Marge Piercy is (with Lisa Alther) one of the best known of that group of American women writers who have created popular fictions about the changing face of radical America, and, in particular, about changing perceptions of and about women. Piercy writes about, and on behalf of, radical political causes, but her main interest is in (and she is most interesting on) sexual politics. Taken together her novels offer a feminist's eye-view of American history from World War II (Gone to Soldiers), through the 1950s (Braided Lives) to the heady days of 1960s student activism and anti-Vietnam war campaigns (treated retrospectively in Vida), and the raising of consciousness of the women's movement of the late 1960s and 1970s (The High Cost of Living, Small Changes, and Fly Away Home). Her most recent novel, Summer People, is an affectionate (even self-indulgent) chronicle of a group of middle-aged people whose lives and values were shaped by the revolutions of the 1960s, and are now disturbed both by the passage of time and the more abrasive climate of the 1980s. At the very least these novels will provide the future social historian with an interesting perspective on radical chic and the countercultures of the mid-20th century. Indeed Piercy's novels are frequently quoted by feminists as documents in the history of the modern American women's movement. Among the most quoted in this context is Small Changes, which offers a guided tour of countercultural Boston as it charts the decline into marriage of the beautiful, clever, and independent Miriam, and the emergence of her friend Beth from an adolescent marriage into a new (consciousness-raised) sense of self.
These books are all loose baggy monsters, chunky blockbusters which mix together a variety of genres. Elements of the political thriller (Vida) are combined with love stories of various kinds. There are portraits of the artist at various stages of development (Braided Lives and Summer People), and stories of the late-adolescent quest for identity (The High Cost of Living, Braided Lives, and Small Changes). There are mystery, intrigue, alternative "lifestyles," and above all sex, lots of it in all sorts of combinations. Piercy is no stylist. For the most part these are chronicle novels whose formal inventiveness is restricted to the frequent use of the flashback. Her aim seems to be to recreate the world-as-it-was and to draw her readers into it. Occasionally there seems to be an ironic gap between the reader's perceptions and those of the characters about whom she is reading. This is sometimes the result of Piercy's satiric focus on the way we lived then—whether the "then" be the dark ages of the 1950s or the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Indeed some of the funniest (but also the most depressing) writing focuses on the elaborately entwined, and constantly changing, patterns of relationships in the omni-sexual post-1960s (pre-AIDS) world. Sometimes, however, the ironic distance appears to derive from the author's failure to offer a satirical or critical focus on her characters and their attitudes, which increasingly, especially in novels such as Small Changes and Vida, look dated and naive. Nevertheless, these last-mentioned novels which focus on 1960s radicalism and the women's movement, also give a very powerful sense of what it must have been like to be caught up in the excitement and confusions of those times.
There seems to be a general consensus that by far the most interesting and accomplished of Piercy's novels is one of her earliest creations, Woman on the Edge of Time. This book is usually grouped with other feminist utopian or dystopian fantasies such as Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, Joanna Russ's The Female Man, Angela Carter's The Passion of New Eve, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Woman on the Edge of Time is the story of Connie Ramos, a 37-year-old poor, Mexican-American woman, one of the have-nots who is defeated and discarded by a society which is geared towards the needs and interests of the haves. Her lover is killed, her daughter is taken away from her "unstable" mother, and Connie is incarcerated in a bleak public mental hospital where (as the pathway to release) she is subjected to a mind-control experiment involving electronic implantations in the brain. Connie is, however, also a "catcher" who is able to mind-travel—under the guidance of her "natural" Luciente—from the confines of the "real" world of her hospital ward to the possible future world of Metapoisset, a new and better society. In Metapoisset the likenesses of Connie's lover, and her daughter Angelina live on in a new, fruitful life in a world of social and ecological harmony. The class and gender roles of Connie's America have been dissolved. These roles are simply not known in Metapoisset, where sexual relationships and the nuclear family have been replaced by a collectivism that respects and preserves the individual self. In short, Metapoisset reverses the values of the world that oppresses Connie and her kind in the present. The competitive individualism which is the creed of bourgeois America become the antivalues of Metapoisset, where notions of evil "center around power and greed—taking from other people their food, their liberty, their health, their land, their customs, their prides."
Woman on the Edge of Time finely counterpoints the utopianism of Metapoisset with the dystopian realism with which Connie's actual world is represented. Metapoisset is used to make a critique of modern America, but it is also offered as a vindication of the enabling power of fantasy. Connie's fantasy is not the infantile "womanish" regression that she herself suspects at the beginning of her period as a "catcher," but the vision of a new world of possibility which emphasizes human choice and agency. Like much contemporary feminist fantasy fiction Woman on the Edge of Time uses a science fiction genre to enact the vision of women overcoming oppressive social and psychological conditions by transcending both the physical and ideological constraints of patriarchal society. It is a profoundly disturbing, but also inspiriting novel.