Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy (1976)
Review by Martin Lewis
In a series of escalating scenes, Marge Piercy plunges the reader into a horror story. Consuelo is a Mexican-American woman in her late thirties living in genteel poverty, haunted by a past trauma but determined to live a just life. Connie’s niece, Dolly, bangs on her door. She has been beaten by her boyfriend, Geraldo, who is also her pimp, because she has fallen pregnant (ironically, this was a deliberate tactic by Dolly to protect herself). Geraldo shows up at Connie’s door with one of his enforcers and a backstreet abortionist. They argue, they fight, Connie breaks Geraldo’s nose with a wine bottle. In response, she is burnt and beaten unconscious. She comes round in the car as they are making their way to the hospital and is brutally beaten again. When they arrive Geraldo’s injuries are treated but hers are ignored and she is held responsible for both; Dolly lies to protect her pimp and condemns the aunt who tried to protect her. Connie is treated as a criminal, drugged, restrained and imprisoned in a mental asylum. The final words of the chapter are: “She was human garbage carried to the dump.” (p32)
It is a harrowingly unfair opening that plugs directly into a deep human fear: complete powerlessness. Connie has done nothing wrong, she is a victim of circumstances, systems and history. The trauma in her past (which she has been fruitlessly trying to atone for ever since) is the fact she once beat her daughter whilst coming down off a drink and drug binge following the incarceration of her husband. As a result her daughter was taken into care and she was sectioned. She therefore fits a profile and that is enough to remove her humanity. Her pleas of innocence fall on deaf ears. After all: “The authority of the physician is undermined if the patient presumes to make a diagnostic statement.” (p19)
In a very real sense Piercy has located a dystopia in Seventies America. What in other circumstances we might think of as the welfare state is here presented as an inflexible, illogical, patriarchal, authoritarian bureaucracy. Now, there is no doubting that the state can be all those things, even in supposedly developed countries, and was undoubtedly more likely to be so forty years ago. Equally it is true that mental health provision has had a long and sordid history of failing those it has notionally existed to help. This is particularly true of its failures towards the already marginalised: women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals and the poor as well as the mentally ill themselves. At the same time, it is hard not to think that (as with so many other dystopias) Piercy has her thumb on the scales to make her point.
Everyone is against Connie: her family, her community, her doctor, her social worker, her nurse. Even her ex-employer, a professor of romance languages at CUNY who was also her lover, is against her: “He called them all Chiquita, like bananas.” (p50) It is so one-sided that eventually the barrage of oppression produces not anger but disbelief. Again, there are many documented examples of horrendous abuses of power within the system but in seeking to dramatise them Piercy has perhaps strayed too far into didacticism. Here is Connie remember her last encounter with her social worker:
The social worker had given her that human-to-cockroach look. Most people hit kids. But if you were on welfare and on probation and the whole social-pigeonholing establishment had the right to trek regularly through your kitchens looking in the closets and under the bed, counting the bedbugs and your shoes, you had better not hit your kid once. (p26)
This does not sound much like Connie’s voice to me, it sounds a lot more like an authorial insertion of Piercy’s. The immediate “human-to-cockroach look”, fine but the more objective “whole social-pigeonholing establishment”? What is elsewhere a tight third person perspective seems to expand outwards to another, more distant narrator. Connie analyses her situation to a remarkable degree without enacting this analysis in any other way. She is noticeable sharper and more intelligent when reflecting in these passages than elsewhere in the novel, particularly the dialogue. Here is another example of the same thing:
She too, she was sprayed. They had taken out her womb at Metropolitan when she had come in bleeding after that abortion and the beating from Eddie. Unnecessarily they had done a complete hysterectomy because the residents wanted practice. (p.45)
I’ve deliberately chosen this passage because of the unfortunate typo in the first sentence. Woman On The Edge Of Time was originally published in the US in 1976 and was published by Women’s Press in this country in 1979. They re-printed it every year following that until they issued it as a Women’s Press Classic in 2000. Yet despite this honour they do not appear to have re-typeset since it was originally published and the text is blurred and contains more than a few typos. This is no way to treat a classic.
Returning to the meaning rather than the appearance of the text, I believe the angry immediacy of her identification as being spayed but not the detached, final sentence. As I mentioned, this also stands in contrast to the dialogue which is frequently terrible but also far less articulate and reflective:
“I won’t grow up like you Mama! To suffer and serve. Never to live my own life! I won’t.”
“You’ll do what women do. You’ll pay your debt to your family for your blood. May you love your children as much as I love mine.”
“You don’t love us girls the way you love the boys! It’s everything for Luis and nothing for me and it’s always been that way.”
“Never raise your voice to me. I’ll tell your father. You sound like the daughters of the gangsters here.”
