Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy

Today I'm looking at a science-fiction book by Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time. In the introduction, Piercy explained that the book was written during the second-wave feminist revolution of the late 1960's and 1970's and put it within the genre of feminist utopian literature that sought to critique current society and provide alternatives for the future. In this rerelease some forty years later Piercy argues that her book has become even more relevant because of the decreasing resources available for mental health, the increasing wealth inequality, and the threat of environmental destruction. And on some level, I have to agree.

This book focuses on Connie, a Mexican-American woman in her mid thirties, living on welfare in New York. Connie has been abandoned by her family, her daughter taken away by the state, and been in and out of government institutions for a significant part of her adult life. Recently Connie has been seeing an individual who identifies themselves as Luciente. Luciente claims they come from the year 2137, a society that has returned to a closer-knit and more ecologically sound way of living. Connie and Luciente are able to connect mentally across time and communicate, learning about each other's society.

The main conflict comes from a fight Connie had with Geraldo, her niece's pimp. Geraldo knocks Connie out and gets her recommitted to an insane asylum. The rest of the book focuses on Connie trapped within the ruthless institution determined to crush her into a predetermined form of socially acceptable. This is the part where Piercy's research especially shines, she says she got workers to sneak her into mental institutions and did countless interviews with both workers and patients to get insights into the mental health system. Through her writing Piercy manages to capture the tedium, the helplessness, and the desperation of people trapped in a system that sees them as a problem to be fixed, rather than people to be helped. With the evocative portrait Piercy creates, it really shows the deep-seated problems of the mental health system and if not how it needs to be reformed, at least revealing the desperate need for reform.

I will say that in my experience there seems to have been changes for the better in the past forty years, but my experience is far, far different from Connie's. First, I'm a middle-class white man opposed to a poor latinx woman so people are more likely to listen to my thoughts and concerns than Connie's just because of background. Second, I've spent the equivalent of a long weekend in a mental health institution while Connie spends at least one year and probably longer trapped in an institution. So while the glimpse I saw looks a lot better than what Connie experienced, my own experience was very different from Connie's and it's certainly possible that things haven't improved for many other people.

As for the life in the future that we saw, I feel like that's weaker compared to Piercy's commentary on society in the seventies. There are some interesting ideas but a lot of things are left a little too vague and just raise more questions, specifically the practice of defense. The people in the culture of 2137 volunteer to spend part of their time working on defense, fighting against enemies. It's implied that these enemies are last vestiges of the old corporation-dominated way of doing things and we get to see a little bit of that different society, but I would have liked just a little bit more exposition.

Overall I think the time travel and alternate society that Piercy establishes in her book are the less interesting parts of the book. The best parts, for me, were Connie's struggles against the system and revealing just how a woman of color can be disempowered by a system that sees her as a problem rather than a person. If the future society is underdeveloped and maybe a little confusing Connie's own story more than makes up for it. Definitely worth checking out.

- Kalpar

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