Friday, February 25, 2011

All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang

What is real poetry, the kind that speaks to the soul, and what are tinny slick word constructions a man can use to build an important career?

As soon as I read the first paragraph and realized this novel was about a writing workshop, I was like, Oh Jeez. Writers writing about writers? But then I was totally sucked into the very compelling story. It was hard to put the book down. Later my thought was, well, it really is ballsy for the director of the Iowa Writers Workshop to write a novel about a writer’s workshop. What are the chances of it succeeding? And yet it does.

Roman, the central consciousness, is a poet. Or is he? In order to write real poetry, in order to love, you must possess a soul. The characters, young poetry students in a workshop led by the terrifying Miranda, debate issues like these all day long. You can teach technique, but you can’t give someone a soul.  There are many indications that Roman lacks one. Brains, yes, beauty, yes. A soul – no – he’s too afraid to go there. He’s too afraid to make himself vulnerable. His core wound – the abandonment by his mother when he was a child. Miranda advises him to write about this – but can he make real poetry out of it?

The writing is very beautiful. The passage of time is delicately, skillfully done, as this short novel spans thirty years. Everything unnecessary is omitted.

Part of the plot derives from the Jorie Graham Foetry scandal, which stunk of a shabby con and damaged everyone involved’s reputation. However, Miranda is presented as a merciless Sphinx and the problem is if you have a merciless Sphinx as a major character and the emotional reaction of the Sphinx is a key plot point, there's a leap of faith that needs to be taken.

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