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Piercy, Marge 1936–
Piercy, an American novelist and poet, is one of the most talented of the activist writers. She has said that she doesn't "understand distinctions between private and social poetry," and the obliteration of that dichotomy—between "political" and "personal"—also distinguishes her fiction. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
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Piercy's poetry reflects the immediate, specific experiences of daily life—eating breakfast, making love, going to work. It is concerned with the routine business of living and feeling and doing, and it is concerned with these things from a woman's point of view. There is always a danger that poems about little occurrences will become poems of little consequence, that poems which deal with current issues and topics will become mere polemic and propaganda, that poems of the everyday will become pedestrian. To a very large extent, however, Marge Piercy avoids these dangers because most of her poetry contributes to and extends a coherent vision of the world—as it is now and as it should be.
Piercy's desire is for a world of wholeness and completeness, where natural growth and development can lead to a satisfying participation in the fulness of life. As individual poems recount instances in which a sense of wholeness is attempted or gained or lost, they also explore the attitudes and actions necessary for a state of sustained community…. Each thing is connected with every other thing to comprise a unified whole. When one part of the organism is distorted, maimed, or broken off, the integrity of the whole is affected. In her poems, Piercy strikes out at the attitudes, institutions, and structures which impede natural growth and development and thus destroy wholeness; she also celebrates the moments when life is consummate and joyful.
As a woman, Piercy is particularly concerned about women and their ability to participate with integrity in a fully-realized life. In a number of poems, she examines the female growing-up process in America; in each case, the young girl is shown to possess great potential strength and individuality which is slowly but surely diverted or covered over. (pp. 193-94)
Particularly insidious is the loving manner in which the warping of the female's individual integrity and wholeness is carried out. The gardener in "A work of artifice" … diminishes the soaring height and strength which is the birthright of the bonsai tree while crooning tenderly, "It is your nature / to be small and cozy, / domestic and weak." But this is not the nature of the tree—or of the woman—however much it pleases the gardener to think so. (p. 195)
As Piercy sees it, the young girl's integrity of self, her sense of who she really is and what is natural and right for her, is hard to obliterate entirely. It can be covered over, distorted, and violated, but it stubbornly resists complete extinction. The need to be whole and strong hides itself in self-preservation, longing for an opportunity to come forth proudly in full bloom…. (pp. 195-96)
If the fulfillment of healthy growth is the good to be striven for, then how can women … ever hope to achieve a mature strength, a unified wholeness? Piercy believes that first there must be a conscious experience of self-realization; a woman must become aware of herself as independent person. The woman must acknowledge that even though she has been formed in large part out of the pervading culture, she is still finally responsible for herself. (p. 197)
Man equals mind equals significant mode of knowing and being; woman equals body equals lesser mode of knowing and being. What Piercy wants to do is to change the value assigned to these two modes; and, in addition, she wants to synthesize and unify the separate parts to form whole people: thinking, feeling men and women, confident in mind and body. (pp. 201-02)
The love between two people would seem to be a very private thing, whether in its success or failure. Piercy acknowledges the intimacy, but she is also quite aware that these two people live in a particular society, the structure of which is most often antithetical to the vision of wholeness essential for satisfying love…. What begins as a desire for personal integrity and wholeness which can in turn reach out with confident strength to another person must eventually and inevitably extend itself into a concern for the society in which individuals live.
Piercy views contemporary America as a dream turned nightmare. The fertile land which once offered a place of freedom and tolerance—a place of growth—has now become full of death and destruction…. Piercy argues that each of us is in some way culpable, if only because we passively and acquiescently continue to participate in this society…. (pp. 203-04)
Jean Rosenbaum, "You Are Your Own Magician: A Vision of Integrity in the Poetry of Marge Piercy," in Modern Poetry Studies (copyright 1977, by Jerome Mazzaro), Vol. 8, No. 3, Winter, 1977, pp. 193-205.
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Not content to wait for happiness and prosperity in some other life, [Piercy] is driven to find a social and personal happiness on this earth, and the driving force behind her poetry is a stubborn utopian vision. At the same time she remains aware—almost too aware—of the obstacles, social and personal, confronting her. (p. 206)
Her first book, Breaking Camp (… 1968), presents a rather strange mixture of styles. "Last Scene in the First Act,"… a clever, ironic meditation on a pair of lovers, shows the slick poetic technique of the academic poets of the 1950's…. There is even a sonnet. But in spite of such superficial cleverness, a breathing person moves behind the poetry. We know her life, her concerns.
