Title: All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost: A Novel
Author: Lan Samantha Chang
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Buy The Book: Amazon
A haunting story of art, ambition, love, and friendship by a writer of elegant, exacting prose.
At the renowned writing school in Bonneville, every student is simultaneously terrified of and attracted to the charismatic and mysterious poet and professor Miranda Sturgis, whose high standards for art are both intimidating and inspiring. As two students, Roman and Bernard, strive to win her admiration, the lines between mentorship, friendship, and love are blurred.
Roman’s star rises early, and his first book wins a prestigious prize. Meanwhile, Bernard labors for years over a single poem. Secrets of the past begin to surface, friendships are broken, and Miranda continues to cast a shadow over their lives. What is the hidden burden of early promise? What are the personal costs of a life devoted to the pursuit of art? All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost is a brilliant evocation of the demands of ambition and vocation, personal loyalty and poetic truth. (Summary provided by W.W. Norton & Company.)
Warning! Contains Spoilers!
All Is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost: A Novel by Lan Samantha Chang is like a fine Merlot that goes down smooth and is best consumed out of paper bathroom cups. The book is split into three sections. It is a short read at 205 pages in length. As the summary provided by Norton says, Chang’s writing is haunting. After reading this book for a long stretch I found myself reaching for my pack of cigs only to remember I gave up smoking years ago. The first part of Chang’s novel transported me to my younger years. A time spent in smoky poetry writing sessions at the homes of my creative writing professors where traditional classroom rules were cast aside for the sake of art. But this part of the novel takes place in the 80s, so the cigarettes and wine are actually consumed in the classroom. Cue Edith Bunker Those were the days.
I found myself at times both loving and hating the protagonist, Roman. The story largely centers around the after effects of a love affair between Roman and his poetry professor Miranda. His treatment of the women in in his life is at times brutal. Yet, I admired his independent spirit, and I begrudgingly admired his ability to walk away from “what could have been” to pursue his dream. Chang presents Roman’s choice to work in an academic setting while writing his poetry in contrast to fellow poetry student and friend Bernard. Bernard is willing to live in poverty for years struggling to perfect his long poem. Yes, he works on one poem for decades. Bernard is one of the most fascinating characters I have come across in a while.
This book is not only a love story but also a comment on the current state of writing instruction. At the beginning of the book there are a series of “bludgeonings” in the classroom of poet Miranda Sturgis. Miranda’s words to her students are harsh and often end with the student being critiqued in tears. Later in the novel, Roman sees his experiences in Miranda’s classroom as the mark of a time long past:
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. No one bludgeoned anybody anymore. 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. In Roman’s first years of teaching, he had struggled against what he perceived as this silent insistence on mediocrity, putting aside his own time to write with a sometimes brutal authority. But now, he was not writing; he had nothing else to do but teach the mediocre. (Chang 146-147)
Through Roman, Chang is making a very brave assertion. However, as director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Lan Samantha Chang is perhaps one of the few people in the United States qualified to make that statement. I really don’t know how I feel about this. It’s been about four years since I was a student in a graduate level poetry or fiction writing class. The harshness of the critiques in each class was largely due to the environment dictated by the instructor. So, I find placing the burden of blame on the students’ shoulders troublesome. Teachers need to rise above the lowered expectations of their students. And university administrators should give teachers any support needed to rise above “mediocrity”.
I think anyone that has ever had the pleasure or great discomfort (depending on the situation) of sitting in a writing classroom will enjoy this book. It is not just a love story. It is a manifesto of sorts on the state of writing instruction today. A manifesto unlike the unibomber’s I very much enjoyed reading. Many thanks to The Rumpus Book Club for making All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost: A Novel the September selection.