An important subplot in Lan Samantha Chang’s “All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost” involves a mysterious poem that is never properly finished. The poem, which shares its title with the novel, is an historical account of the discovery of the Mississippi River by the Québecois explorers Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette, written by Bernard Sauvet. Sauvet is a Joe Gould figure who spends his adult life working on the poem and scrambling for rent money. Although he rarely leaves his apartment, Bernard seems an explorer in his own right—the other writers that populate Chang’s story remain, for their entire careers, within the confines of creative writing programs, never venturing out of the academy.
Chang, who directs the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, does not seem to have any problem with these characters’ lack of experience with the outside world. Her new novel follows the life of poet Roman Morris and those of his classmates at an unnamed program in Michigan, not unlike that of Iowa. The novel’s early focus is on a poetry workshop, in which the main characters all participate. Chang then returns episodically to these characters as they advance through the creative writing establishment. That structure, which successfully evokes both the passage of time and the compression of memory, is one of Chang’s triumphs in a novel that otherwise feels incomplete.
“All Is Forgotten” is intended as a cerebral exploration of the limitations of memory and writing, at the cost of the work’s broader appeal. The story is told from the perspective of Roman, who decides after a few years in finance to pursue “a life of poetry,” which to him involves a Master of Fine Arts (MFA), then a series of fellowships and prizes, and then tenure. Early in “All Is Forgotten,” Morris is told by the brilliant and notoriously blunt professor Miranda Sturgis that he writes as if he has no soul. Chang doesn’t offer the opportunity to agree or disagree with this assessment, omitting every word of the poetry that means so much to Roman and his friends. And yet there is a sense that Sturgis is correct—Roman is coolly analytical and self-absorbed, and his rigid conviction that “all that matters is the work” leaves him with an empty personal life.
Chang renders Roman with plausibility and acuity, but in doing so disservices to her own work. The other characters in the novel appear as Roman perceives them—dully flitting around the periphery of his more important interior monologue. Additionally, Chang neatly skirts the problem of date by avoiding references to contemporary culture or places, but it gives her settings a curiously antiseptic feel. In a short story or a poem, one strong character and a set of obliquely-discussed themes would be satisfying, but this novel feels slight and even unfinished.
If there are moments when Chang’s focus on Roman is counterproductive, the novel’s episodic narrative helps to illustrate his uncomfortably static emotional life without becoming blatant or dull. And it is counterintuitive that her descriptions, which are sparse, simple, and rather repetitive, are so effective at creating a forlorn, elegiac mood that hangs over the story like a chilly Midwestern fog. It is hard to understand why she could not apply this virtuosity to her setting and characters; unlike Roman’s, her writing has soul, and indicates devotion to character and craft even when she misses the mark.
Chang’s decisions—to set “All Is Forgotten” at the Iowa-like school, to populate it with young writers replete with scarves and cigarettes and cliché anxieties, and to establish the two-year MFA program as extremely formative for each of its highly successful students—smack of self-congratulation. She preempts all possible criticism within her novel’s pages, as if by acknowledging that novelists might be perceived as “overly concerned with the well-worn paths of narrative and time” or that “there might be something territorial, or even boastful about...the idea that one could inhabit the subject matter,” she could make those criticisms less valid. This will be enough to put off many readers, but fortunately, the school, its students, and their discussions about writing are the background rather than the centerpiece of Chang’s concerns. She is more interested in constructing the interior world of a poet struggling to reconcile himself with his need to alienate himself from the world in order to write about it.
Although Chang develops Roman’s inner life spectacularly, it is ultimately not enough: “All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost” needs an anchor for its self-conscious meditations. Bernard justifies his eccentric behavior by quoting da Vinci: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Although Chang’s own career has more in common with Roman’s than with Bernard’s, she would do well to take her character’s advice: “All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost” is a work of art abandoned too soon. —Staff writer Abigail B. Lind can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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