Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013
James Lasdun’s Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked asks a question many writers won’t have the opportunity to ask: could I—a reputable literary figure—meet my downfall because of a jilted would-be writer? The average person might experience the average social media-cyberstalker, but what happens to the semi-famous? This is the case in Give Me Everything, a story in which a former student attempts to turn Lasdun’s friends, colleagues, and readers against him.
Two years after teaching Nasreen—a “subtly attractive” 30-something Iranian woman who dresses in a military yet feminine way—the two develop an epistolary relationship when she asks for his guidance on a novel she’s writing. Lasdun reads the draft, but the temporal distance from their class days reveals that he no longer feels for her as he once did. His initial interest in her work might have had less to do with her literary talent than the fact she was attractive and reminded Lasdun of his architect father, who strongly adored Persian culture and aesthetics. A few months into their email correspondence, Nasreen begins flirting. Lasdun gently declines to take the bait. That causes her to become more assertive—at one point even suggesting that he smuggle her onto his transcontinental train trip—and him eventually to stop responding.
“I began to feel I was becoming more a source of frustration for Nasreen than anything else, and that since I couldn’t be what she wanted me to be, I should withdraw altogether,” Lasdun writes. “On the other hand, a part of me still clung to the idea of her as a fascinating new friend…”
His resistance turns her into a “verbal terrorist,” as she calls herself. She e-bombs him with an onslaught of attacks on his Anglo-American Jewish heritage, makes outlandish demands, accuses him of selling her work to other authors and of emotional and verbal rape, and leaves salacious comments on Amazon, Goodreads, and anywhere else he might appear online. He blocks her email address. She creates another and continues. He changes work addresses, she preempts him, a letter of condemnation in the boss’s hands before Lasdun’s first day.
K, as Lasdun’s wife is known throughout, “wasn’t very interested in Nasreen or her emails” and “made a point of advising me not to break off contact with her, or not too abruptly.” There is little more action from K after these moments. If a woman accuses one’s spouse of rape and professes her love for him, wouldn’t a wife have a stronger, perhaps even visceral reaction? His wife’s support seems too perfect, distant even. Lasdun depicts K as slightly too sympathetic, perhaps even cardboard. Compound this with the number of times Lasdun decried his happy marriage. Once more would have made readers think of that famous boy who cried wolf.
Nasreen’s siege eventually sets Lasdun on a quest to understand her psyche and question the motives behind his own literary work and geo-political interests. He reminds us of our post-9/11 fears of anything Middle Eastern. He reveals that Nasreen’s anti-American opinions have seeped into his subconscious. He becomes hyper-aware of racism and barbarism in Tintin. He finds parallels in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and in the relationship between Mabel Dodge Luhan and D.H. Lawrence, the latter of which began as epistolary and became an attempt at seduction. “[Lawrence’s] reputation has accordingly suffered badly during the past decades. With my own recent interest in the processes by which reputations become tarnished (another of Nasreen’s many legacies), I have begun to find this aspect of Lawrence almost as fascinating as the writing itself.”
The book closes with Lasdun in Jerusalem. In this paradoxical metaphor, he attempts to distance himself from Nasreen by placing himself at the epicenter where their respective religious cultures historically merged. It doesn’t lead to a pretty little conclusive end, though, the five years of Nasreen’s cyber-vitriol seems to have done little to his reputation.
Lasdun’s literary and geographic extrapolations are the book’s strongest aspects, effective at providing what he calls “some kind of self-portrait, or at least an account of the various strivings and vexations that comprised a sense of who and what I was during that phase of my encounter with Nasreen, and what I myself brought to the encounter.” All roads lead to her vs. him, her culture vs. his, in other words. However, the thread is sometimes frayed, sometimes veering so far out that readers lose the connection. Such was the case during the Chicago stop of his transcontinental train ride. He confesses to being ill at ease in thinking about architecture and even in forming an opinion about aesthetics out of fear that his late father would have disapproved. The reader at this point may wonder if this is Lasdun’s way of saying he didn’t understand his father’s appreciation for Persian culture. It’s also cause to wonder if Lasdun thought that by helping Nasreen, he could somehow heal the lingering wounds of his father’s disapproval. Whatever the purpose, the threads are sewn too thin to connect to his current predicament with Iranian Nasreen.
In Give Me Everything You Have, Lasdun uniquely employs a literary means of understanding both sides of a stalking situation. He reveals Nasreen as a siren and his own emotional turmoil resonates within the reader. In the end we know Nasreen hasn’t succeeded in ruining Lasdun. His readers will keep reading his work. He will keep getting published. And he will likely keep teaching. But the book closes without a pleasant legal or psychological wrap-up of Nasreen’s actions, which remind us that many stalking cases end the same way. We’re left feeling gross and slightly paranoid, disturbed and molested, and reminded of the events in our own lives left uncomfortably unresolved.
Nichole L. Reber is recovering from two hospitalizations abroad, deportation, and a veritable Red Sea of wine consumption. She now lives in the land of cowboys and Indians in Southwest America.