The first poem in the book, "Visiting a Dead Man on a Summer Day" … shows the poet in Graceland cemetery in Chicago where she has gone to visit the tomb of Louis Sullivan. She compares his grave with the Getty tomb and sees the contrast as symbolic of American life. (p. 207)
Such poetry has much in common with propaganda. Its subjects, the country, the past, the poor, are so vast that the poet cannot hope to develop completely her thoughts about them. Instead she relies on a common interpretation of history which she assumes she shares with the reader…. [The] extreme imagery reinforces the basic divisions of the poem. On the one hand we have the heavy, the cold, the mechanical, and the closed-in darkness (mausoleum, iron, sewers, filing cabinets, and Chicago itself); on the other we have the light, the heat, and the organic (men, grass, meteor). Yet much of the impact of the poem comes from imagery that unexpectedly applies to both sides. People burn their body heat naturally, but they are also burned to death by mechanical means in Southeast Asia. (p. 208)
The basic imagery of "Visiting a Dead Man on a Summer Day"—even the title contains the basic contrast between cold and heat—is expanded throughout the rest of Breaking Camp, which itself progresses through summer and winter and ends with the approach of spring…. Body heat between lovers is reflected in the stars of the cosmos, and the image of the meteor, so seemingly casual in the last parts of "Visiting a Dead Man" and "The Peaceable Kingdom" underlies the entire book, indeed her entire utopian vision. Everything and everybody loses heat. People burn—literally in Vietnam, figuratively in love, and even mythologically when the sun god visits a sunbather and burns her to ashes. (pp. 208-09)
In the final poem of the book, "Breaking Camp" … spring begins, but it brings no corresponding regeneration to the human spirit. "Peace," the poet confesses, "was a winter hope." Civilization appears to be breaking up; an atomic holocaust threatens…. The poet and her lover, isolated from the rest of the world, follow their star, though significantly it is a private star, an inward light, "the north star of your magnetic conscience." The community seems to have vanished…. Hard Loving (… 1969) bears a two line dedication: "from the Movement / to the Movement." The prefatory poem, "Walking into Love" …, which seems to continue the journey begun in the last poem of her previous book, sets a double focus…. [The poet] seeks a personal and a social love, and both come hard. "Others" oppose the lovers. Even in her own group, one of her friends hates the lover (no half-way emotions in Piercy's circles). The poet is torn not only between society in general and her lover, but between him and a close friend; and this fragmentation of the radicals, the "we" of Piercy's elemental opposites, sets the tone of the book.
In the first of three sections, "The Death of the Small Commune," she shows the difficulties of building a new society…. [The] last three poems in the section deal with falling out of love, first with an individual, then with the community itself. (pp. 210-11)
Then she withdraws from the commune into a new personal relationship. Her social sense, always present, seems less imperative. When love comes, it is simple, intense, and physical. (p. 211)
The poet then returns to a social context in the third section, "Curse of the Earth Magician," striving to broaden her love so that she can share it with all her comrades…. In spite of the failures in the first section, the poet here tries again to recapture at least part of the American dream, the Peaceable Kingdom. The man she loves serves not as a retreat into domesticity and the white suburbs but as a symbol of what society too can accomplish. Emboldened by her love, she speaks with a new certainty. A fatalistic Nordic philosophy runs through the section…. One must fight, though the battle and even the war might well be lost. Her fatalism, rage, and love make a haunting poetry, a poetry of propaganda such as we have not yet had in America. (p. 212)
[In To Be of Use] we find a different kind of fragmentation of the "sisters and brothers" of the Movement. Here men are equated with the mechanical life-destroying forces in the universe, women with the natural life-enhancing ones. The first section of the book, "A Just Anger," is composed of poems of outrage, an outrage directed, for the most part, against the male establishment that has condemned the poet and her sisters to secondary roles in life. Unfortunately most of the poems in this section fail as poetry because both oppressed and oppressors are utterly predictable. Yet if the level of poetry is somewhat below Piercy's usual standards because her rage is directed exclusively at "them," the poems are nevertheless important in that they present an aspect of the real world so far from the American dream that merely to describe it becomes a call for social reform. (pp. 213-14)
