There are reasons for the warning that revenge is a dish best served cold. Tactically, delayed payback can add the element of surprise against an enemy grown complacent, or for our own emotional well-being we may conclude that moving on trumps lashing out.
Before the Internet, retaliation often required confrontation: duels at dawn, gangland hits, barroom brawls. My favorite avenger struck during a corporate luncheon attended by her husband and his lover months after she discovered them in flagrante. She cased the hotel, donned a wig and a waitress uniform, and held her weapons low to avoid detection while crossing the ballroom. Upon reaching their table, she slammed each in the face with a pie: chocolate cream for the almost-ex, high-stain blueberry for the “other woman.” Watching her flee, I could only exclaim in sympathetic admiration: “Brava! Better a pie than a pistol.”
British-born author James Lasdun wasn’t so lucky. In late 2005, he became the online victim of a former student who had shown enough promise in his writing workshop that Lasdun offered to help her publish a novel about growing up in Iran on the brink of revolution. He even sent her to his agent. But starting in 2006, her breezy tone turned amorous, then aggressive and obsessive over the years.
Talk about no good deed going unpunished. “Give Me Everything You Have” is Lasdun’s chilling account of the relentless cyberwar waged by the pseudonymous Nasreen that continued even as this book went to press.
Written by a self-described practitioner of “verbal terrorism,” her chatty, flirty e-mails devolve into multiple accusations against Lasdun: stealing her ideas for himself or selling them to other writers; sleeping with female students (though not her); helping to orchestrate her rape when she worked at a magazine, never mind that it allegedly occurred before she took his class. She assails his Jewish heritage in anti-Semitic screeds and trashes him to officials at colleges where he teaches.
She posts “reviews” of his books on literary Web sites and comments on his articles. Under a book review he wrote for the Guardian, she snarls: “At least [that] writer doesn’t steal his students’ work and give it to others of the same ethnicity. And, Mr. Lasdun, your own personal life is a bad porn film and I’m sorry I didn’t sleep with you and so you had me raped.”
There’s more. She hacks his e-mail address to send wacko messages to his friends and colleagues. She even contacts a Humvee dealer in his name, expressing interest in the vehicular behemoths, which might be amusing if her ceaseless high-tech carpet-bombing weren’t so utterly terrifying. “I opened one [e-mail] the other day from the British Council, hoping to find an invitation to some literary junket,” he reveals, “only to read, under the official letterhead, ‘your family is dead you ugly JEW.’”
Gripped by escalating paranoia, insomnia, anxiety and fear for his literary career and his safety, Lasdun contacts the police and the FBI, to no avail. Desperate to save himself and his name, he launches a counterstrike with a low-tech weapon he knows best: a book.
To his credit, the prolific writer gives us far more than info-dumps of Nasreen’s “verbal napalm,” often dozens of e-mails at a time. Reading them, he writes, is like “swallowing a cup of poison every morning, with usually a few more cupfuls to follow later in the day.” He also examines his possible complicity: whether, at first, he might have been too encouraging, playful or flattered. By book’s end, he ponders whether she is too deranged and drug-addled to be made the subject of so dark a tale. He concludes no on all counts but prudently does not use her real name.
What imbues “Give Me Everything You Have” with its considerable humanity is Lasdun’s thoughtful exploration of the broader subjects of reputation, temptation, virtue, honor and ego, from his first schoolboy reading of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” through the work of Sylvia Plath, Sigmund Freud and D.H. Lawrence, among others. In addition to these literary detours, he takes a real trip on a train from Chicago to L.A., on which he grapples with the volatile issue of race. He’d mentioned the journey to Nasreen, who hinted (threatened?) that she might smuggle herself aboard. Mercifully, she does not.
Lasdun, the son of British architect Sir Denys Lasdun — himself recipient in 1982 of an outraged anti-Semitic letter about a destroyed Jerusalem synagogue he was redesigning — is not an observant Jew. Yet he eagerly goes to Israel for a magazine story, but only after telling his editor about Nasreen lest she poison yet another professional well. He uses the trip to ruminate on the violent Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the role of Jews as the historic “other” and Israel’s current, oft-denounced treatment of its Arab neighbors.
One hopes Nasreen will soon declare victory and end her reign of terror. But if past is prologue, it is more likely she will keep dishing up large portions of revenge, served piping hot.
GIVE ME EVERYTHING YOU HAVE
On Being Stalked
By James Lasdun
Farrar Straus Giroux. 218 pp. $25