Monday, January 31, 2011

All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang

I first learned about this book while browsing through the publisher’s catalogue (W. W. Norton & Company). Reading the description, it sounded like the kind of literary book that appeals to me. As described in the publisher’s catalogue, two of the central questions of the book are “What is the hidden burden of early promise?” and “What are the personal costs of a life devoted to the pursuit of art?” Both of these are questions I find to be very intriguing, so when I saw a copy of the book in the library I grabbed it.

The book tells the story of a writer, specifically a poet, named Roman Morris. In the beginning of the book, Roman, age 28, has given up his high-paying job in Boston in investment banking or something like that to move to this unnamed but presumably Midwestern college town to attend a prestigious writing program at a school which in the book is simply called the School. There he comes to know their hot-shot poet faculty member, who happens to be a beautiful and cryptic 46-year old female poet named Miranda.

Knowing that the author, Lan Samantha Chang, is Director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, which is the most prestigious MFA in the country, I was on the lookout for insider-y morsels in this book. Is the poet/teacher Miranda Sturgis, for example, modeled on someone we might know? Are the students, or types of students, represented in the book, reflective of the student body at Iowa? How about Roman’s relationship with Miranda? Based on an actual incident? Perhaps even the author’s own? Alas, being a total I0wa outsider, I’ll have to leave these gossipy ruminations to some better-informed reviewer.

I did notice, however, that Chang does address the contentious “can writing be taught?” question. I’ve never attended an MFA program, but I run a Master of Arts program in publishing (at Rosemont College--more info see:, and I work very closely with an affiliated MFA program, so I know something about how MFAs work. I’m aware of how MFA programs in Creative Writing have proliferated over the last decade or so (as written about by Edward J. Delaney in The Atlantic: I also know that one of the most frequently-asked questions about these programs is: “Can good writing be taught?”

In looking back on his graduate school experience and comparing it to his now-current position as a professor, Roman reflects:

“Nowadays, Roman thought, the students expected not only to be noticed, but that their work—however absent the vision, however awkward the execution—be discussed with the assumption that the goals were far-reaching and accomplishment inevitable. Moreover they felt that they were owed these services, as their professors’ end of an official transaction. Many believed that writing could be ‘taught’ by the dissemination of ‘craft,’ and that anyone with the smallest speck of ability or desire was entitled to this dissemination. . . . One could write with utter mediocrity, but one had the same right to be treated as if greatness, or at the very least, publication, were imminent.” (pp. 146-7)

Somewhat bitter thoughts from the mind of our main character, thoughts that certainly reflect feelings of real writers and teachers and make it clear if not where the author stands, at least what position fictional representative takes on this issue—good writing? Either ya got it or ya don’t.

Late in the book, while thinking over a recent encounter with an ex-classmate who once hated him, we have this from Roman: “He knew, with a finality that crept upon him as imperceptibly as breathing, that he himself, in some undefinable moment, had passed that turning point when regret had overtaken expectation.” (p. 191) Having also reached a point in my life where certain expectations must be sacrificed, literary moments such as these speak to me. To me, this moment Chang describes is a sad one, for regret is a heavy load. But more than just how this moment speaks to me personally, I also think in some ways it defines an important theme of this book.

All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost is a book that follows the trajectory of a poet, or simply, of a character, from the moment he first begins to attempt following his life’s dream, through the years that follow, leaving the reader to watch the inevitable ups and downs, judgments, actions, errors, and consequences that ensue, and ultimately to judge the character as he judges himself. Some readers will doubtless be more sympathetic than others (and than I) to Roman and his choices and actions toward his teacher Miranda, his wife Lucy, his friend Bernard, and his son, Avery.

A book about poets needs, I think, to convey a poetic use and appreciation of language, and this book does – the novel is replete with sentences that sound like they dropped out of a poem. This literary decorativeness, however, along with a third-person voice that is spare and concise, kept me from getting too involved with the characters’ lives and made me watch and care about them only from afar. I never came to feel emotionally invested in the book.

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