I feel a little odd about reviewing this book. I’d never heard of it, and I’m pretty sure most of you haven’t either. But I’m pleased I stumbled over it. Chang is a truly talented writer.
The story follows Roman, an aspiring and very promising poet in Graduate school. He studies with Bernard, among others, under the tutelage of the Great and Powerful Miranda. All her students simultaneously revere and fear her, and her seeming indifference or, at best, ambivalence toward their work only seems to magnify this. Roman, for one, feels completely ignored by her. That is until he begins the proverbial teacher-student affair which lasts between them for six foolish months.
Years later he is rewarded a prestigious poetry award and things start to unravel. Though praised by the outside world, Roman struggles to feel accomplished. Re-enter Bernard, on the edge of poverty and still working on the same long poem he started in grad school. Outward appearances would suggest Bernard is the failure, but his poem, surreptitiously read by Roman in a moment of weakness, sends the famous poet into a tailspin of self-doubt and questioning of his life’s work.
Reminders of lost time, regrets about relationships, and revelations about the true nature of people trying to make it as artists in a dying form end the book on a tragic note.
Some of the discourse in this book went a little over my head, given that I’m not one to hem and haw about whether art can be taught, or ponder what success really is. Yes these are interesting questions, but at times I got sort of bored with the academics’ heady discussions. That said, it was an interesting glimpse into a world the author is obviously familiar with, and for that I was pleased. It almost had an ethnographic feel to it, making the truth behind some of its very profound passages more apparent.