A few years ago, James Lasdun wrote The Horned Man, a novel about Laurence Miller, an English lecturer in an American college who descends into paranoia. At first, he thinks someone is tampering with things in his office, and making calls from his phone. Then he thinks his colleagues are spying on him, and, perhaps worse, that they think he is spying on them. He worries that someone might think he is trying to plagiarise their work; that people can read his lascivious thoughts; that, whatever he says or does, he is leaving a damning trail of evidence against himself. Meanwhile, he is part of a sinister academic committee devoted to policing the behaviour of others.
It’s chilling and very convincing; Lasdun is making a good point about the difference between the private and the public worlds, and about how the relationship between them is changing. This may be an American college, but the way Miller describes it, it sounds a lot like Stalin’s Russia. At one point, Miller makes a superbly penetrating comment about how, as a man, you must disguise your thoughts, as if you were wearing a virtual yashmak. The book came out in 2002.
Now let me tell you about this new book. It’s another chilling story about an English lecturer in an American college. But this time, the story is true. The lecturer is James Lasdun. It starts in 2003. Lasdun is teaching a creative writing course. A woman on the course, who he calls Nasreen, and who comes from Iran, writes some promising fiction. ‘Her language was clear and vigorous, with a distinct fiery expressiveness,’ he says. Lasdun agrees to pass the manuscript to his agent. The course ends. Nasreen keeps up an email correspondence with Lasdun. A while later, he agrees to meet her in a café to discuss her work. The meeting is fine. But Lasdun’s agent turns the manuscript down. The emails continue, and become, on Nasreen’s part, rather flirtatious. And then things get weird.
‘I do love you and am in love with you,’ writes Nasreen. Lasdun tries to discourage this approach He asks Nasreen, out of curiosity, how she feels about being an Islamic woman — what, for instance, does she feel about the wearing of veils? (Lasdun is Jewish.) She writes: ‘Would you like to see me in a veil, sir?’ And then the floodgates open. She writes ‘unstoppably amorous’ emails, ‘often a dozen or more a day.’
Then she gets nasty. ‘Well, fuck you,’ she writes. And: ‘Your kids have a future of being thought of as Nazi Germans.’ And: ‘When I needed help you disappeared.’ And: ‘I think the holocaust was fucking funny.’ And: ‘What is the bottom line of horned man? That men should fuck everything in sight so they don’t become underground psycho killers?’ And: ‘You fucking faggot coward, say something!’
It gets worse — much worse. Nasreen accuses Lasdun of plagiarising her work. She copies other people in on her emails — at first Lasdun’s agent, and then others. She writes nasty reviews of his books on websites such as Amazon. She takes on the status of victim. Her logic becomes ever more twisted:
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.
She describes Jews as ‘people who quietly got gassed and then cashed in on it.’ She tells him: ‘I wish ill health and disaster .. .for you and your family.’
What are we to make of all this? First, that being cyber-bullied is terrifying; Lasdun, who is an excellent writer, conveys this beautifully. He explains that what bullies do is to make you feel ‘that the bully is the representative of a group, a majority, a consensus, while the victim is all alone’. We all know that, in the age of the internet, it’s not hard to summon a baying crowd, however crazy you are.
And it’s easy to arouse suspicion; at one point Nasreen emails Lasdun’s employer a long, twisted tirade. ‘It turned out that James Lasdun was not interested in my work, but was trying to sleep with me,’ she says. She also accuses him of being part of a racket in which lecturers steal their students’ writing for financial gain. Lasdun’s boss is worried. ‘The nature of a smear,’ writes Lasdun, ‘is that it survives formal cleansing.’ And what can you do about someone who sets out to damage your reputation on the internet? Unless you fight back and write about it in a compelling way, pretty much nothing.
In brief: some people are crazy. The internet can amplify their crazy thoughts. Mud sticks. Hence this book, which is brilliant.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 23 February 2013