This book raises a lot of questions: Is it possible to love a book in spite of the total uselessness of the protagonist? Is it possible to be totally enchanted by a story that so closely follows a man you can’t stand? Generally, I’d so no, but specifically, when it comes to All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, it turns out that both are entirely possible.
Other questions the book touches on remain unanswered. Like, can creative writing be taught? It’s an interesting question on its own, but especially so when the novel in which it’s being asked and unanswered is written by the current director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, widely considered to be the best graduate creative writing program in the country.
You’d think that as a current student of writing at the University of Iowa (yes, the same school of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, no I’m not in that program) I’d feel strongly that creative writing can be taught, but I don’t. I also don’t feel strongly that it *can’t* be taught, and, if Chang’s book is indicative of her feelings on the matter, she falls into a similar boat. I do think it’s a good question and I do think this book navigates that question in an interesting, thought provoking way.
Like I said, the protagonist is a totally useless, aggravating, self-centered prick. I did not like him and I did not sympathize with him, but I did believe in him as a character. Though through the first two-thirds of this book he came off as a totally pompous ass, I appreciated eventually getting a glimpse into his insecurities and realizing that a lot of that bravado was in fact possibly false. It’s true that it was slightly annoying to watch this guy fumble through life, totally unaware that he wasn’t the only person in the world, but I appreciated the trust Chang put in her readers, that we could move past this, see that she was working to emphasize his flaws, and realize that he really was a well-rounded character – that in fact being a well-rounded character does not mean balancing great and terrible. In this case, the task she created for herself was balancing various shades of shitty. I think part of what made it so great was that it was in such contrast with the writing. Chang writes delicately and beautifully, and it was interesting to see this style used to portray someone who was so definitely neither delicate nor beautiful.
I loved everything about the writing of this book. It was sly, smart, and the pacing was perfect. One of the most difficult things for me as a writer is figuring out how to handle the passing of time. This book covers several decades, which can be a tricky thing to handle. When done poorly, it’s jarring and takes you out of the book. Chang handled it perfectly, and in fact I believe the ways in which the passing of time distort our perceptions to be a central theme to this book. The first third of the book takes place during a specific period of time in the protagonist’s life, and then follows him through his career. In the last few pages he’s looking back at a snapshot of himself and his friends from the first period of time we followed him through, and he can’t remember the names of most of the people. It was such a subtle and effective way to get across that feeling of letting go of things that were once so important, and getting some distance and perspective on the way time warps the mind.