The third section consists of eleven poems to woodcuts of tarot cards. Among the author's most ambitious work, they attempt nothing less than a remaking of some of the myths behind western culture. (p. 214)
The book ends with one of Marge Piercy's strangest poems, one which presents a mystic utopian vision of the future as a wondrous Child. But unlike her earlier glance at the Peaceable Kingdom, when she consciously reminded herself and the reader of the animals she had eaten, here is none of the rationality of the earlier experience. She who has always been so certain with words finds that she can describe her vision only in negative terms and questions. It blinds her, stuns her. (p. 215)
Marge Piercy's work as a whole shares much with propaganda: passionate commitment, power, and simplicity. Her poetry is emotional, righteous, and often clever, lacking, by and large, the subtle insights and revelations of wisdom, though it may be developing them. In her passion for a new order she sees motes everywhere, even in her own eyes, and casts them out with a vengeance—sometimes so violently she takes the eyes out with them. Much of her energy appears negative: she opposes more strongly than she supports; she hates more passionately than she loves. Yet in spite of these characteristics, or perhaps because of them, a vision of an ideal life, a Peaceable Kingdom, pervades her work, a vision that remains impressive precisely because she must work so hard to maintain it. (p. 216)
Victor Contoski, "Marge Piercy: A Vision of the Peaceable Kingdom," in Modern Poetry Studies (copyright 1977, by Jerome Mazzaro), Vol. 8, No. 3, Winter, 1977, pp. 205-16.
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[Woman on the Edge of Time] is a telling sermon-novel, or rather two novels capably welded into one. [Piercy] takes the worst imaginable human situation, a woman committed to a mental hospital, bombarded by drugs and abused by experimental surgery, and sets it against the good life—options of the future into which the victim periodically escapes on a time-trip, as if on weekend leave from the battle of life. Battle?—it's a war. And I'm afraid it's the present hell on earth that brings out the best in Piercy, the purity of her range.
Norman Shrapnel, "Survival Path: 'Woman on the Edge of Time'," in The Guardian (© Guardian and Manchester Evening News Ltd, 1979), Vol. 120, No. 22, May 27, 1979, p. 23.
Although she is undoubtedly courageous, it is because of her faults—including a maddening self-righteousness—that Vida [title character of Vida] is a compelling character, one whose personal problems are achingly familiar and whose political dilemma seems only an extreme example of the powerlessness that has overtaken us all in the past decade. In fact, the force with which she is presented as she grapples with the issues of the seventies constitutes the chief strength of this book. But conviction is not art, and it is as an accomplished novel that Vida disappoints. Awkward dialogue, clumsy transitions, and clichéd descriptions only occasionally give way to passages of unselfconscious power, primarily in the flashback scenes. Many of the supporting characters are but names given to various aspects of cultural change, and thus Vida's reactions to them are peculiarly stiff and unilluminating.
Vida's real flaw, however, the one that undercuts its authority as political fiction, is its preoccupation with externalities. Piercy leaves so little to the reader's imagination that while she draws an acute picture of a certain way of life, she fails to convince us that anyone real could be living it.
"Life & Letters: 'Vida'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1980, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 245, No. 2, February, 1980, p. 96.
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[For] all its length and its large cast of characters [Vida] tells us little that we don't already know about radical politics in America. The novel is named for its central character, Davida Asch, a radical political activist who has gone underground with the comrades of her sect and travels back and forth across the country, a fugitive. (p. 38)
It ought to have made an exciting book.
Instead, Piercy, who dedicates her work to "the street and alley soldiers," has written an excessively long, rambling, often tedious book, which depends on her sweeping, uncritical acceptance of the Network's version of radical politics….
Vida's work and that of her comrades in the Network, as reflected in the novel, is pathetically simple. In the 1970s, when the present novel takes place, only survival counts, both for each comrade alone and for the sect. Back in the more distant past of 1967 the sect was militantly active and the story recalls that time as a blur of chaotic events, with recognizable dangers but with no definable point to it. For Piercy, the approach of a political issue or argument signals a precipitous descent into slogans…. The characters rant more than speak, sounding like naive parodies of radicals.
