as a non-practicing Jew and the legacy of his father, the renowned architect Denys Lasdun. Repeatedly, he interrogates his “ancient insecurity” that there is “something about myself that I simply don’t see.” Despite his judicial candour and steely precision, this “honest” reader-critic can’t help but agree.
Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by Jonathan Cape, £14.99