Rushdie had the Ayatollah, Job had God, and James Lasdun has Nasreen—at least that’s what he calls her in Give Me Everything You Have (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25)—the former creative-writing student who harassed him for five years and is apparently still at it. As Lasdun remarks mordantly, she made stalking into something of an art form.
Now most of us who’ve taught for any length of time have had the occasional unhinged student, with various forms of unpleasantness ensuing. Impeccably behaved though we may be, we’re still the ones subject to the demeaning behavior codes, herded to the chastening “harassment workshops.” As for the one I attended—let’s just say that David Mamet would have had a field day. The consultant leading the thing spent the entire session so frantically jangling the change in his pants pocket that you couldn’t keep your eyes off his groin. I recalled once reading in some kind of guide to body language that change jangling is deflected masturbation. And there he was, seizing his private pleasure in the midst of the very institutional mechanism designed to clamp such delinquent urges! For every erotic prohibition, a creative work-around, I found myself thinking.
Isn’t that the whole problem of living in civilization? These wayward libidos of ours have to be throttled into obedience, and institutional settings like marriage or academia devote themselves to multiplying the restrictions ad infinitum. But simply acting out prohibited desires isn’t the only way to cause mayhem: Consider the rancid turns these thwarted urges sometimes take. Such a tale is related in Give Me Everything You Have. Lasdun’s misfortune was to encounter someone whose obsessions he ignited, and who refused to let him off the hook for it. Usually we call such people crazy (“borderline personality” was one informal diagnosis here), but as much as Nasreen’s projections derailed him, Lasdun is too attuned to the difficulties of libidinal self-management—his own and hers—to let himself entirely off the hook, either.
She’d been a student in a graduate fiction-writing class that Lasdun, the English-born author of several books of fiction and poetry, had taught in New York in 2003. Nasreen, then in her early thirties, had fled Iran for the US with her family during the revolution, which provided the setting for an ambitious novel-in-progress. When she e-mails Lasdun two years later asking him to read a new draft, he offers to put her in touch with his agent. They start corresponding—at first it’s chatty, later a bit flirtatious. Living a secluded country life upstate at the time, Lasdun admits that, though happily married, he doesn’t mind being flirted with. And he feels a certain affinity with Nasreen: They’re on the same wavelength, and he admires her writing. But soon her e-mails are flooding his in-box, followed by pictures. Then the flirtation escalates into propositions—she offers to smuggle herself aboard a cross-country train trip he’ll be taking. Alarmed, he reminds her that he’s married, and that he doesn’t want to be a figment in anyone’s fantasies.
Yet once on the train, he finds himself thinking about her. “A sexual overture, however firmly resisted, is registered in a part of the psyche that has no interest at all in propriety or fidelity. . . . If the person making the overture is attractive and interesting, then that part of the psyche regards it as a matter of course that you will go ahead and sleep with them, and in fact regards it as a deeply unnatural act to choose not to.” So when her e-mails take a sudden ugly turn—“You fucking faggot coward, say something!” she demands in the face of his silence—however blameless he is in reality, having been a teensy bit roused by her provocations makes him feel, at some not entirely rational level, a teensy bit complicit in them.
And the accusations continue to escalate: He’s ripping off her life for his work; he’s guilty of emotional rape, racism (Nasreen is a Muslim), sexually exploiting students, and worse. Middle Eastern politics becomes a motif, which soon devolves into anti-Semitic insults and Holocaust gibes: “I think the holocaust was fucking funny.” “Look, muslims are not like their Jewish counterparts, who quietly got gassed and then cashed in on it.” “Your family is dead you ugly JEW.” The ongoing hate mail is “like swallowing a cup of poison every morning, with usually a few more cupfuls to follow later in the day”—just one of the many arresting sentences Lasdun manages to wrench from the situation. When she takes to smearing him all over the Internet and writing accusatory letters to the schools that employ him, he starts worrying about his reputation.
Yet the unease goes deeper. Maybe it’s because having an unseen tormentor is so close to the equivocal world of dream life, where you’re always guilty of some prior crime you can’t remember having committed. And since Nasreen is nothing if not psychologically shrewd—she has an uncanny way of intuiting his neuroses and insecurities, and getting under his skin—she reads him like a hostile psychoanalyst. Of course, as a dedicated stalker, she’s also an ardent student of his work, which gives her a leg up in penetrating his defenses.
