James Lasdun’s latest book, Give Me Everything You Have, is a piece of nonfiction every bit as pointed and compelling as his fiction. Beginning in autumn 2003 as Lasdun is teaching a fiction workshop in New York, we are introduced to an environment in which fledgling writers take turns offering and evaluating each other’s work. A woman in her 30s who Lasdun calls Nasreen presents a chapter from a novel about Tehran in the 70s and the class and Lasdun respond warmly (although Lasdun qualifies the class’ response lacked warmth and ‘this slight lack of warmth made me more emphatically enthusiastic than I might have been otherwise’). Flash forward two years, teacher and students have gone their separate ways – and Nasreen gets in touch to ask if Lasdun wouldn’t mind reading her novel. This is the point at which Lasdun’s nightmare begins.
Over the course of almost a decade, Nasreen goes from being a mildly flirtatious correspondent to a seriously threatening presence, as Lasdun finds himself implicated in a torrent of abuse in which Nasreen accuses Lasdun of working with his agent and his editor to steal Nasreen’s ideas and have them reproduced by other writers to great acclaim. After a time, Lasdun starts to ignore (or at least not respond) to Nasreen’s mails and this only seems to encourage her further, with alterations to Lasdun’s Wiki page leading on to emails and letters to potential and current employers and colleagues. Give Me Everything You Have is unstinting in its openness, Lasdun admitting how confounded he was by the whole situation, paranoid and uneasy, worrying about the effect it would have on his readership, his sales, and potential future work opportunities.
As Nasreen’s threats darken, with hints of rape in her past and Lasdun’s supposed part in it (before he even met her), the book seems to look at the world in which we find ourselves – a world in which soap stars and film directors are accused of historic acts of rape – and worry about the weight afforded accusation – and then draw back. Instead, Lasdun finds the curious way in which Nasreen attacks his Jewishness compelling (despite the fact he has never been a practising Jew) and explores his religion in a way he has never felt called upon to do before, visiting Israel and thinking about his relationship with his father and his father’s relationship with his own Jewishness. This section – which felt to this reader like the point at which Lasdun decided he could make a book out of the Nasreen situation but needed to work out how it could end if the Nasreen situation itself did not end – feels like the weakest of the book. There is a lack of resolution then that actually could have been improved upon if Lasdun had chosen to write a coda (had he heard from Nasreen again since the book was published? interviews seem to indicate not) for the paperback edition.
Finale notwithstanding, however, Give Me Everything You Have is a tremendously compelling read, a book that you may find yourself viewing between fingers worrying about how the slightest thing can lead another person to visit ill upon you for no apparent reason. It is also a piece of nonfiction that does not stand or fall on your knowledge of Lasdun – this is simply put a taut examination of a harsh modern situation that explores the dangers of interaction in a world in which one person’s perspective is another person’s downfall.
Any Cop?: Haunting and unsettling to be sure, Give Me Everything You Have is a powerful piece of writing and a highly recommended read.