All Is For­got­ten, Noth­ing Is Lost

by Lan Sa­man­tha Chang, W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pany, 208 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Jen­nifer Levin

Writ­ers will steal any­thing. They’ve even been known to pil­lage the ex­alted writ­ing work­shop for ma­te­rial — the very place many of them learned to write and the place many of them cur­rently work. And why not? What earnest 20-some­things will say to each other in the name of “cri­tique” can be com­edy gold.

Noah Baumbach used a work­shop as the set­ting for a meet-cute in his 1995 film Kick­ing

and Scream­ing. Francine Prose cre­ated a dis­turb­ing sex­ual and cre­ative power-play be­tween pro­fes­sor

and stu­dent in Blue An­gel (2000), and De­bra We­in­stein skew­ered thinly veiled New York Uni­ver­sity in Ap­pren­tice to the Flower Poet Z. (2004). In per­haps the most well-known send-up, Michael’s

Chabon’s Won­der Boys (1995) — later made into a film star­ring Michael Dou­glas — a burned-out fic­tion pro­fes­sor reck­ons with him­self dur­ing a uni­ver­sity lit­er­ary con­fer­ence with the cringe-wor­thy name of “Word Fest.”

All Is For­got­ten, Noth­ing Is Lost, the third novel by Guggen­heim Fel­low Lan Sa­man­tha Chang, isn’t funny, nor par­tic­u­larly orig­i­nal in its treat­ment of as­pir­ing writ­ers. Surely, some read­ers will find as­pects of it hi­lar­i­ous, but the book is be­ing billed as a se­ri­ous, lit­er­ary ex­plo­ration of cre­ative-writ­ing pro­grams and what can be learned there. The story, about two male po­ets and the fe­male po­ets in their or­bit, be­gins at the fic­tional Bon­neville MFA pro­gram in 1986. Ro­man is hand­some and driven, ter­ri­fied of cri­tique, and scorn­ful of his class­mates, ex­cept for Bernard. The de­vout Bernard couldn’t care less about pub­li­ca­tion, nor what any­one thinks of his work — save for Mi­randa Stur­gis, renowned poet and abom­inable pro­fes­sor. The stu­dents are ter­ri­fied of her, but it will come as lit­tle sur­prise to the reader when Ro­man be­gins sleep­ing with her in an ef­fort to get more use­ful feed­back on his po­ems. That she sleeps with him re­quired my will­ful sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief. Mi­randa is a cipher. The reader gets noth­ing from her but al­ter­nat­ing cold­ness and des­per­a­tion. Through Ro­man’s eyes, she’s also try­ing to mother him — but Ro­man has mother is­sues. Chang lays them out plainly, with­out mak­ing them very in­ter­est­ing.

Chang knows how to write, and the prose flows ef­fort­lessly. The book is, as they say, “highly read­able,” if not all that deep. Chang is an alumna of and cur­rently di­rects the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, the coun­try’s most well known, revered yet re­viled grad­u­ate pro­gram in cre­ative writ­ing. Iowa is the light­ning rod for MFA pro­gram crit­i­cism — that stu­dents learn a stylis­tic same­ness that has more to do with trend and the­ory than true artis­tic ex­pres­sion and ex­plo­ration of ideas. Chang her­self is ob­vi­ously aware of myr­iad pro­gram per­ils, in­clud­ing hero wor­ship of fac­ulty by stu­dents. She even makes a stab at rec­og­niz­ing the power of the bur­geon­ing po­etry avant-garde that some claim has since taken over at Iowa. But re­gard­less of Chang’s mo­ti­va­tions for writ­ing it, her novel isn’t a se­ri­ous ex­plo­ration of any­thing. It is, how­ever, a mildly melo­dra­matic, de­cid­edly old-fash­ioned yarn about the pas­sions of po­ets. The book’s most in­ter­est­ing el­e­ment is the fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence in pur­pose be­tween Ro­man and Bernard. While Ro­man goes on to mul­ti­ple book pub­li­ca­tions, prizes, teach­ing-ca­reer suc­cess, and crip­pling self-doubt, Bernard lives in a one-room sub­let in New York City, pau­per-like, and labors the rest of his days on his “long poem” — which pro­vides the novel’s ti­tle — a his­tor­i­cal epic about the ex­plo­ration of Wis­con­sin.

We never get to see Ro­man’s or Bernard’s po­etry. Hal Hart­ley used un­seen po­etic ge­nius in his mas­ter­ful film Henry Fool (1997) as a com­men­tary on sub­jec­tivism, but in Chang’s novel it rings hol­low rather than pur­pose­ful. Rather than a se­ri­ous ex­plo­ration of po­etry, the novel is rem­i­nis­cent of old Hollywood films about heart-rend­ing artis­tic am­bi­tion: a grande dame’s love for the stage; a bal­le­rina’s need to dance, dance, dance!

The story makes a pit stop at an un­named small pri­vate col­lege in New Mex­ico — ob­vi­ously my alma mater, the Col­lege of Santa Fe. But Chang sounds like a tourist by hav­ing a lo­cal pro­fes­sor take a vis­it­ing writer to a “bar filled with im­ages of lizards and cacti and hiero­glyphs from long-de­ceased pue­blo dwellers.”

Ul­ti­mately, what mat­ters to the work­shop group has lit­tle bear­ing on one’s own art past the early stages of learn­ing craft, though MFA pro­grams can be fer­tile ground for the devel­op­ment of ben­e­fi­cial cre­ative friend­ships. In hind­sight, some of what I learned in work­shop has mean­ing that has car­ried for­ward to in­form my writ­ing in an on­go­ing way, and other crit­i­cisms were re­vealed as im­ma­ture or even cruel — none of which rules out work­shop as an im­por­tant, for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, but even­tu­ally, writ­ers must leave it be­hind to write on their own, for their own rea­sons. I won­dered, does Chang imag­ine us all car­ry­ing that young, col­lec­tive, of­ten peev­ish voice with us for­ever? If so, it would be a curse.

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