Stalking is a word full of menace. It describes the uncannily measured gait of ghosts, the stealthy movement of the hunter and, increasingly, the pursuit of celebrities by fixated fans. Stalking has become an annihilating form of adulation that, in extreme cases, culminates in murder, the ultimate form of intimacy, as in Mark Chapman's archetypal killing of John Lennon.
Unrequited Love argues that the phenomenon is in no way confined to celebrities. Thousands of people have registered complaints against stalkers, real or imagined, and both Britain and the US have anti-stalker legislation. Indeed, like related modern crimes such as serial killing and date rape, stalking has a claim to be defining a generation. Gregory Dart should know, having been a victim himself.
The first half of this fascinating little book is a compelling account of Dart's hapless entanglement with a postgraduate student he calls "Lucy". E-mails, phone calls, text messages, ill-advised meetings, drinks, and dinner dates all buttress her towering infatuation. Meanwhile, Dart is at once transfixed and immobilised by this unreciprocated passion, which topples Lucy into bouts of furious hatred.
Dart's every word and gesture are grotesquely misconstrued. From Lucy's point of view, even his stony silence was "not a means of disengagement but only a more subtle form of pursuit". The irony is that, despite being a lecturer in English and a professional in the intricacies of communication, Dart is incapable of making her understand that he has no romantic interest.
After a digression on the history of love and whether Dante's courtly pursuit of Beatrice could be considered stalking, Lucy chillingly reappears in the form of "Anna", who e-mails Dart. Supposedly a friend of Lucy, she is far more likely to be Lucy herself, masquerading under another address. It is a horribly believable tactic. Dart's self-esteem is corroded and his ability to maintain serious relationships tainted. He is haunted by the fear that he is displaying latent stalker tendencies; when does a romantic persistence become harassment?
Dart is a candid analyst of his own feelings, but is he candid enough? He allows the reader to intrude into his private life and judge his insecurities, his foolishness. This is courageous and admirable, but he is too coy about sex, barely mentioned in a book about love, passion and desire.
Lucy eventually vanishes from Dart's life, but the question of what became of her is pertinent in another way. Reading Dart's misadventures is almost voyeuristic, and suggests that the avidity with which we follow characters and plots could itself be a metaphor for stalking. Perhaps these characters are simply phantoms and Unrequited Love is just a story, autofiction rather than autobiography. Although the book will help anyone who has been the victim of obsessive behaviour, I hope it is a fiction. If not, "Lucy" is out there somewhere...
The reviewer's book, 'The Forger's Shadow', is published by Picador