Reviewed: Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun

Obsession in the age of the internet.

Give Me Everything You Have: on Being Stalked
James Lasdun
Jonathan Cape, 224pp, £14.99

In James Lasdun’s marvellously creepy novel The Horned Man, we meet Lawrence Miller, a middle-aged Englishman who, like his creator, lives in the US and teaches at a college in the New York area. Such colleges, in Lasdun’s black satire, are forcing houses of guilty hypocrisy about sex. Miller serves on a sexual harassment committee and proves himself more than willing to censure fellow teachers who “cross the line” with their students. Yet as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Miller’s conscious virtue is only one half of a split personality, whose other half is, by a strict Freudian logic, all the more depraved for being so totally repressed. This other half, the reader gradually figures out, is a wife-beating, stranger-stalking, paranoiac murderer, whose deeds even Miller struggles to explain: how can the same mind contain such enlightenment and such evil?

The Horned Man is, in its nightmarish way, a convincing study in male sexual guilt. The more you try to hide the horn, Lasdun suggests, the more grotesquely tumescent it will become. Indeed, that kind of guilt – the unease of a highly civilised mind as it ironically parries its own drives – is a keynote of Lasdun’s work. You can see it again in the stories of It’s Beginning to Hurt, above all in short sketches such as “The Woman at the Window”. In this tale, an Englishman in New York is hailed on the street by a woman who claims to be locked in her apartment. Warily, the man agrees to break down the woman’s door and, once he does so, he is tempted to turn rescue into seduction; but, somewhat abashedly, he tames himself and walks away. The second half of the story contains the pay-off: the woman, Lasdun shows, pulls this same trick regularly in order to attract strange men. Like a Manhattan Lorelei, she is trying to suck men into the whirlpool of desire, where they will be consumed.

Only a reader somewhat familiar with Lasdun’s earlier work – in addition to fiction, he is also an accomplished poet and screenwriter – will fully appreciate the horror of the story he has to tell in his new memoir, Give Me Everything You Have. For the events of Lasdun’s life starting in 2007 have exactly the lurid, parable-like quality of The Horned Man. A few years earlier, he writes, he had taught a fiction workshop for graduate students, in which the stand-out writer was an Iranian-American woman in her thirties, whom Lasdun calls Nasreen. The class ended, time passed, and then Nasreen got back in touch with him, asking his help in finding an agent.

Impressed by her novel-in-progress, an autobiographical work about the 1979 revolution in Iran, Lasdun helped her and began a friendly, at times mildly flirtatious email correspondence. But, he makes sure to point out, he never allowed it to become openly sexual. He is a devoted husband and father with no interest in straying and when Nasreen makes inappropriate suggestions – for instance, “proposing to smuggle herself into my roomette” during a train journey Lasdun was planning to take – he realises: “Something more explicitly discouraging than a mere tactful silence was going to be required of me.”

Lasdun, in other words, has all the conscious, cautious rectitude of Lawrence Miller dealing with his female students. You can imagine his sense of dread and recognition, then, when Nasreen begins to invent for him an alter ego, compounded of her own fantasies, obsessions and hatred, that is as wicked as Miller’s. In emails sent at the rate of dozens a day, she elaborates a bizarre fantasy in which Lasdun commits all the sins he has taken care to avoid. Nasreen accuses Lasdun of sleeping with another student in their workshop, leading him to discriminate against her. Then she insists that he stole ideas from her novel and sold them to other writers. Then she claims that the story “The Woman at the Window” – which, Lasdun explains, was inspired by something that really happened to him in his early days in New York City – is based on her.

As her fantasies grow more florid, Nasreen’s emails – which Lasdun reproduces in the book – become violently profane: “I think this is called verbal terrorism,” she acknowledges in a rare moment of lucidity. They also, with a dismal inevitability, become anti- Semitic. The agent and editor to whom Lasdun referred her were both Jewish, as is Lasdun; to Nasreen, this makes them natural players in a Jewish conspiracy to defraud her. “I think the Holocaust was fucking funny,” she writes, and, “How fucking crazy Jews are these days,” and, “Do you have to be the stereotype of a Jew, James?” Eventually, Lasdun writes, she makes her way to “one of those words that scorch everything they come near. The word is ‘rape’.” “I say if I can’t write my book and get emotionally and verbally raped by James Lasdun, a Jew disguising himself as an English-American, well then, the Holocaust Industry Books should all be banned as should the films,” Nasreen rants.

