Marge Piercy is a prolific novelist and poet, a one-time organizer for SDS, who has become a spokesman for radical feminism. Though she presents herself as a revolutionary, battling against orthodoxies of every kind—political, cultural, sexual—her novels are surprisingly conventional. In conception and style, in the grim determination of her didactic intentions, her work is reminiscent of the radical-proletarian fiction of the 1930’s, in which the message outweighed the manner of its telling. In each of her six novels, Miss Piercy seizes upon a problem that she regards as symptomatic of a sick, unjust; patriarchal society, and builds a heavily documented narrative around that problem to drive her moral home.
In Woman at the Edge of Time she concentrated on mistreatment of the insane; in Small Change on women trapped in repressive marriages; in Dance the Eagle to Sleep on the exploitation of radical women by their sexist comrades; in The High Cost of Living on the high cost of being a lesbian in a bigoted academic milieu. Through the exhaustive detailing of social and sexual atrocities, Miss Piercy turns her novels into indictments crackling with outrage. Now and then she has tried to leaven the heavy freight of actuality that is her stock in trade with utopian imaginings, in the spirit of Doris Lessing’s more elaborate science fiction, as in the futuristic dream world envisioned in Woman at the Edge of Time. But these fantasies are just as programmatic as her realistic novels. In the perfect society of the future, human suffering and social evil will have been eradicated, and it will simply be the obverse of the present ugly male-dominated capitalist reality: androgynous, humane, egalitarian, and sweeter than springtime.
In her most recent novel, Vida,1 Marge Piercy looks back with elegiac nostalgia to the 1960’s and the exhilarations of the anti-war movement as remembered by Vida Asch, a Weatherman fugitive. Wanted by the FBI for a bombing raid on the Mobil Oil building in 1970, Vida has succeeded in surviving underground for almost a decade by fabricating false identities, hiding out with “straight” sympathizers, and dyeing her glorious auburn mane an unobtrusive mousy brown.
When we first meet the beautiful guerrilla in 1978, she has traveled east in slow stages, from her most recent safe-house in Los Angeles, to have a brief reunion with her husband in New York and renew her ties with the leaders of the Network (Marge Piercy’s name for Weatherman), which has fallen on hard times as its ranks have dwindled. Part of the cadre has been caught and imprisoned, others have given themselves up, and the surviving fugitives are quarreling among themselves. Now that the Vietnam war is over, they are no longer able to agree on the issues still worth struggling and bombing for. Even the redoubtable Vida, normally immune to demoralizing doubts about the cause, suffers moments of feeling “as if she had outlived her own times, a creature produced by an earlier conglomeration of demands, judgments, necessities, passions, crises. Like a salmon that had forced her way upstream to spawn, she lay dying in the backwaters.” But she rebukes herself sternly for such lapses—“As you sit in the sun pitying yourself . . . in Chile and South Africa women are being tortured to death. Never forget. The same war”—and soldiers on.
While Vida anxiously marks time before the Network board can meet in the seclusion of rural Vermont, she searches out faithful and lapsed believers in New York and New England—she is always in need of money and a place to hide—and joins forces with Joel, an army deserter who has been on the run for two years. Joel is ten years younger than Vida, who is by now thirty-seven; after the two become lovers, he begs her to tell him what she was doing “when you were my age.” The request provides Marge Piercy with her means of recreating the late great carnival of the 60’s, when, as Vida remembers an idyllic Smash-the-State fair in Central Park in 1967, “a great thick fog had lifted from the American landscape and people in the new sunlight were mixing colors and sounds and cultures and life styles.”
In evoking the 60’s Miss Piercy provides some unsentimental glimpses of the sexual infighting and unmediated rage that were endemic to the radical scene. But she is obviously uneasy about these revelations, and must make up for them with large antidotes of uplift, as in her tableau of the ultimate peace parade:
. . . old people and mothers pushing strollers and men in suits and kids in body paint and rabbis and priests and shamans and marching bands. Everybody would belong—everybody but the ruling class. More and more people were against the war; more and more people were for change. The climate of the age was warming. . . . Now there were social workers for peace, sanitation workers for peace, secretaries for peace, zoo keepers for peace.
