Hydra-headed conspiracy theories and rumours are spawned daily on the internet. Increasingly, cyberspace is where we are judged by others and, on occasion, even destroyed. If this sounds paranoid, consider how a perfect stranger can park his car outside your house and, using a smart phone, hack into your wi-fi system.
The other day, friends of ours were raided by the Metropolitan Police who confiscated computers and storage devices on suspicion of paedophile activity. The couple had neglected to secure their modem with a password, but the police needed to make sure it had indeed been "compromised". After eight weeks, the computers came back with no evidence of pornography on them. "It's a horrible thing for you and your family to have gone through," the detective constable apologised. The people were innocent, but had been made to feel guilty; a nightmare out of Kafka, no less.
Give Me Everything You Have, a disturbing, first-person account of being stalked on the internet, confirms one view of cyberspace as an increasingly bad space. Ten years ago, the British-born writer James Lasdun was teaching a creative writing "workshop" in New York when a star pupil of his began an email correspondence with him. "Nasreen", as he chooses to call her, was an attractive woman of Iranian descent, who radiated an aura of discreet sexual allure and flirtatiousness. Her need to write to Lasdun, it seems, was overwhelming and she wrote as though she was thinking aloud, the sentences flowing in a passion from her fingertips. The element of flirtation was there from the start. ("James, you should marry me and I'll support all of the Lasduns…")
At first, Nasreen's messages had been amicable, but soon they contained disturbing personal disclosures and outpourings of anti-Semitism. Bewildered more than shocked, Lasdun is deluged with ever more vile threats and insults. The emails begin to pile up in his inbox, yet for all their declarations of love-hate ("I hope I'm scaring you slightly. That would be exciting"), he feels compelled to read them. They cause periods of brooding on his own worth as a writer and the son of a famous architect (Denys Lasdun designed London's National Theatre).
Exhausted by the daily battering, he contacts the New York Police Department, who refer the case to the "hate crimes" unit. Nothing comes of the referral and Lasdun is left to suffer unaided. In a series of online book reviews by his former student, accusations are made of rape and plagiarism. By this stage, Nasreen has begun to see the object of her desire through the distorting prism of his fiction. Give Me Everything You Have is, among other things, a meditation on the dangers of transposing life and fiction (or semi-fiction).
If Lasdun is disquieted to find himself in Nasreen's private psychodrama, he knows that each of us is really three different people: the person we really are, the person we believe we are, and the person other people see as us. Who is he?
That Nasreen should view Lasdun as a Jewish "terrorist" and "plagiarizing sexual predator" suggests she may be schizophrenic or at the very least delusional. But this is not something he wishes to entertain. "I have a strong vested interest… in claiming that Nasreen was fundamentally sane," he writes. Why? Making literary mileage out of a disturbed woman's internet stalking would make him feel uncomfortable. Yet that is partly what he is doing.
The 1978 post-punk song "Give Me Everything" by Magazine is echoed in the title of Lasdun's discomfiting, often brilliant book. Give Me Everything You Have is one of the first accounts of internet stalking, and for that reason alone it should be read. I found it by turns frightening and oddly self-regarding. Do we really need to know all this? The answer, I decided, was yes; these days, we are all vulnerable to internet outrage.
Ian Thomson's biography of Primo Levi is published by Vintage