It is hard to believe that this is serious business, especially when Piercy continually reduces politics from several simple notions to one basically crude one. Everything about the America outside the Network is taken for granted. The Establishment is bad; what's radical is good. There's a curious blandness about the real faults and problems of America, as if their reality is too tedious to be described. The result is a sad but genuine isolation….
A picture as unsympathetic to reason and good will (not to speak of liberal political principles) as this one is needs more than authenticity to be effective as fiction. It needs the keen, unsparing eye of the novelist, an unflinching intelligence that evaluates what it sees.
What vitality the novel has depends almost entirely on Vida herself. (p. 39)
The most interesting accomplishment of Piercy's in the novel is not to make Vida an old-fashioned "woman as life-force" character, but to see in her a "new woman." Vida is an adventuress, risking an unconventional acceptance of her own needs, a present-day Moll Flanders who fervently believes her goals are valid because they are hers. Piercy admires this side of Vida, but is capable of a shrewdness about her protagonist that escapes her in the rest of the novel…. Vida's energetic uncertainty, when contrasted with the flat, unprofitable political clichés of the rest of the book, seems that much more appealing. (p. 40)
Judith B. Walzer, "Books and the Arts: 'Vida'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 182, No. 6, February 9, 1980, pp. 38-40.
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Vida Asch is the center of [Vida]. Beautiful, passionate, capable, the most popular of the Upper West Side revolutionaries, Vida has been a fugitive for nearly 10 years now…. As the novel progresses we see how unreal Vida has become to those in the world she left behind. She no longer exists except inside the fugitive life. (p. 43)
We experience Vida's exhaustion and confusion, her yearning for rest and legality, for an end to a life she knows is merely survival. But, dominated by the stubborn determination like that of a patriotic prisoner of war not to be taken, not to give up or give in, not to let "them" win, she hunches her shoulders and disappears into the winter night: a resister to the end.
Piercy accomplishes two things in this novel. She evokes very affectingly the raw pull of revolutionary politics that took hold of so many people in the '60s, the open wound those years left in them. And she also evokes (through the love affair between Vida and the army deserter) the fierce and fatal isolation of the fugitive. If this were a European novel, the latter would have provided the book with its dominating metaphor: but as it is an American novel, the former is the symbolic landscape on which the characters are planted. The idea of the '60s is still the barbed hook on which Marge Piercy is hung: immobilized, unchanged, unchanging—a condition whose power and limitation are both obvious.
The war between radical America and capitalist America is real enough, both actually and metaphorically. But to insist on the mythic quality of the self-styled Marxist revolutionaries of the American '60s—as though they were our Yugoslav partisans or French Resistance workers—that simply will not wash. There is neither sufficient substance to the original political history or to the subsequent spiritual legacy. Vida Asch and her comrades are a parody of the Old Left when the Old Left was already a parody of itself…. Nothing in the thought or feeling of the contemporary radicals indicates that 40 vital years separate them from their political forebears—years in which atomic physics, psychoanalysis, and American civil rights have permanently changed the self-definition of the world we lurch about in, straining to understand who and where we are. Nothing—not even the feminism to which strong lip service is paid—is as real and as centered in Vida as a narrow, old-fashioned sense of class struggle and revolutionary resistance. Being underground is, indeed, the proper euphemism for a state of emotional arrest much in evidence here.
And yet, Vida has a certain power. The book's true subject—neither revolution nor resistance—is the enormous longing that infuses radical politics. It's the revolutionary life Piercy can't let go of—the richness of its promise, the special quality of the comradeship, the yearning behind the solidarity. That is real enough, and for all its intellectual foolishness, Vida captures it wonderfully. (pp. 43-4)
Vivian Gornick, "Bombed Under," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), Vol. XXV, No. 7, February 18, 1980, pp. 43-4.