Torn between the unvarnished truth of the radical peace movement as she lived it and her will to affirm its idealistic impunity, Miss Piercy all too easily transcends the difficulty with the consolations of cant. The result is sometimes unintentionally funny. Thus, when Vida is tempted to belt some raucous children who are disrupting a serious political argument, her hand is stayed because “she did not think that Vietnamese hit their kids and she knew that Native Americans didn’t; it must be incorrect.” Hard as one tries to find a flicker of irony in such pompous reflections, the effort is futile. And although the bleak desolation of the fugitives’ underground life as Marge Piercy describes it might lead one to think that she has had second thoughts about Weatherman tactics, or questions the moral and practical relevance of “movement” thinking to present-day reality, she makes it abundantly clear that to her such revisionist skepticism is heresy.
What is in some ways most bewildering about Vida is the way Marge Piercy’s ideological severity toward bourgeois values—“We can’t make a new society in the shell of the old if we’re living a middle-class existence”—is insidiously overwhelmed by her rather girlish enthusiasm for the good things of that life. Food is not merely mentioned in passing, but dwelled upon: we get the whole menu, the appropriate wines, and sometimes a recipe thrown in for good measure. When Vida puts on a nightgown, it is a “slinky tangerine Empire-waisted slit-to-the-thigh nightgown.” And if you were wondering how to tell radicals from the rest of womankind, the answer is: “A few movement women used eyebrow pencils or eyeliners, but nobody in the movement ever wore eye shadow. It was one of those magic lines of demarcation.”
Vida is crammed with such arcane trivia, the sort of padding that was left out of an earlier and far more affecting fictional account of the anti-war apostles of violence, M.F. Beal’s Amazon One, published in 1975. In that powerful novel, Miss Beal captured the derangement, the complacency, the resentful and terrified confusion of the Weatherman mentality in fiercely compressed prose that had the authentic ring of imaginative and historical truth. Next to M.F. Beal’s radical activists, Marge Piercy’s pale into ideological cartoons. Vida, almost twice as long as Amazon One, is stale and self-indulgent, leaving no breathing space or room for thought between writer and protagonist. At the end of this revolutionary soap opera, our heroine is still free, still running, and charged with unfounded confidence, as she walks into the sunset, that “What swept through us and cast us forward is a force that will gather and rise again.” Those who have no sense of history can believe anything.
It would be hard to think of a literary temperament less like Marge Piercy’s than that of Ann Beattie, whose second novel, Falling in Place,2 is as coolly detached as Vida is hotly opinionated. For Marge Piercy, the world is a place of heady conflict between absolutes. Right and wrong, good and bad, are defined and judged with a rigid political certainty that is impatient of intellectual complexity and disturbing emotion. Ann Beat-tie, at the opposite extreme, sees a world devoid of all such schematic fitness and order, political or otherwise. She describes a wayward human landscape that is bereft of meaning, in which everyone is chronically vagrant and capricious, and unmoored.
The squalor of aimless souls has been Miss Beattie’s obsessive subject in two collections of stories, Distortions and Secrets and Surprises, and the novel Chilly Scenes of Winter (recently made into a movie called Head Over Heels). By now the chaotic world of post-everything dropouts has come to seem her private literary fiefdom, populated by men and women well over thirty, educated to no purpose, living on family handouts, unattached and uncommitted. Terrified by silence, they fend it off continually with rock, dope, and the insatiable pursuit of whimsy and new kicks. They all turn up again in Falling in Place, but by now it is drearily clear that Ann Beattie has nothing fresh to reveal about these disaffected drifters, who in their sheer nihilism make Marge Piercy’s bombers look like Latter-Day Saints. Confronted once again with these hollow and disordered spirits, whose habits and gestures and speech Miss Beattie knows with flawless intimacy, we are unable to feel anything but boredom and distaste for the muddled weirdness she records with such disingenuous objectivity.
As though she realizes how narrow and unrewarding this familiar ground has become, Miss Beattie has widened the range of her scrutiny in Falling in Place by writing not only about dropouts but also about an unhappy suburban family and its dreadful children. But she moves into John Cheever’s territory without any of his mournful humanity, and the people she finds there turn out to be not very different from and certainly no more admirable than her aging hippies.
