Lan Samantha Chang is a literary success of countless accolades, from her Ivy pedigrees (Yale, Harvard) to coveted fellowships (Guggenheim, Stanford’s Stegner, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study) to her directorship since 2006 of what many believe is the country’s (the world’s?) top creative writing program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Chang herself earned her own MFA there in 1993. Her debut, Hunger, was an extraordinary short fiction collection; her lauded first novel, Inheritance, won a 2005 PEN Open Book Award (called Beyond Margins Award until 2009).
Chan’s latest, published in 2010, is her first that diverges from her Chinese American background (she’s the Wisconsin-born daughter of Chinese immigrants) – no implication intended that any writer should EVER be limited in any way by their ethnicity. That said, getting through these 200 pages took such effort that I confess to quoting desperate platitudes: “write what you know,” “those who can’t do, teach.” Inexplicably, I stayed tenacious: when my errant eyeballs kept rolling off the page, I downloaded Ramon de Ocampo’s crooning narration, but even he couldn’t save the story.
Allow me to conjure the protagonist with the book’s most pithy phrase: “‘ … a monster of self-absorption.’” That pretty much describes Roman Morris, although he’s actually referring to one of his students (another unavoidable idiom: “the pot calling the kettle black”) well into the endless novel. Here I must digress momentarily about names: Roman is the German word for ‘novel, fiction,’ and Roman suggests empire, conquest; Morris sounds too close to more, more, more. And does he live up to his name? Why, yes … yes, he does: Roman conquers his mentor, gets much more than he deserves, and becomes the monstrous self-absorbed anti-hero of his own novel. Name fulfillment! Here’s how it goes …
As an MFA student at an unnamed institution not unlike the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Roman’s ultimate grad school achievement is bedding his enigmatic professor. Known for her caustic comments, Miranda Sturgis’ seminars are nevertheless highly sought after by the most promising poets-in-training. Why an independently-minded woman succumbs to such a narcissistic non-charmer is never quite convincing. For Roman, the late-night private tutoring becomes the impetus that furthers his career for the rest of his life: he wins a major poetry prize upon graduation, gets published, settles into a tenured professorship, and even wins a Pulitzer.
While Roman achieves his every ambition, his fellow MFA classmate and only friend, Bernard Sauvet, is Roman’s antithesis: Bernard remains the near-starving, never sell-out artiste who struggles for decades to perfect a single poem (drumroll, please: the eponymous “All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost”). Bernard temporarily moves into Roman’s midwest home after he loses his rent-controlled Manhattan apartment. Roman recognizes – and envies – the true genius in Bernard’s epic, but when Bernard doesn’t fawn over Roman’s latest manuscript, Roman more or less throws him out. Years later, premature deathbed confessions allow the two frenemies some semblance of peace. The end. Finally.
Personal epilogue: after forcibly finishing too many titles in a row that were clearly better left forgotten, I’ve rewarded myself with permission to close books long before the final page. I’ve since been making generous use of my new golden rule! Quitters unite!