|Lan Samantha Chang runs the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. (Miranda Meyer)|
Where poetry and ambition collide
Lan Samantha Chang’s two previous books take readers inside worlds closed to most of us. The five stories in “Hunger,’’ Chang’s first book, render the immigrant experience from the point of view of present-day Chinese-Americans struggling to meld two cultures. Chang’s novel “Inheritance’’ renders the emigrant experience, tracing the lives of two sisters over several decades in China. In “All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost’’ Chang turns her attention to a very different closed world: that of contemporary American poetry as practiced by academics.
Courses in creative writing at American colleges and universities have become so numerous that many readers of this review likely will have had some personal acquaintance with them. Nevertheless, it’s fun to hear that creative writing graduate students are called “acolytes,’’ that the critiques they undergo in workshops are called “bludgeonings,’’ and that a local bar is the preferred venue for “post-critiques’’ where students engage in the “limerick game,’’ the object of which is “to compose within ten seconds a limerick about the death of a famous poet.’’ As the head of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the most prestigious program in the country, Chang has plenty of insider information to impart. Academic novels can make for delicious satire, and “All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost’’ has its comic moments. But you can’t laugh at Chang’s characters for long. Their suffering is too prominent, too sustained, too inescapable.
The novel follows four characters over two and a half decades. Three are graduate students when we first meet them in 1986. Roman, through whose point of view the story unfolds, is a relative late-comer to poetry at 28, having given up a career in banking to invite — or, more accurately, to command — his muse. “Reliably handsome’’ and even more reliably arrogant, he has resolved to sacrifice the “banality of the present’’ for the sake of the “as yet unseen magnificence of the future.’’ Roman’s opposite and foil, Bernard, the oldest in the class at 31 and working “doggedly’’ on a long poem with the same title as the novel, is “a sincere poet, a hopeful poet, and — if there were such a thing — an honest poet.’’ And then there’s Lucy, 21, “the youngest and prettiest girl in the class,’’ and also — though this is regarded by Roman as barely worth mentioning — a very good poet. The fourth character is their famous and feared professor, Miranda, age 46. Because she wields enormous influence in the narrow and capricious world of poetry, students with an eye on their future careers line up for her bludgeonings.
These four characters exist in a net of oppositions: Roman and Bernard, with respect to their approach to art and their ambition; Lucy and Miranda, with respect to age and experience at the beginning of the novel and with respect to the balancing of art and love by the end. The form here — really three linked novellas that constitute snapshots of the characters at three points along the book’s 25-year arc — is too spare for what it aims to render. As the years go by, the four characters perform a contra dance in which relationships shift and change. Roman begins as Miranda’s lover, becomes Lucy’s husband, ends up alone. Bernard begins as Roman’s friend, becomes his enemy, ends up being supported through his final illness by Roman’s care and concern. Lucy goes from lover to wife to mother to — finally, in midlife — artist. Miranda’s passage from consummate artist to woman in love ultimately erodes her reputation as a poet.
Ordinarily I’d hesitate to give away this much of the plot, even though Wordsworth warned us long ago that “we poets in our youth begin in gladness;/But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.’’ However, the life stories of its characters aren’t what drive this novel. “All Is Forgotten; Nothing Is Lost’’ is truly a novel of ideas. Throughout the work, the four main characters struggle with questions of real heft. What does it mean to be an artist? To have ambition? Does art thrive only at the expense of life? Of love? Or are life and love the essence of art? The exploration of these questions hijacks most of the dialogue — even the pillow talk. “When the seminar was finally over, [Roman] hurried to Miranda’s house. She was, as he had hoped, eager to make love. Afterward, as they lay together, he complained about his class. ‘I’m absolutely sure,’ he said, ‘that I’ve outgrown it all: the seminar, the seminar system, even the School.’. . . ‘And what is your goal?’ she said. ‘Mastery . . . To reach a point where I’m certain I’ve gained artistic mastery.’ ’’
Because the characters live in their heads, their sensory experience receives short shrift, and their feelings are referred to or withheld rather than expressed. Their words and actions function as a sort of shadow play depicting the life of art rather than the lives of artists — a danger inherent in the novel of ideas. This one nevertheless delivers a smart, thoughtful, and often poignant meditation on the questions it poses.
Ann Harleman is the author of two story collections, “Happiness’’ and “Thoreau’s Laundry,’’ and two novels, “Bitter Lake’’ and “The Year She Disappeared.’’ She can be reached through her website, www.annharleman.com.