When James Lasdun begins what he thinks is a benign email relationship with a former creative writing student, he has no idea how it will forever alter his life. What begins as a cordial professional relationship sours when student “Nasreen” feels rebuffed by James. In retaliation, she begins trolling him on the internet, leaving negative reviews and sending him (and his colleagues) increasingly hostile emails with insane accusations. Unable to stop what Nasreen herself calls “verbal terrorism,” Lasdun falls into despair over what she could do to his reputation.
It’s always been a challenge for me to review non-fiction on the blog. This is especially true here, as I’m not entirely sure how much of this novel can actually be classified as “non-fiction” so much as one person’s interpretation of emotionally charged events. Originally read for my book club, I ended up with pages of handwritten notes by the time I completed the relatively short book. I also did some digging and found some interesting pieces on Lasdun, and on the book that are worth a read if you’re familiar with this tale.
In all honesty, I have very few positive remarks to make about the memoir. Lasdun is a competent writer who has a couple of good sentences in him. There are moments in the book (I keep wanting to call it a novel because in my mind, this is his own fiction) where he makes some good points. But the book is so uneven in its execution and so selective in its detailing of Nasreen’s “assault” on Lasdun that it’s hard to find much good here.
A large part of the problem is that Lasdun is so self-obsessed that it’s hard to get behind him. He proclaims his innocence in the entire relationship throughout the novel, and he obsesses (there is a lot of obsessing done in this novel, both by Lasdun about his reputation and by Nasreen about Lasdun in general) over whether or not he led her on in some way. But for all the navel-gazing Lasdun does, it is strange he doesn’t see what others might: he was attracted to Nasreen, and perhaps because of this, encouraged her in ways he doesn’t fully realize.
Near the beginning, Lasdun writes about critiquing Nasreen’s work in his class:
I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember a shift in the atmosphere as I spoke: an air of faintly sardonic attentiveness settling on the students as they sat listening to my words of praise.
His lack of awareness here casts his entire story in a different light to me as a reader. He might never have carried on a physical affair with this woman, but he fixates on her looks and at times veers into creepy, totally racist exoticism (by the way, he makes several other weirdly racist remarks throughout the book). That he’s a total creep never leaves your mind as you read it, even though you realize that Nasreen herself is a total creeper, too.
Perhaps my biggest issue with the book is the fact that Lasdun maintains a stance that Nasreen was in her right mind during her assault on him. He goes so far as to say that admitting she might be mentally ill (despite the myriad evidence to support this idea) means that his book lacks meaning and that he might in fact have to feel uncomfortable with his decision to write it, include her correspondence, and essentially eviscerate her character in a published work. Um, okay. Whatever helps you sleep, buddy.
There are other, more nitpicky things that don’t work here, too. Lasdun has a tendency to veer off into long-winded descriptions of things that have no bearing on the central story. He makes connections to other literary works that seem pompous and tenuous in their links to his own story. There’s an entire section of the book devoted to the Israeli-Palestinean conflict that seems completely inappropriate for the book, not to mention borderline offensive.
There is no doubt in my mind that the emails and internet stalking that Nasreen engaged in took a toll on Lasdun’s psyche. While that is not nothing, it is the only thing that resulted from this experience. As much as Lasdun OBSESSED about how his reputation would be tarnished or how he might lose out on paid writing jobs, neither of those worries came to fruition. Lasdun has continued to teach and write and work, and he even got a book out of the ordeal. And Nasreen? Well, that remains to be seen.
Some critics have heaped praise on Lasdun for writing such a beautiful memoir, but I definitely don’t see it. What I do see is a man so completely obsessed with his own image that he can’t actually see what is happening around him. While that might be interesting, his complete and fundamental (and, I think, intentional) misunderstanding of mental illness renders this entire thing an exercise in futility.
They’re both crazy, but I ended up feeling worse for Nasreen than Lasdun. And that really says something.
Give Me Everything You Have on Being Stalked by James Lasdun. Farrar, Starus, & Giroux: 2013. ILL’ed through my library system.