Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Woman on The Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Mass Market Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Fawcett; Reissue edition, 1985
  • Price: $7.99
  • ISBN-10: 0449210820
  • ISBN-13: 978-0449210826

I am a great fan of Marge Piercy's poetry - her skill at using simple and everyday language to capture everyday scenes and sensibilities in the inner and outer lives of strong women, and to shine upon them a sublime literary light - and so it was not difficult to convince me to break out of my usual reading, decidedly not science fiction, to spend time with this "time-traveling novel." That play on words, mind you, is quite intentional. I soon sensed, within the first pages, that this is the kind of story plotline (and the writing skill to make it succeed convincingly) that traverses time and retains meaning and interest, no matter the year. Some things change, some things never do.

Being familiar with Piercy's poetry and something of her own biography, I expected a feminist approach to the plot. Indeed, it was there, and this is why I was soon confident in my enjoyment of the novel, even if it did veer from my more typical reading choices. Whatever the genre, I like to read about strong and unique women. Woman on the Edge of Time has plenty, in the now and in the to be.

Consuelo (Connie) in the 1970s lives a life of poverty and abuse, when domestic violence is as common as air, and women survive all too often by selling themselves out as objectified beings, bodies without minds, without souls. A pimp beats up "his" women to maintain order, in this case, to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, and a scene of violence ensues, in which Connie is made the villain rather than the victim. She can say nothing to prevent herself from being institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital, called mad, whereas the male's voice, that of the pimp's, holds unquestioned weight. He has her out of his way to create more victims.

I couldn't help but draw parallels here with another literary classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey, and even some undertones of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, but Piercy succeeds in making this story her own. Connie strives to maintain her sanity by traveling in time to another life in 2137, assisted by future person (Piercy uses "per" as pronoun, thus avoiding gender designation of she or he in this future), Luciente, a kind of almost andrygenous being. In that future, she explores a life much more pleasing, if not utopian, and in series of trips, explores this future world in its treatment of relationships, the interchange of genders and generations, the workings of community and government, the balance between work and play, spiritual evolvement, and even the occasional war. For it is not utopia, but a constant work in progress, however more evolved than our current day, with humankind in an ongoing mode of self-improvement.

No less fascinating is a shorter description of a darker parallel of life in the future, when Connie misses her usual destination and lands instead in a future that could just as easily, one fears, evolve from our current time. In this future, women are even more objectified than they are today, creatures resembling comic book and Barbie doll fantasy proportions, created by plastic surgery, produced specifically and only for the erotic pleasures of men, becoming sexual slaves. Mind reading allows for no privacy, no chance of escape. A woman might only think of the possibility of escape, and already she is reined in and punished. It is a world of callousness and cruelty, domination of gender over gender, power and greed ruling all, happiness for none.

In the hospital, woven through the story, Connie struggles for her sanity, as the doctors in power rule out any possibility of what they cannot understand, puzzled by her episodes of "unconsciousness," and many in the ward are forced to undergo brain-altering surgery. Connie, too, undergoes repeated surgeries. Her attempts at escape, sometimes in mind but sometimes also in body, can be heartrending, as she comes so close, so close...

This is a story worth reading, if not for intriguing storyline, than as a philosophical treatise on what could be, what might be, what a future for humankind might hold if we approach it with understanding. Whether Connie truly travels in time or only in fantasy is perhaps least important of all. Those who pick it up as science fiction fans might be disappointed if seeking high tech descriptions and complex alien worlds; this is not Piercy's intent. She is far more interested in exploring the evolvement of humankind if all are allowed to pursue their best, towards a world of harmony and a caring community that works on all practical levels.

While I still prefer Piercy's poetry to this sampling of her prose (my first, but probably not my last), her skill and imagination to produce worlds that intrigue as well as enlighten is worthwhile reading.

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