Poison pen letters are nothing new. What makes Give Me Everything You Have a cautionary tale for the 21st century is the way that email and the internet make it possible to give such slanders instant, worldwide circulation. When Nasreen begins to repeat her accusations in the form of reviews of Lasdun’s books on Amazon, he has a sense that his very being in the world is under siege:

An ordinary negative review is depressing, but it doesn’t flood you with this sense of personal emergency, as if not only your book but your life, or at least that large aura of meaning that accumulates around your life and gives it value, is in imminent and dire peril. Call that aura your “character”, call it your “good name”, your “reputation”, your “honour”. Whatever it was, as I read the review on my screen I seemed to be seeing, as if through a powerful medical instrument, the first stages of some irreversible damage spreading into this nebulous yet indispensable entity.

Seen in a different light, or by a different victim, being stalked in this way might appear as just a piece of very bad luck. Yet it is striking how little credence Lasdun gives to the possibility, which will announce itself to any reader, that Nasreen is simply insane – a paranoid schizophrenic whose fantasies randomly focused on a man who happened to cross her path. If Lasdun had seen it that way, he might well have suffered less; but he would not have been able to write a book such as Give Me Everything You Have. For a writer, an experience only becomes an inspiration if it finds a ready welcome in his mind – if it fits into certain patterns of expectation and desire and dread that are already present.

It is this willingness to appropriate his worst experience that shows Lasdun’s true courage as a writer and that enables him to turn his book into something more than just another memoir. As he meditates on his relationship with Nasreen, Lasdun is drawn to works of literature that feature themes of sexual guilt and secret complicity. His refusal to respond to Nasreen’s sexual overtures seems to have ignited her mania; this makes Lasdun think of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which Gawain’s rebuff of a seductive queen goes along with a partial ­acquiescence in lust. As he crosses the US on a train, he thinks of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, another story of stalking, in which an upright man becomes the secret accomplice of a killer.

In each case, it is the impossibility of true innocence that obsesses Lasdun. In a refinement of scruple that can only be called morbid, he wonders if his refusal to feel any compassion for his stalker is the reason why he deserved to be stalked: “Perhaps if I could summon such feelings, the great sense of injustice lodged inside her, whatever its source, would stand a chance of being salved.” Finally, thankfully, Lasdun refuses this kind of guilt: “I feel . . . confronted by something unassuageable and beyond all understanding: a malice that has no real cause or motive but simply is.”

The element of Nasreen’s malice that proves most troubling for Lasdun – and therefore most stimulating – is her anti-Semitism. The son of Jews who joined the Church of England, Lasdun describes himself as having only a tenuous and conflicted sense of his Jewishness. However, like many Jews before him, he finds that his subjective experience of being Jewish makes absolutely no dif­ference to the way he is perceived by an anti-Semite.

What is particularly disturbing is the way Nasreen’s hate messages draw on anti-Semitic tropes that became prevalent during the George W Bush years. Nasreen instinctively understands that “neocon”, for instance, is an anti-Semitic code word. In her messages, Lasdun is seen as part of a Jewish conspiracy that begins by stealing her work and ends by starting the Iraq war, invading Gaza and inventing the “Holocaust industry”.

Lasdun sees himself as a singularly inappropriate target for such abuse – “I am not a supporter of Israel’s military policy, let alone any kind of Zionist,” he writes. But the last section of the book finds him travelling to Jerusalem, needing to find out more about the Jewish identity and the Jewish state for which he is, willy-nilly, held responsible. He begins to awaken to the prevalence of the kind of anti-Semitism Nasreen spouts: “There is something uncannily adaptive about anti-Semitism: the way it can hide, unsuspected, in the most progressive minds.”

In this way, Give Me Everything You Have joins a short list of insightful books about Jewish experience and anxiety in the post-9/11 world, along with Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. At the time of writing, Lasdun concludes, Nasreen’s campaign of terror has grown more intermittent but it continues. In producing this book, however, he has at least regained control over his public image and become once again the authority on his own life. The most important lesson here is that everyone needs this kind of control – and that, in the age of the internet, it is shockingly easy to lose.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His most recent book is “Why Trilling Matters” (Yale University Press, £20)

 

Under siege: James Lasdun. Photograph: Dorothy Hong/Guardian News & Media Ltd

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era