Modern Classic Book Review: Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

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Future Fantasy

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (Women’s Press Ltd, RRP£6.99, pp 384)

Imagine if a visitor from the future came to you and told you that everything in the future would be better: that humanity would live in harmony with nature, society would have fixed many of the injustices and men could breast-feed. What if they not only told you, but took you there as well? What if, while you were being transported around in time and ideology, you were also a patient in a 1970’s mental hospital in New England? Now what if the visitor from the future told you that the future was not certain and, in order for it to come about, you would need to fight for it? And that fighting would involve killing? This is the set up for Woman on the Edge of Time: a brilliant book about Connie, a Latino woman whose miserable life is made worse through enforced hospitalization. Luciente comes to her and takes her forward in time to the small community at Mattapoisett where she is shown how wonderful the future can be: and it is, frankly, a hippies dream.

The real world of contemporary Mattapoisett is a small town in Massachusetts on the coast of Buzzards Bay. The Mattapoisett River flows down from the hills, under the stone bridge, over the weir, before getting to the Mouth-of-Mattapoisett and the town’s own natural harbor, all mentioned in Woman on the Edge of Time.

But why has Marge Piercy used this tiny town as the main setting for her future Utopia? There is, I think, a genuine reason for using Mattapoisett – as opposed to other small towns in the area. Mattapoisett was one of several towns along that stretch of coast which were intimately bound up with the 19th century whaling industry. It was one of the most important boat-building centers on the east coast; building some 400 ships in just a hundred years. That came to an end in 1878 and, until 1993, the mizzen mast of ’The Wanderer’ was the flag post for the town. Since the end of whaling – an industry that will never return – this whole corner of Massachusetts has undergone a minor revolution: the beauty and tranquility, not to say the history as well, have allowed for a tourism industry that has attracted several generations of wealthy families, including the Kennedys, who always holidayed in Martha’s Vineyard, just across the bay from Mattapoisett. The area has adapted to a different purpose, one based on the beauty of the natural world surrounding them. This history would not have been lost on Marge Piercy, who wanted to make the point in this book that the world does not have to be defined by material possessions, that it can move on from ‘the age of waste and greed’ to an appreciation of nature and harmony with the world.

However, at the dark heart of this novel is the debate over whether the world of Luciente is a real one or fantasy. My argument is, I’m afraid to say, that the utopian future Connie experiences in Mattapoisett is a product of her psychosis, a fantasy that she uses to escape from the confines of the mental hospital and also a means to justify her final actions. This conceit will also help explain many of the larger themes which concern the novel and Marge Piercy herself.

The world which Connie visits has solved many of the problems she has encountered as a mother. Childcare is provided by the whole community, unlike the neighbor who charges $20 to look after Angela and five other children. Good food is of prime importance and is available to everyone as opposed to her guilt at serving dog food to her child. A more specific connection between this future world and Connie’s life is the continued occurrence of theft and assault (which she has committed), murder (which she has contemplated) but the complete absence of rape, of which she has been a victim. The philosophy of the utopia has been adapted from her own experiences and both conscious and unconscious desires.

The characters of Luciente, Bee and Dawn have counterparts in Connie’s life. Luciente can be seen as Connie’s idealised self, still Mayan in decent, but strong, confident, and a scientist in an area which Connie has some experience with: She identifies the chemical smell and purple tint of ‘cell staining’ from her time at college. On p252 she finally sees Luciente as an aspect of herself, a fraction of her mind. The presence of her dead lover and removed daughter in this world add to its dream-like fulfillment of desire: Another chance to sleep with Claud; an opportunity to see Angela grow up happy and safe.

Although these, and many other, examples may seem coincidental, Piercy does include one scene that can only be a dream since Connie cannot have the direct involvement that she is portrayed as having. The ‘birthing’ on pp 249-51 also goes to show that the technical advancements in the future society are not beyond Connie’s imagination, she is fully capable of creating this complex, futuristic and overly idealistic world herself.

To look at the way that this world is an escape from the mental institution, we have to look at the technical aspects of the narrative construction. Much of the action is presented as In Media Res, the narration having to skip back through time in order to explain the currently presented situation. While this is an interesting plotting device for the reader to experience, it does also mean that we only really meet Luciente after Connie has been admitted to hospital. The experiences previous to this are actually related from the hospital, but placed in the past they become narrative attempts to convince us that Luciente’s world is not a product of Thorazine and institutional confinement.

The blurring of the two worlds becomes more apparent as the novel progresses. Once the doctors’ experiment on Alice is revealed, Connie’s influence on Luciente’s world takes a dramatic turn, one that cannot be dismissed as coincidental. It is at this point that the notion of war and having an enemy is touched on more and more. Luciente becomes involved in a disagreement; crime and punishment are introduced and discussed; the duty of defending is placed on an equal footing as mothering. The death of Skip is directly compared to Jackrabbit’s death on the front line. When the decision is made for how Connie will escape, she trips over an object left in Luciente’s personal space. It is a weapon and serves no other narrative point for this scene other than to be mentioned in the same conversation. The point is obvious: the self hypnosis is Connie’s weapon against the doctors who hold her. It is after the experiment is performed on herself that Connie visits the alternate world, one that stands in contrast to Luciente’s world since it seems to be an escalation of the world she currently inhabits. Here she finds the future she must fight against. Her belief that the doctors’ work will lead to this future can be seen in the quasi-dream sequence on page 336. The enemy that is being fought in her future world is the doctors themselves. The identification of the enemy having been made, the reason for fighting them is given further emphasis by Luciente stating that theirs is only a possible future, one that may not come to exist. Connie has now given herself an entire world to save, in addition to herself and the other patients, thus fully justifying her poisoning of the doctors.

That Luciente’s world is a fantasy, dreamt up by a woman under the influence of heavy tranquillisers, complete powerlessness and a triple dose of grief does not detract from the seriousness of Piercy’s intentions. At the time of writing this book, Marge Piercy had been deeply involved with political groups that fought for women’s rights, the environment and, most importantly, an end to the Vietnam war. With the disintegration of this group due, partly, to the continuation of the Vietnam conflict, she also had to contend with the break-up of her second marriage (which was coincidently to a computer scientist). Connie’s fantasy is made as real as possible to reflect the idealism of people like Piercy, whose concept of the future and desire to fight for it was dismissed by many of their contemporaries.

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