“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
—Karl Marx “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”
In Marge Piercy’s incredible novel Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) it is not the tradition of past generations, but those of the future to come that weigh on the brains of the living. The protagonist, Consuelo Ramos, is visited by contrasting visions from the future. Often, Consuelo finds herself in a happy utopian community that contrasts with her daily life, but, she also witnesses a dark and repressed, threatening dystopia and the struggle between the good place and the bad. To deny the visions that she finds so frightening, Consuelo discovers that she too must find the will to fight; not in the future, but in her own present against her incarceration. The work of the future in Piercy’s novel thus weighs on the protagonist’s present in a way that causes it to weigh on our own, real-world present also, as we find ourselves facing the same problem Consuelo does: embrace the label of insanity or comply with our captor’s version of reality? Either Consuelo visits the future and learns that there are better ways to be and to know, or she does not and instead the visions we read are her own. In both cases, such as reading of the novel demonstrates a type of thinking that continues to be germane to radical politics today, in our own fraught present.
Piercy introduces us to her heroine during a quiet morning in Consuelo’s New York City apartment. Connie, as she is called by Anglos, gains the reader’s trust and compassion very early on in the novel when she stands up to her niece’s boyfriend-pimp, Geraldo, to protect her niece from having an abortion. Consuelo’s protective outburst is violently turned against her and she is sent back to a mental institution—a feat disgustingly easy to perform by Geraldo who simply has to make up a story for the police about Consuelo’s attack to re-institutionalize her. The play of Geraldo’s privilege relative to Consuelo’s own position is palpable. Her return to the mental hospital causes her to reflect on and confront her previous time there, the loss of her daughter, and the structures of power that toss her about like so much flotsam on the surf.
Much of the narrative unfolds within the mental institution as Consuelo is shuffled back and forth between wards, and, ultimately, selected to take part in an emerging medical program designed to help patients control their violent tendencies. Piercy charts out, in almost Foucauldian manner, the interworkings of control of the mental hospital and its corollary, the medical industry. Perhaps what Piercy does best is depict a protagonist who rests at the centre of a number of capillaries of power and forces for the control of the present: on the one hand in terms of ethnicity, race, and gender; and, on the other poverty and mental illness. After the first chapter, and Consuelo’s incarceration, the novel looks back to the day before her niece had come to her to seek protection. On this day, Consuelo meets Luciente—a traveler from the future who is able to jump into Consuelo’s time and also pulls her forward into a utopian future. This feat, it turns out, is still possible for Consuelo from within her room at the institution.
With this introduction the reader begins a cluster of narratives in the novel that are set in the future. Luciente is from Mattapoisett, a utopian community, which is interesting for its politics, both radical and bureaucratic: a mindful ecology and the abolition of gender, communal living and a more humane life style, the defeat of racism and the encouragement of art, the reconfiguration of the family and new life cycle rituals. These utopians run an open, egalitarian balanced society where the horrors of Consuelo’s patriarchal, racist, sex-normative, capitalist present have been pushed beyond its borders. To give a partial sense of it, a summary of the changes required to transition to their society from ours ends up sounding like a laundry list of radical demands from the left. Their use of language has changed drastically as a result of material changes as well, something else that intervenes between the reader, Consuelo, and a full understanding of the utopia. For instance, all gendered words are removed from the language. He and she are replaced by person or per, and supplemented by a number of terms for one’s relation to others: sweet friend, coms (for co-mothers—there are always three: men are mothers too in the future) and so on. Consuelo mediates this future through her shock and awe of it: for instance, she can’t believe children are raised by three parents all referred to as mother. The novel puts the reader in Consuelo’ shoes by repeating a process of explanation with each innovation Consuelo discovers, gauging her reactions, and then having the Mattapoisett utopians offer patient explanations.
The other future is also introduced to Consuelo by the Mattapoisett utopians; in fact, they contact Consuelo for this reason: their present is under threat and they reach out to her as part of the struggle for their own survival. Their utopia is not total; there are still pockets of resistance to their way of life, on and off the planet; the alternate futures are, in fact, contemporaneous. At one point, while trying to reach per, Consuelo ends up in a strange place filled with technology and a call girl who urges her to return to her own time before she is discovered. Elsewhere in the novel, Consuelo finds it difficult to reach Luciente because per is off fighting against the dystopian armies. The novel thus contains at least two major plot forces: Consuelo’s incarceration and knowledge of an impending surgery in her own time, and the violent conflict between the utopians and their alternate future. Herein lies the utopian politics of Piercy’s novel; the plea “we must fight to come to exist” (198) resonates with the present state of being able to imagine radical difference, while seemingly unable to activate it; yet act we must.
Woman on the Edge of Time creates a powerfully resonant feedback loop between the novel’s present and its uncertain future. Consuelo acts as the stitching point between different times: her reactions to the future, and her interpretations of it, help us to understand our own connection to history. In the words of literary critic Fredric Jameson, they translate “our present into the determinate past of something yet to come” (288), at once reminding us that the present offers numerous possible trajectories for the future. A major theme of the novel is the need to change the self-destructive path of the present in order to create an egalitarian future. This is no easy task; especially from someone in Consuelo’s position. Whether or not she imagines Luciente’s visits or the Mattapoisett utopians, the political lesson remains the same: reading Consuelo’s story teaches us to think the social relations underlying the smooth face of individual identity and the ways those relations came to be and will continue to become. Further, it warns us that by failing to recognize these connections, and by failing to act, we guarantee that the dominant forces will prevail and become, to repeat those haunting words from “The Eighteenth Brumaire,” those nightmarish traditions that weigh on the brains of the living.
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future. New York: Verso, 2005. Print.
Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton, 1978. Print.
Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. Print.
Brent Ryan Bellamy is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English and Film Studies University of Alberta where he studies U.S. post-apocalyptic novels after the American century. His blog notes from after the end can be found at www.brentryanbellamy.com