The Message & the messenger
By Anna Aslanyan.
James Lasdun, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, Jonathan Cape 2013
“How do you define stalking?” asked a middle-aged man sitting next to me in the LRB bookshop before plunging into a lengthy account of his own experience as a stalker. Everyone present – including James Lasdun, who had just been interviewed about his latest book, subtitled ‘On Being Stalked’ – listened apprehensively as the man described being accused of stalking someone. The discussion made the audience seem – rather improbably, but I couldn’t shake off the impression – to consist mainly of stalkers and those on the receiving end of the phenomenon whose definition assumes either stealthiness or harassment and pestering. Looking at the two camps to the accompaniment of Lasdun’s candid, fascinating talk, I pondered over the definition of another term, “the stalked”. It appeared curiously ambivalent.
As Lasdun’s book testifies, it’s a fine line that separates the two sides. The outline of his story is fairly common in our age of trolls and cyber-bullies: a former female student became obsessed with him and started bombarding him with emails, going from sexual innuendoes to overt propositions, to anti-Semitic mud-slinging and accusations of plagiarism. An aspiring author, she got some help from her former creative writing tutor, who put her in touch with an agent and an editor, trying to get her first novel off the ground. Now, five years and thousands abusive messages down the line, Lasdun says: “Would I do it again? Would I help a talented writer to get published? Yes, I would.” As for the obsession that underlies stalking, Lasdun is sincere on this point too, admitting that the condition is contagious; at some point he must have become as obsessed with Nasreen (not her real name, although the choice reflects her Iranian origin) as she with him.
Getting dozens of emails a day from someone who has sworn to ruin you is not the kind of experience that is likely to leave you unchanged, so one can’t really blame Lasdun for his reaction. If anything, he may have been under-reacting initially, before the messages became blatantly threatening – that came later, in spades – although anyone who uses an email account on a regular basis would have long suspected that something weird was going on. Indeed, when you receive “…i spent nearly an hour in a lingerie shop contemplating veils today, James…” from someone you have never thought of having an affair with, you should run a mile. By the time Lasdun “had to acknowledge that this correspondence […] was becoming problematic” it was too late – or maybe it would have made no difference had he stopped replying straight away, so hell-bent was she on destroying him.
Some of the questions that followed the talk were quite practical, for instance, “Have you ever tried changing your email?” (pointless: the stalker’s is very tech-savvy) and “How difficult is it to remove the smears left all over the internet by a vicious commentator?” (impossible: “you are what the Web says you are”, and the Web forgets nothing). It transpired that one of the audience also used to be the object of Nasreen’s attention. I kept looking towards the door: if it flung open and a Middle Eastern-looking woman strode in, the whole thing would turn out to be a re-enactment of sorts, in the spirit of INS re-enactments. That never happened, and Lasdun confirmed the story wasn’t a hoax. He hasn’t heard from Nasreen since August, but similar lulls have occurred before, so he still doesn’t feel that the war is finally over. A helpful suggestion that Nasreen might have been a replacement for an ordinary mid-life crisis wasn’t dismissed out of hand by the author who, despite getting a book out of it, was adamant: “I would never choose to go through this again.”
However, the book is there, and it’s good. Not being a fan of confessional writing, I had my reservations about the subject matter. Some of the elements of the story do sound repetitive: there are descriptions of different stages of Nasreen’s campaign, numerous bits of her correspondence are quoted verbatim, contacts with the FBI and the NYPD duly reported. Luckily, there are other things to compensate for the author’s attention to mundane facts (which, once again, is quite understandable, given the circumstances). Lasdun takes two trips while the assaults continue; remembers his father and writes a poem about him; visits D.H. Lawrence’s New Mexican residence and muses over those “women who outlived their idol […] all of them no doubt glad, at some level, to be rid of this consumptive prophet with his spit and sputum and his everlasting exhortations and injunctions”; brings up the legend of Sir Gawain, comparing the knight’s plight to his own.
The victim is being gentlemanly with his attacker, who calls herself “a verbal terrorist”. To begin with, he keeps stressing that Nasreen has an impressive writing talent – the novel she is struggling with could, in his view, make a very good book. We are given only the bare bones of the plot. (What would ensue if Lasdun quoted from the draft he had seen? More accusations? Or would the author be pleased to see her prose in print at last?) The emails keep coming, though, but reading excerpts from them it’s hard to appreciate the writer’s style; presumably there is a difference between her prose and her hysterical, often psychotic – although Lasdun doesn’t agree with this last point – messages. “I want your apartment because you owe it to me because you were miserable and you sucked my nectar and didn’t help me when you should have…” seems a long way away from “strong sentences evoking the epic setting of Tehran on the brink of revolution” which made the novel look so promising. What goes on between the stalker and the stalked is supposed to be a war of words, but most of hers are redacted, so we are not in the position to judge Nasreen the writer. We learn, however, that she is a good reader – perhaps the most attentive scholar of Lasdun’s own work.
The stalker and the stalkee continue to communicate throughout the book, even though the latter has long stopped replying to the torrent of emails, now growing more abusive, now asking: “Can we have a coffee?” Lasdun takes all this really hard, but does not get ruined – instead, he keeps writing. When serious smearing kicks in with emails being sent to his employers, he becomes paranoid about little things – as any freelancer would. Halfway through this saga, I had an uncharitable thought: perhaps it’s not so bad to have a stalker? When your editors are ominously silent you can always assume they have been fed some libellous news about you; left alone, you only have yourself to blame. Discussing his ordeal with people, Lasdun has discovered that many – more than he would have thought – have been in a similar situation. It may be that web terrorism is a hazard inherent in lives, along with its other, non-web varieties. After the interview, when asked for advice on how to deal with students knowing they might present a potential danger, Lasdun said: “Either you teach or you don’t teach.” Equally, either you use public transport or you fear suicide bombers. Either you communicate online or you cut off your broadband. Either you stalk or you get stalked – whichever you do, it’s going to cost you just as much.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 27th, 2013.