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Almost alone among her American contemporaries, Marge Piercy is radical and writer simultaneously, her literary identity so indivisible that it is difficult to say where one leaves off and the other begins…. [She] has used her prose, particularly, to chronicle the lives of those society considers marginal—the young, the mad, the different—or those caught up in the forefront of movements for social change…. "Vida," which follows the life of a young woman radical from her emergence in the antiwar movement of the 1960's through her life in the underground network of the 1970's, evokes life in the radical movement so realistically that it seems at times more literal than imagined. Yet it is also a fully controlled, tightly structured dramatic narrative of such artful intensity that it leads the reader on at almost every page. As is often the case with radical fiction, it is the content rather than the formal characteristics that hold the mind, for it is not "simply" a novel but a political brief. I have my differences with "Vida," but I think they are substantive rather than literary. It is an interesting—and challenging—book. (p. 1)
What is most remarkable about Miss Piercy's representations of each of [the periods of Vida's life] is the density and complexity with which they are drawn. Events change, organizations change, beliefs change, relationships change, all with a microscopic fidelity to actuality that is almost astounding. How, precisely, was this year different from that year?… Miss Piercy recalls it all. Demonstrations, political meetings, conversations in movement settings ranging from an apartment in Brooklyn to a hideout in Vermont—these, too, she reproduces with a passion to get it all straight that is the mark of a true calling. With such a mass of characters pulling and hauling in so many directions, it is a wonder that none of them gets away from her, but they do not. Vida, in particular, is completely credible throughout….
Marge Piercy has written about movement people before but never, I think, as lovingly as here. If you are looking to recommend to your students one book that would convey to them how it was in the movement of the 1960's and where it led, you might well want to consider "Vida."
And yet, in a sense, that is exactly the problem. If a characteristic flaw of the radical literature of the 1930's, taken from the movement that inspired it, was pomposity, a characteristic flaw of the literature stemming from the 1960's may be juvenility. In the "present" sequences the characters are 10 years older than they were, but all their years and experiences have somehow failed to put weight on their bones. Throughout the novel, there is scarcely a significant character who holds views substantially departing from the opinions of the majority—or holds them strongly—and the ones who do are more or less figurine "enemies." In both language and thought, "Vida" is bound by the limitations of its period. The characters are far from stationary—indeed, they remake themselves constantly—but the reexaminations are superficial, taking place only within the frame-work of the movement. There is no perspective, there are not even any explanations….
This insular presentation of life in the movement is a political more than a literary matter, a deliberate decision, a product of the subordination of the novelist's detachment to the radical's allegiance. If the underground metaphor means that the necessities of survival will always dominate the possibilities of reappraisal, she will accept the limitation rather than alter the point of view. In Miss Piercy's view, it appears, there is nothing more to be said. The movement is dead. Long live the movement. (p. 36)
Elinor Langer, "After the Movement," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 24, 1980, pp. 1, 36.
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On the whole, what is supposed to pass for honesty in [Vida], in both sexual and political matters, turns out, on closer inspection, to be a routine application of "liberated" attitudes to her characters and situation. The passages that ring true do so because of obsessively observed details….
From a writer who has published six volumes of verse, one might expect a closer attention to language. Piercy tortures adjectives out of nouns, as in "his misfortunate mother," and turns nouns into verbs. She is also guilty of unwittingly grotesque oxymorons…. (p. 18)
The sloppiness of its style betrays the book's underlying sloppiness of thought…. Piercy's book fails to scrutinize either ends or means. Moreover, it totally lacks a sense of history. Without this, without a sense of the limitations of human endeavor, there is no nobility in suffering or sacrifice. That is why the cheering sounds that ring through Marge Piercy's pages have such a hollow echo. (p. 19)
Betty Falkenberg, "Plying an Empty Radicalism," in The New Leader (© 1980 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXIII, No. 4, February 25, 1980, pp. 18-19.
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As a political novel Vida has certain weaknesses. The narrative is swollen by the need to do justice to the breadth of the counter-culture—everyone gets a mention, from hippies to draft dodgers, organic farmers to drug runners, gay rights activists to Hare Krishna freaks. Involvement is broken by the need to make connexions, place events and disentangle factions. A more serious charge is that the implications of the politics of action involved in "bringing the war home" are not fully confronted….
Indeed the real strength of the book lies not in its historical analysis but in the power with which the loneliness and desolation of the central characters are portrayed. Successors to the isolated, high-principled outsiders of Marge Piercy's previous novels, these outlaws are deprived of glamour, despite their romantic code names "Jesse" and "Peregrine". Their lives are created with unremitting realism, and the compulsive attention to "something to eat, something to wear, someplace to sleep, somebody to talk to, somebody to sleep with, work to do and rest to seize" seems entirely credible, sometimes tedious but often grimly funny.
