"All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost" by Lan Samantha Chang

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As I progressed through “All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost,” I felt the hand of a careful artist, demanding the highest performance of her lean language, and observed her continued bountiful success in meeting that demand. Lan Samantha Chang has given us a deep, arresting, memorable piece, whose characters stay with us long after their story ends.

Young Roman Morris strives to write poetry and succeeds brilliantly – he wins an early fellowship and later in life, the Pulitzer Prize for his deep, unique, heartfelt verse. He lives a life in academia, and it’s a cushy life, except that something gnaws at him: he thinks his onetime mentor and lover Miranda, herself a brilliant poet of personal observation, may have exercised nepotism in vaulting him into his early recognition and success. Roman has doubts about himself as a result. He wonders whether he deserves his accolades and treats those who love him with a hard-to-forgive combination of coldness and mistrust.

We understand Roman’s inability to level with any of those around him, although we may think ill of him for it. The characters he abuses deserve better, particularly Miranda and later, his wife Lucy, who both suffer at his hands, but in rather different ways. But Bernard, the friend and shadow-character, plays perhaps the most intriguing function in the story. As Roman’s foil, he sometimes represents the Path Not Taken, for Bernard is another gifted poet who has worked on a long piece all his adult life, with no outward success. Bernard lives a far more virtuous life, Roman sees to his chagrin, and perhaps stands as the conscience Roman has never paid much attention to. This all comes to a head at the unhappy end of a long visit Bernard pays Roman and Lucy. Roman feels threatened because he didn’t realize Bernard had such impressive gifts – he even suspects Lucy and Bernard of misbehavior behind his back, and sends Bernard away. I find myself considering Bernard more and more; he’s a fine construct – he balances Roman’s baser side, and proves in the end to be a weak force (his lungs are ruined from second-hand smoke) that Roman will miss keenly after he’s gone.

How fitting that a story about brilliant writing should come to us in such brilliant language! Ms. Chang’s tightly- harnessed prose never gets in the way, and yet answers our need to see inside these characters. Graceful, rhythmic, restrained, instructive – Ms. Chang’s prose is all these. And the depth! I caught echoes of Henry James in passages describing the relationships between and among these striving, stricken souls. But, fear not, there are none of the fussy, nested phrases of the late James here. All is in wonderful, flowing order. Our author renders psychological insights and memorable stories in classy, disciplined prose, with characters portrayed truly and unblinkingly – this is a fine achievement.
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