Review: When I Was Young and In My Prime

22May10

Originally published in The Danforth Review, 2005.

American writer Barry Yourgrau begins his stories as concisely as “I go to sea.  For various reasons, I fall overboard.”  His modern fables are sharp and amusing, but suffer a little from a kind of self-conscious cleverness.  Alayna Munce, in writing When I Was Young and In My Prime, demonstrates she’s no less interested in being concise and in the scattered, essential moments — the stepping-stones in a life.  It’s only fair to say the two writers have different goals, but Munce is ultimately a more serious and meaningful writer, with a novel that gracefully blends perspectives and approaches.  Her narrator is a young woman navigating the first few years of a marriage even as she witnesses the opposite stage in life: her work in a retirement home and the decline of her grandparents.

As a poet, Munce knows how to make observations that are striking and concise.  A drunk in the corner of a bar “had one too many and his face had slipped its anchor, was drifting out to sea.”  A poet generally takes a while to write a novel, because this way of finding sifted, concentrated meaning takes time, and they sometimes end up with wandering, exquisite but ponderous books (Michael Turner said reading Fugitive Pieces was like “eating a flower”).  But Munce has a light touch, and the ability to switch gears, recognizing that the entire novel (and dialogue too) shouldn’t be made from the same slightly dreamy material.  Here’s a conversation between the narrator and her husband:

“I don’t know why people think they can pursue happiness directly anyway.  It doesn’t work that way,” James says.  He’s back from his tour and we’re celebrating his birthday with a bottle of wine on the steps of the front porch.  Streetlights on.  My head in his lap.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean happiness is a by-product.  Happiness is beside the point.”

“What is the point then?”

“I don’t know.  Doing right by people.  Becoming really good at one or two things.  Noticing shit.”

“And if you do those things – living right – then you’ll be happy on the side?”

“No, not necessarily.  Not exactly.  No guarantees.”

Enough description to set the scene, the important dialogue and then we move on.  It’s a book with a palpable wisdom, which is refreshing in a younger writer, and a culture in love with mere information.  Our narrator isn’t looking to shape herself into an ideal someone else will define, but is looking to further relax into the person she already instinctively knows she is: “Married at nineteen in this day and age.  I thought I’d found a shortcut.  To what though?  I didn’t have clear idea, but intuited a strenuousness, a muscularity, both noble and animal, in the notion of mating for life.”  Passages about the decline of the elderly find subtle ways to suggest something of both the grandness and the failure of our lives, that we have the ability to work on and develop ourselves even as our bodies eventually betray us: “And who darns your socks” the nurse asks Grandpa as she’s putting them onto him.  “I do.”  His speech is agonizingly slow, but the nurse is patient.  “Me, myself and I.  Not the neatest job in the world, but it works by God.”

Guy Davenport suggests that the writer is “the keeper of the past, and is therefore a guide to the future,” even that poetry is “the voice of the spirit,” and so “we keep coming back around to the poet as a kind of theologian, not one with first principles and dogma, but one searching for the source of spirit.”  In an interview, Munce suggests the book is “not the masterpiece that when I was young I imagined my first book would be, the Great Canadian Novel.  It’s just this book, this modest, imperfect, flawed offering, but I can live with it. Maybe it has some good moments and has something to offer.”

But great Canadian novels sneak up on us, as humble offerings by Canadians rather than self consciously Canadian offerings.  To say this book has some good moments is an understatement: everyone will find something of value in such a carefully written and subtly meaningful book.

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