The emotional symptoms of the group are identified and dissected with equal skill. Those who have deliberately chosen life underground are rare: most are reluctant fugitives and all have a sense of sacrifice and loss so that the need to persuade themselves of the value of their actions is overwhelming….
The most haunting theme of Vida is the longing for the certainties of an earlier life, for an ideal of family and home. In a weak moment Vida pictures an idyll on an Oregon farm with Joel, but for her "home" is really associated with women; with her former lovers Lohania and Eva, her mother Ruby and above all her step-sister Natalie. Natalie is presented as both mother and sister—fat, humorous, unfailingly loyal. Her feminism ultimately embodies the only real progress towards freedom achieved in the 1970s and it is her advice which will enable Vida to endure the future: "Try to feel more complete in yourself. Try to draw some strength from the women around you. There are women aren't there? 'More than half of us are women …'".
Marge Piercy writes, she says, "to change consciousness, to reach those people who don't agree already". Vida may not have the force or coherence of a persuasive argument but it deserves attention, even from those who don't agree, as a powerful novel, written with insight, wit and remorseless energy.
Jennifer Uglow, "Weighing up the Seventies," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4015, March 7, 1980, p. 258.
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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 out-weighed 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….
Through the exhaustive detailing of social and sexual atrocities, Miss Piercy turns her novels into indictments crackling with outrage. (p. 59)
In evoking the 60's [with Vida] 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…. 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…. 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 … is insidiously overwhelmed by her rather girlish enthusiasm for the good things of that life. (pp. 59-60)
Vida is crammed with … 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…. 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-in-dulgent, 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. (p. 60)
Pearl K. Bell, "Marge Piercy and Ann Beattie," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 70, No. 1, July, 1980, pp. 59-61.∗
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[Marge Piercy's drab style] is in fact a shabby raincoat draping [a] naked romanticism…. (p. 310)
The High Cost of Living reads more like a minority report from the margins, unaware of its own share in the pathos it evokes…. Ms. Piercy's identification with her heroine makes overtures towards objectivity. She unclamps Leslie from the rape hot line to test her in the straight world and the academic rat-race. Leslie can be a stern critic of lesbian and feminist introversion. She condemns ex-lover Val's refusal of "real-world skills" and retreat into "a woman's theatre course" and "classes in palmistry and doilymaking." Although Leslie's own pursuit of a further degree has tied her to the career of George, a high-grade academic rat (thus bringing about her separation from Val), a desire for intellectual integrity as well as economic independence drives her on. She rejects—or rationalizes her rejection by?—lesbian coupledom and community-living….
The novel's somewhat outré morality makes it difficult to determine whether this represents compromise or triumphant accommodation on Leslie's part. Anyway, riding easily and gallantly into the uncertain future, with her black belt under her belt, she leaves behind as cloying a taste as any Ouida heroine—or hero. (p. 311)
Leslie's other key relationship, with teenage ingénue Honor and gay Bernard, are a little more coolly but too program-matically conceived, as if computer-selected to broaden her horizons ("suppose I told them my best friends in Detroit are a straight woman and a man"). The working-class or deprived origins of all three receive an unconvincing stress—Leslie is "car-poor," Bernard obliged to steal or to live parasitically…. [The] points of the unlikely triangle hardly connect on [any] … basis. Bernard divulges his unhappy childhood to Leslie and they briefly "straighten" each other out. Leslie hovers platonically over Honor until her symbolic name loses its aptness, and then steps in to moralize. Only the story of Leslie and Val, perhaps the real germ of the novel, has the touch of living if excessively pulsating flesh. Other characters may be filling in time and space for Ms. Piercy, as they do for Leslie, who does somehow persuade us of her own existence, if of little else. Certainly not that the karate class she agrees to take for the women's school attractively prefigures the shape of things to come. Although, by holding hands at the start, Leslie's lady-students break sweetly with the "ritual that men have developed," and a karate chop must be saluted as more positive than palmistry, one senses Ms. Piercy's doctrinaire iron hand in the velvet glove. (pp. 311-12)
Edna Longley, "Pilgrim Mothers: 'The High Cost of Living'," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1980 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLVII, No. 2, 1980, pp. 308-13.∗
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