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Amber Paulen

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

Marge Piercy

Woman on the Edge of Time

10 August 2011


This past trip to the States brought me back to Italy rich in books, lots of hardcovers that required a new suitcase and mostly books by women. Woman on the Edge of Time was the first to be gleaned from the stack, to follow Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker and to be read on the beach of Isola del Giglio. The book proved perfect for sand and sun, just enough thought stimulation buoyed by lots of plot.

And it’s an exciting book right from the beginning: pimps and whores and a fight scene. Connie is thrown into the mental institute, where she was once already, before the first chapter is over. It didn’t take me long to draw up connections between this book of Marge Piercy’s and a handful by Doris Lessing : The Four-Gated City, Briefing for a Descent into Hell and the Canopus in Argos: Archives series. Woman on the Edge of Time is dripping with social criticisms; using an imagined future and mental health or “insanity,” Piercy describes them to us.

The depressing bleakness of Connie’s situation, the mental institute laden with abuse, experiments and other injustices, Connie’s life on the outside as a poor Mexican-American woman, is compared to a seemingly utopian future that she can cross over to. Much of the dialogue is taken up with Connie’s disbelief in that utopia, and her arriving at a deep understanding of their communal society, without race or gender. That no one wields power over another, no one is divided into haves and have-nots, that dignity and respect is natural to humanity, is unbelievable to someone so beaten down and trampled upon.

They took and took and left their garbage choking the air, the river, the sea itself. Choking her. A life of garbage. Human garbage. She had had too little of what her body needed and too little of what her soul could imagine. She had been able to do little in the years of her life, and that little had been ill paid or punished. The rest was garbage.

Connie’s time in the mental institute becomes more nerve wracked when she is chosen for an experiment: a dialytrode implanted in her brain for control. Connie’s helpless, choicelessness and the doctors’ annoying insistence that she be “fixed”, that her anger for all the tragedies in her life is undeserved, is a grim portrait of our society. How would the powerful remain in power if there was no one to control? (If I read more news I would make comparison to the riots in London: their anger is just.)

Woman on the Edge of Time came out of the 70s, out of that hopeful period of change in ideas of race and gender. Marge Piercy was active on the political fronts, some of which she writes about in her autobiography, Sleeping with Cats. Yet there is a message in this book that has not lost its urgency. She has brought the hushed to the surface and given the silenced a voice. The “issues” don’t fade but renew with poignancy in every beaten down life. To read this book is to listen.



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