“I’m good in school. I’m going to college. You’ll see!” (p46)
And so on. This is a good example of the schematic argument that often replaces attempted verisimilitude in the conversations that take place in the novel. It is perhaps unfair to contrast the words of a girl with those of the woman she becomes but, child or adult, her words share a similar register. The tone and texture of this voice is absent from the inner reflections and so I struggle to associate them with Connie. There are, however, suggestions that this is deliberate, that her interior and exterior are radically different, that her personality is not unified:
“Anyhow, in a way I’ve always had three names inside me. Consuelo, my given name. Consuelo’s a Mexican woman, a servant of servants, silent as clay. The woman who suffers. Who bears and endures. Then I’m Connie, who managed to get two years of college – till Consuelo got pregnant.” (p122)
Inner and outer life need not mesh and much great literature has inhabited this gap but I find this example problematic on several levels. First, the poetry of the description of Consuelo does not match any of the facets we see of her and again seems to stem directly from Piercy. Similarly, this suggestion of compartmentalisation is another manifestation of a disassociated, intellectualised objectivity that never convinces. Finally, there is the danger of using such a metaphor in the context of a character who is wrongly believed to be suffering mental illness and is punished for this. Connie isn’t sure who she is but I’m not sure if Piercy is any clearer and to open up the question of Connie’s mental state seems ill-advised (she proceeds further down this path as the book progresses).
It turns out that Connie is a special snowflake. She is an “extraordinary top catcher” (p42) or at least so Luciente, a visitor from the future of 2137 tells her. This is notionally the point where Woman On The Edge Of Time reveals itself to be a science fiction novel but even considering the general difficulties of treating time travel as SF, this is a particularly weak example; Luciente has essentially used astral projection to reach the past. Piercy wants to present a utopia to contrast with her dystopia but has no interest in the mechanisms of presenting such a contrast. Nor is this contrast subtly presented:
“Where you go to study. To get a degree,” Connie snapped.
“A degree of heat? No… as a hierarchal society, you have degrees of rank? Like lords and counts?” Luciente looked miserable. “Study I understand. Myself, I studied under Rose of Ithaca!” He paused for her appreciation, then shrugged, a little crestfallen. “Of course, the name means nothing to you.” (p.53)
Luciente doesn’t seem particularly well briefed. Perhaps she went to the same time travel school as Connie Willis’s character. She does recognise a few of our quaint 20th Century customs though:
Connie lit a cigarette.
Luciente leaped up and backed away. “I know what that is! I beg you, put it out. It’s poisonous, don’t you know that?” (p53)
Let’s make no bones about this, it is bad writing. This embarrassing false culture-shock continues for several more pages before going on to become a defining feature of the novel. Because not only is Connie an extraordinary top catcher, she can also project herself into the future and interact with all Luciente’s friends. This allows Piercy to walk us through her utopia, its intricacy described through exchanges every bit as hammy, forced and tedious as those found in the granddaddy of all these books: The Socratic Dialogues by Plato.
Piercy’s utopia is a frustrating place (and not just because of the prose). Our world is obviously a deeply unjust place and she has created an alternative world founded on the principles of equality and sustainability with admirable rigour and pragmatism. But it is also liberally dosed with hippy woo. In the future, for example, everyone will apparently realise that cats can talk through sign language. Then there is the astral project, the conquering of illness through mind over matter, the divine revelation of calling: “Those positions are not chosen strictly by lot, but by dream. Ever spring some people dream they are the new Animal Advocate or Earth Advocate.” (p151)
The frustration continues when Piercy attempts to inject some ambiguity into the novel without fully committing to it. For the majority of the book, the 20th Century of Connie’s captivity serves chiefly as a frame for the philosophy of the future. We still get quite a bit of the mundane battles of everyday life but the novel (like Connie herself) constantly escapes to tomorrow. Into this is gradually salted the idea that the future is not necessarily The Future: “Yours is a crux-time. Alternate universes co-exist. Probabilities clash and possibilities wink out forever.” (p177) If alternate universes exist then by their very nature they are infinite; to suggest that the Seventies are a special crux-time simply because that is when Piercy is writing suggests an enormous lack of perspective. It also once more moves the book from the realm of speculation to that of woo. But Piercy goes further than this by suggesting that maybe Connie really is mad and that her future world takes place only in her head. It is the obvious direction to take the story but even given this still manages to disappoint in its execution.
Hinted at throughout, towards the end of the novel we finally get to witness the idealogical war that is taking place in the future. It is a deeply unconvincing war so this could be evidence that we are not supposed to believe it is real or it could be evidence of a paucity of talent on Piercy’s part. This war then becomes a metaphor for Connie’s external struggle against the jailers. Or does it become a metaphor for Connie’s internal struggle against her mental illness? “War, she thought, I’m at war. No more fantasies, no more hopes. War.” (p338) I can’t find any coherent way of reconciling these readings of the novel with what we know of Connie. The question of her sanity is imposed rather than arising from the text; the ambiguity here is careless rather than enticing. Is she mad, in a coma or back in time? To which I can only answer: who cares?
This review originally appeared on Everything is Nice.