Indeed, what makes the situation all the more uncanny is that a decade earlier, Lasdun had written a campus novel, The Horned Man, with strikingly similar motifs. The upright Lawrence Miller—a gender-studies instructor, no less—is being hounded by a malevolent émigré and disgraced former professor named Trumilcik, and possibly framed for a series of sex crimes. Except that Lawrence is not what you’d call a reliable narrator. He moves through life in a dreamy fashion while people project things onto him, developing elaborate hatreds. Bad things just keep befalling him. And is this Trumilcik even real, or is he the rectitude-obsessed professor’s alter ego, the return of the repressed? “How had I managed to lay myself open to an act of such preposterously elaborate vindictiveness?” the hapless Lawrence wonders—“with a pertinence I struggle to find purely coincidental,” adds Lasdun now, driven by subsequent events to plumb his own backlist for portents.
A sly Freudianism sluices through Lasdun’s work: People pride themselves on virtue but end up mysteriously sullied, in ways that mirror their desires and ambivalences. In his excellent story “Cleanness,” a son, driving to his father’s wedding to a much younger woman and decked out in rented formal wear, arrives at the nuptials, after a series of wrong turns on unfamiliar country roads—accidentally? inevitably?—covered in sewage. The Oedipal and the excremental: What fertile turf Lasdun makes of them! Shit just happens, as in The Horned Man, when Lawrence, having benevolently left money in his office for Trumilcik, who may be camping there at night, returns to find the bills replaced by a coiled turd. (Amateur Freudians will be cackling at the inside joke: money = shit in psychoanalytic symbology.)
The theme of exchanges and equivalences sets the Nasreen story in motion, too: Lasdun offers career help; in return she shits all over him and plants fart jokes on his Wikipedia page. You can’t help noticing that Lasdun’s antic real-life tormentor seems cut from rather similar cloth as the id-like Trumilcik, that the atmosphere of ontological guilt The Horned Man summons echoes the self-interrogations of Give Me Everything. Would it be fair to say that Lasdun authored both these spiteful tormentors? At the very least, they inhabit the same aesthetic universe.
And if Lasdun cuts Nasreen to suit his authorial disposition, it goes both ways. Nasreen produces a running commentary on her tactics, as if stalking were a form of performance art and she were an innovator in the field. Lasdun, too, acknowledges the creative dimensions of her mischief-making exuberance. They’re both creating each other, he reflects; some gothic transposition of consciousness has occurred. “Her obsession with me achieved perfect symmetry: I became just as obsessed with her.”
Preposterous though it sounds, she becomes a kind of muse. Even though the ordeal turns him into a depressed, sleepless monomaniac, he’s able to finish a story he’d been stalled on for two decades, finally understanding the desperation of a female character whose motives had eluded him. And eventually, of course, it occurs to him that a great trove of material has fallen in his lap, with Nasreen’s malevolent intelligence releasing the creative energy in him that could fuel a book. One of the deep pleasures in reading the result is being placed inside the mucky soil of a writer’s imagination, spying on him while he grapples with his bizarre misfortune, stamping it ultimately—decisively—with his aesthetic signature.
Things grind to a halt toward the end, understandably, I suppose, as nothing did ever resolve: The harassment was still ongoing as the book went to press. In the closing pages we leave Nasreen behind and accompany Lasdun to Jerusalem for a magazine piece he’s writing. The locale allows him to reflect on his attenuated Jewishness—the Muslim-Jewish hostilities evoked by Nasreen make this unfortunately germane—but without her around, the writing seems to deflate. Of course, the ending we want to read is the one that can’t be written, which is what happens when Nasreen herself reads the book, as she undoubtedly will have by now. Keep an eye out for her handiwork in the Amazon reviews.
As for the rest of us irreproachable professors: Caution! Beware of sparking too many imaginative chords in your students. And yet . . . Lasdun has written a perversely lovely account of what happens when one of them manages to burrow far too deeply into her teacher’s imaginative life and make mayhem. Though prompted by what, neither we nor Lasdun—nor Nasreen herself, certainly—will ever know.
Laura Kipnis, the author of How to Become a Scandal (Metropolitan Books, 2010), is a professor of media arts at Northwestern University.