In the autumn of 2003, James Lasdun ran a fiction workshop at an American college where he met a talented Iranian-American student whom he calls ‘Nasreen’. He praised her work and encouraged her and they had an entirely ordinary and satisfactory working relationship. Two years later, she sent him the finished manuscript of her novel in the hope he would read and comment on it. Busy at the time, Lasdun did the next best thing and offered to put her in touch with his agent. He then embarked on an email correspondence with her, for the most part benign, but including some mild flirtatious remarks, which he took to be (hoped were) ironic. When James told her that he was planning a cross-country train journey, and she replied that she wanted to smuggle herself into his cabin, ‘I began to realise that something more explicitly discouraging than a mere tactful silence was going to be required of me.’
At first Nasreen seemed to take it quite well. But her emails continued to multiply in his inbox and the tone became inconsistent; there would be some apologetic emails, some normal, some angry and troubling. As the volume increased to dozens a day, and the sentiment turned to outright hostility and rage, Lasdun stopped replying. Whilst this would seem like the only way to proceed, the absence of his voice seemed to catapult Nasreen into a fantasy world of her own making in which she was a victim of all sorts of malpractice. She accused him of plagiarising her work, and of stealing it to pass on to other writers (who then published before her). She insisted he’d had an affair with one of the other students in her writing class, she went on to claim that he had ‘organised’ a rape that had happened to her before the two of them met at the fiction workshop, and there were of course, reams of vicious criticism about his writing all peppered with anti-Semitic attacks. And then she spread her net wide, sending written allegations about him to all the colleges he worked at, altering his wikipedia entry, forwarding unpleasant internet material to friends and colleagues in his name, leaving atrocious reviews of his books on amazon, etc and etc, until Lasdun was nearly half out of his mind with anxiety about what she would do next, and whether he would ever work again.
My total failure, after all these months, to slow down or in any way inhibit the flow of hatred had had a demoralising effect (as I write, the BP oil catastrophe is unfolding and it is impossible not to picture Nasreen’s hostility as that blackness on the spillcams, billowing unstoppably from the ocean floor, my efforts to staunch it as ineffective as BP’s with their feeble funnels and top kills). I felt flayed, utterly defenceless. Every email sent lacerating spasms through me as it struck, each with an afterburn, a half-life that was nowhere near over before the next one came in, so that I could never regroup my own forces.’
What, you may ask, did he do about it? Well, pretty much everything possible to block her, including trying to involve the FBI. But as a supposedly ‘privileged’ white male claiming wrong done to him by an Iranian woman, and a student at that, he was on the wrong side of the PC divide, and in the case of a relatively new internet, outside the boundaries of the law. And it was not easy trying to put what was happening into words: ‘the harder I tried to be neutral and objective, the crazier I sounded.’ There’s a painful moment when his boss at the college turns up with a ‘very weird email’ about him, a tirade of verbal abuse in fact, which looks pretty bonkers on the face of it, but which nevertheless unsettles an always-jumpy head of an American college. Lasdun is dismayed to find that his boss expresses some concerns about the accusation of ‘daytrading fiction’, which is Nasreen’s claim that he sent her work out to other writers to use, something Lasdun had thought would appear patently absurd. It’s the same old story – some of the flung mud always sticks.
What raises this book above the undeniably fascinating category of car crash literature, however, is the brilliance of the writing and the depth of thought that has clearly gone into Lasdun’s account. Retreating into his inner depths to try to ascertain the extent of his own guilt, and to understand the nature of their imploded relationship, he is drawn towards literary works and writers that echo or simply speak to his situation – Gawain and the Green Knight, D. H. Lawrence, Tintin. Some of these long digressions offer incredibly potent glimpses into the sorts of darkness and pain we are manufacturing in our modern technological age, due in part to our mindless reliance on the internet:
One would think that the ease of performing such manipulations and the large scale on which they immediately began occurring would have long ago discredited the Web as a source of information about anything, but…our first instinct, being creatures of the Word, is to trust it, and even on deeper consideration we tend to feel that it is basically more right than wrong, and that we can accept its approximations as the truth.’
He’s right, of course. The lack of policing on the web and the opportunities it offers to upset, harm and smear others is something that hasn’t had much thought given to it yet. You’ve got to hope that the example of James Lasdun does set some sort of process in motion (not even phone calls from the police deter Nasreen, as she realises on some level that no one will really take the trouble to stop her). And yet, what ultimately intrigued me about this book was the refusal on Lasdun’s part to see Nasreen as simply mentally troubled. The emails he reproduced came across to me as quite self-evidently nutty (and vicious and rageful), but he believed that labelling her behaviour as psychotic would free her from responsibility when he felt sure her attacks were calculated. But it also ‘becomes, for literary purposes, less interesting (at least to me).’ And here we come to the quiet crux of the matter; Lasdun becomes entangled in Nasreen’s web of hatred for ‘there was also something manifestly creative in her unstoppable productivity, a vitality I couldn’t help envying.’ There is a force, albeit one of negativity, that attracts him magnetically and which prevents him from dismissing her and walking away. For me this begs the question of why it should be so much easier to do the things that are wrong, for us and for others, than it is to make the enormous effort to do things that are right. But maybe the saving grace of the whole situation, and the reason it damages him so, is that Nasreen offered him a convoluted way of suffering for art. This is an extraordinary book, but one that came at a very high price.