As far as much of Generation Y is concerned, only old cranks complain about the rise of online communications and media. Sure, a Facebook message isn’t as personal as a telephone call, nor is Wikipedia as reliable as Britannica. But what took two hours in 1980 often takes only two minutes today. We are infinitely more efficient at many things, and when one looks at the upsides of the computer age, the argument goes, the downsides are trivial. Of course, this theory has its share of dissidents. Among them is author James Ladsun, who writes about his suffering at the hands of an online stalker—a self-styled “verbal terrorist” on whom he bestows the pseudonym “Nasreen”—who wants nothing more than to “ruin him.” Whereas the Internet has become a source of unprecedented convenience for many, for Ladsun it has become a source of infinite torment.
In his memoir “Give Me Everything You Have,” Ladsun cleverly catalogs his tormentor’s diabolical methods: her tweaks of his Wikipedia entry, her malicious reviews of his works on Amazon, and her tech-savvy scheme of forwarding inappropriate articles from his email address to academic colleagues, just to name a few. Ladsun also goes on a psychological journey, trying to make sense of his predicament while dissecting Nasreen’s potential motives. The contrast he creates between a victim who wants nothing more than to be left alone and the rage of an imbalanced anti-heroine is compelling; its inherent salaciousness makes Ladsun’s fate salient and effectively warns of the Internet’s dark possibilities. But while the author earns our sympathy through his well-described tribulations, he also abuses it through endless asides, obscure literary allusions, and garish prose that undermine his directive.
Ladsun’s tale, to summarize, begins in 2003 when Nasreen enrolled in a college-level creative writing course that he was teaching in New York City. A shy, introverted Iranian-American woman, Nasreen had begun to write a novel following the exploits of an upper-crust family in Tehran in the ’70’s. Her classmates were mildly impressed by the tale, but Ladsun was downright stirred. “Her language was clear and vigorous,” Ladsun writes, and he describes her prose as possessing a “distinct fiery expressiveness…that made it a pure pleasure to read.”
After the semester ended, Ladsun and Nasreen became enmeshed in their own writing projects and fell out of contact. Then, in 2005, Nasreen emailed Ladsun with a draft of her novel, hoping to receive some advice on the publishing process. This correspondence quickly transformed into a flurry of online chats, and Ladsun is forthcoming about how he enjoyed the exoticism, the “novelty” of his young, Persian amie de plume. Soon, however, Nasreen’s emails became too explicit and too indicative of psychological imbalance for Ladsun to ignore. She ranted about her colleagues with inappropriate vigor, offered to model her body for Ladsun’s enjoyment, and began sending him flirtatious pictures of herself.
He rebuffed her, left her emails unanswered for weeks at a time, and suggested that she seek counseling. Nasreen, in response, grew hostile. At first, she would only prod Ladsun—suggest he’d had affairs with past students or accuse him of disinterest in her literary pursuits. But her hatred of the man soon mushroomed, as did the absurdity of her claims. She came to imply that he drugged and raped her, and she accused him of founding a Jewish literary “cartel.” Soon, she had completed her transformation from a promising young wordsmith into a monomaniacal stalker.
Ladsun could have used this experience to reflect upon the technological conditions that make Nasreen’s “verbal terrorism” possible, and occasionally, he does. But the problem with these reflections is that they often segue into a series of unrelated side-tales that connect only peripherally to the topic at hand. In one of his more lengthy asides, Ladsun details a journey across America by train. He reflects extensively upon the strip sprawl of Chicagoland; he indulges in a long conversation with an innocent Boy Scout who has never left Kansas; he describes his travels in New Mexico as a literary tourist. Later in the novel, he explores Jerusalem on a journalistic assignment, discusses the Six-Day War, and investigates the history of the twice-destroyed Hurva temple. At some points, he strays so far from the core narrative that it seems he needs reminding that his life is not as interesting to the general public as it is to his stalker.
These lengthy asides often evolve into discussions of literature. “Macbeth,” “Othello,” “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and the works of Lawrence, Coleridge, and Plath come up in the course of his introspections. He quotes many at length—even his own poetry at one point—and he dedicates pages to rehashing plotlines. These glimpses into a literary mind are interesting to an extent, but when Ladsun dusts off a collection of Heidegger’s essays while interpreting Nasreen’s enraged references to Rilke, or quotes “Gawain” in its original Middle English while dissecting Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Penitent,” the text comes across as too self-important, which detracts from the naturally compelling story of conflict happening in his day-to-day existence. Ladsun continually refocuses the narrative, but not before surveying an esoteric collection of loosely related fictions.
However, even when Ladsun does directly discuss his nemesis and her manipulation of technology, the pretentious, pseduo-literary framework of the novel lends itself to equally pretentious prose. Ladsun often indulges in cumbersome adverbial phrases such as “sententiously though, in light of the catastrophe that later unfolded, with odd clairvoyance,” and clunkily strings together adjectives as in “one of those avuncular, rather eunuchy types.” Certain passages, such as those of the Western landscape during his trans-Atlantic journey, are succinct and stirring, but these segments are the exception.
“Give Me Everything You Have” is essentially a memoir coated in literary fat. The wearisome prose, the arcane references, and the endless asides too often drown the narrative. The compelling tale of a malevolent, unbalanced antagonist using uniquely modern tools to attack the author is there; uncovering it may be a rewarding experience, but rest assured, it’ll take some digging.
—Staff writer J. Gram Slattery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.