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Reputation in the Age of Social Media

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A review of James Lasdun's "Give Me Everything You Have: On being stalked"

According to James Lasdun, the concept of personal "reputation" has come full circle. In the past, an individual's good name or "honour" was crucial to their survival, vulnerable to baseless gossip and worthy of defending with a pistol at dawn. Then modern communications arrived: "Facts could be checked; rumours and falsehoods refuted". Now, in the global village, we are back to where we started, our public, online identities prey to a snowballing of idle falsehoods and malicious misinformation.

Lasdun is much concerned with reputation - and with good reason. In Give Me Everything You Have, he describes what happened when a former student began stalking him, and ended up trying to "destroy" him.

Lasdun first met Nasreen (not her real name) when he was teaching a creative writing course in New York. He was impressed, in one of this book's many examples of retrospective irony, by the "fiery expressiveness" of her prose. He offered to introduce her to his agent and, after the course ended, the pair struck up an email acquaintanceship.

But Nasreen's emails gradually became more peculiar and insistent. Gentle flirting gave way to sexual propositions and declarations of love. After Lasdun confirmed that he was happily married and uncomfortable with the way the friendship was heading, Nasreen became reproachful, then embittered, then openly hostile. Pique and bile segued into a "fugue of hatred," a torrent of outrageous screeds about Lasdun's personality and career, notable for the "crystalline purity" of their venom.

Then came the anti-Semitism. Nasreen, an Iranian-American, accused Lasdun of a variety of "Jewish" conspiracies, including literary bootlegging and intellectual theft. She averred that "Jews in America need to shut up" and derided the Holocaust as "f*cking funny".

The campaign escalated into lurid allegations of molestation and rape, first figurative then literal. Lasdun's colleagues were contacted, his employers warned off, his online profile disfigured. Amazon and Wikipedia painted the portrait of a racist misogynist; comment boards beneath his journalism were peppered with vitriol and indictment.

Fighting this "verbal terrorism" proved to be practically impossible under US law. With Nasreen living in a different state, charging her with aggravated harassment required extradition - a tricky proposition for a mere "misdemeanour." Lasdun was in no physical danger; only his virtual self was under threat.

Give Me Everything You Have underlines the fragility of identity in the world of social media. But it is more than just a warning or lament. Lasdun has responded to his trials as any writer should do, alchemizing his adversity into a superb memoir-cum-meditation, its themes ranging from human relationships to literary wordplay, Middle Eastern politics to medieval legend.

At times, Lasdun's book is written like a crime thriller, his account slipping backwards and forwards in time as he analyses key moments in his friendship with Nasreen. His reflections are freighted with portent ("At that time, I wasn't yet keeping copies of every email"), his motives and reactions scrutinized in forensic detail.

His narrative is crammed with literary allusions, including deliberations on our need for analogy to explain impossible situations. In one particularly fertile motif, he considers contemporary notions of reputation through a rereading of Gawain and the Green Knight, whose gallant hero is so keen to protect himself that he ends up doing himself a dishonour.

Lasdun draws on DH Lawrence and George Eliot ("The last thing we learn in life is our effect on other people"), as well as Coleridge ("I felt like the Ancient Mariner: doomed to tell his mad tale to every new stranger"). A less elevated comparison might have been made with the imprisoned author in Stephen King's novel Misery.

Lasdun is a poet as well as a novelist, and his prose is filled with arresting observations and elegant turns of phrase. On a train out of Chicago, he notices the "entanglements of highways curling like gigantic spilt film reels," while cyber stalking is described as "the realm of stricken enchantment in which technology and psychology overlap." He deftly notes that "like all conspiracy theories, [Nasreen's] required constant adjustment", and his reflections on anti-Semitism, with its "peculiar conflation of the roles of victim and oppressor", are particularly acute.

Lasdun appreciates the paradox of his own "victimhood" (he is the white male authority figure; Nasreen the minority female student), as well as the irony of his mushrooming fixations ("I became just as obsessed with her"). He interrogates the ethics of republishing Nasreen's emails and of writing his account in the first place.

This is where his book falls down a little. Lasdun does, as he fears, exhibit something of "a failure of empathy", and he spends little time considering the likelihood that Nasreen is suffering from a serious mental illness. Like Gawain, he can come across as narcissistic and, although never vengeful, he confesses to his need to hold his tormentor "responsible for her behaviour".

But Lasdun is wise enough to understand the fallibility of this very human response, and his book succeeds precisely because it isn't cold or detached. This is a story about a distressing, confusing, destablizing experience, about the gaps between our self-perception and our "effect on other people", between our private and public identities, our personas in print, speech and thought; between how we really are and would wish to be.