After eighteen years of marriage, the only language John Knapp and his wife Louise have in common is the weaponry of insult and bitter sarcasm. Their ten-year-old son, John Joel, is fat and miserable, his only friend a malevolent boy of twelve whose idea of fun is sticking pinholes in his mother’s diaphragm and acting out the sadistic comics he collects. Mary, John Joel’s nasty fifteen-year-old sister, is forced to go to summer school because she failed English. The only reason she wants to pass the summer course is “just so she would never have to read, or have read to her, another book.” Her English teacher, Cynthia, a graduate student at Yale, has a flaky lover who is tormented by nightmares about atom-bomb fireballs meant just for him; awake, he is usually stoned, his only occupation the manic squandering of a sizable inheritance.
Though Cynthia is the novel’s only character that one can imagine possibly escaping from the disarray, for she alone has made an active and rational choice in life instead of passively letting things happen, it is soon clear that she is no less doomed than the rest of them. At heart she is as dislocated as her lover, subject to numbing depression, often as helplessly mired in swamps of fragmented inconsequence as her adolescent students. Thinking about her own adolescence, she summons up this ragged skein of memory:
Her boyfriend from high school had become a Marine and later acted in an underground porn film about Vietnam that she never got to see. Someone who had seen the film told her that he was in drag in the film—a peasant woman who got raped. The person who had seen it and told her that was pretty unreliable, though. He himself was a failed actor, and it would be like him to be jealous of her old boyfriend and to make up a lie like that. When she turned twenty-one, her old boyfriend had had a birthday cake that said “OM” made for her at Carvel. That was after the Marines, and before the porn film. During the break, there had been an ice-cream cake.
It is not just things that happen to these idle souls, but thoughts and words and feelings: everything flows together with deadpan randomness—laundromats, brand names, cute T-shirts and bumper stickers, rock songs and campy movies, snatches of wispy talk overheard in the New York coffee shops and department stores and offices and Connecticut houses through which Miss Beattie’s specimens drift in a listless stupor. While such wads of dissociated irrelevance have some times worked in Ann Beattie’s short stories, they become unendurably monotonous in a novel unless the purposeless inertia is disrupted by some decisive action.
That indispensable thunderclap, the dramatic, unexpected event which should stop everyone in his tracks for a long moment of unaccustomed lucidity, occurs more than halfway through Falling in Place: John Joel, egged on by his friend Parker, aims a supposedly unloaded gun at his detested sister, and a bullet tears through her side. But the incident alters nothing, enforces no lucidities. Mary survives, her stunted soul unchastened by the brush with death. Her brother will spend half a lifetime with psychiatrists, but we know it will make little difference. Her parents, for a while understandably shaken, will probably divorce and probably remarry (John has a very young and feckless mistress in New York), and their lives will remain essentially the same. Moral apathy has so completely displaced genuine emotion in all these corroded hearts that their lives must go on as always, untouched by the promise of change and redemption.
But one cannot really assert this with any confidence, for who can be sure that Ann Beattie is passing judgment of such a kind—indeed, of any kind—on the deplorable persons she has transfixed with her keen and indefatigably watchful eye? Not once does she reveal the secret of her fascination with all this exasperating flotsam, and Falling in Place does entirely without those moments of wacky farce that often brighten her short stories. Making no comic gestures, taking everything in with her customary neutrality and giving it all back, Miss Beattie seems oblivious to her readers, unperturbed by their inevitable irritation and boredom.
Though her stories can be strange and clever, though she is an undeniable original, what Ann Beattie entirely fails to arouse in us as we yawn through Falling in Place is any conviction that the men, women, and children whose odd and empty lives she transcribes so expertly count for something that deserves our attention. It scarcely needs saying that we do not have to love a novelist’s characters in order to be stirred by them, or that great literary art has always been as much, in fact more, concerned with despicable and wrong-headed and destructive human nature as it is with virtue. But we can respond strongly to empty and meaningless lives in fiction only to the extent that the writer is alive to the human consequences of such emptiness and can persuade us that his invented creatures matter in some authentic way. If we do not become involved, all we can feel is tedium and indifference.
Still, Miss Beattie’s flat, impassive, unlyrical voice—the style that is a kind of anti-style, absorbing anything that comes to mind because one thing is no better and no worse than another—may very well suit the prevailing mood as Marge Piercy’s thumping optimism cannot. It is as though, when anxious uncertainty is the very air we breathe, nothing seems worth the effort of moral judgment, and in any case it would make no difference to the way things are. They may, and then again they may not, just fall into place.
1 Summit Books, 412 pp., $12.95.
2 Random House, 342 pp., $10.95.