The 1976 Club: Woman on the Edge of Time & The Takeover

It’s my fourth time participating in one of Simon and Karen’s reading weeks (after last year’s 1920 Club and 1956 Club and April’s 1936 Club). I start with a novel I actually read for my book club’s short-lived feminist classics subgroup way back in March but didn’t manage to review before now, and then have another I picked up especially for this challenge. Both were from the university library.

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

An unusual and fascinating novel with hints of science fiction, but still grounded in the real world (in a way that would attract fans of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred and Parable duology), this contrasts utopian and dystopian scenes experienced by a Latina woman who’s been confined to a mental hospital. At 37, Connie Ramos has had a tough life marked by deprivation and domestic violence; “it was a crime to be born poor as it was a crime to be born brown.” She finds herself in conversation with Luciente, a plant geneticist who claims to be visiting from the future – coastal Massachusetts in 2137 – and has heard rumors of this prior Age of Greed and Waste. Luciente senses that Connie is a “catcher,” receptive to the wavelength of other times and places.

When drawn into Luciente’s future, Connie thinks of it more as a peasant past because of the animal husbandry and agriculture, but comes to appreciate how technology and gender equality contribute to a peaceful society and environmentally restored landscape. I was intrigued by the dynamic Piercy imagines: everyone is of indeterminate gender (the universal pronouns are “person” and “per” – how about it? Both less confusing and more aesthetically pleasing than they/them!); embryos are cultured in machines and the resulting children raised communally with three honorary named “mother” figures. People choose their own names and change them in response to rites of passage. There’s no government or police. Free love reigns. “Our notions of evil center around power and greed” rather than sex, Connie is told.

With Connie and her fellow inmates facing mind-altering surgery in the ‘real’ world, Luciente’s community becomes a blessed escape. But on one of her time travels, she ends up in a dystopian future New York City instead. From 126 floors up, all that’s visible through the smoggy air is other towers. Everyone is genetically modified and everything is owned by corporations. Which scenario represents the authentic evolution of human society?

The way Piercy intersperses these visions with life at the mental hospital, and closes with excerpts from Connie’s patient notes, forces you to question whether they might all be hallucinations. We didn’t come to any firm conclusion during our Zoom discussion. The others found Connie’s life unremittingly bleak, but I love me a good mental hospital narrative. While I wearied a bit of the anthropological detail as the novel went on, I thought it an intense cultural commentary from a writer ahead of her time on gender roles and the environment (small-scale food production, foraging, renewable energy and reusing/recycling are givens in her utopia, and she questions the nonsensical reliance on cars. Why didn’t we listen to the prophets of the 1970s when we maybe had a chance to turn things around?!).

My rating:

 

The Takeover by Muriel Spark

Had I read this in manuscript with no author name attached, I might have declared it to have been written by Iris Murdoch for the clutch of amoral characters, the love triangles, the peculiar religious society, the slight meanness of the attitude, and the detachment of the prose. Maggie Radcliffe is a rich American who owns three houses in the vicinity of Rome, one of which she rents out to Hubert Mallindaine, an effete homosexual who alleges that he is descended from the goddess Diana and founds a cult in her honour. He holds to this belief as fiercely as he defends his right to remain at Nemi even when Maggie decides she wants him out and employs lawyers to start eviction proceedings. There are odd priests, adulterous family members, scheming secretaries, and art and jewellery thieves, too. I wouldn’t say I’m a fan, but I liked this, my fourth novel by Spark, better than the rest. Italian bureaucracy makes for an amusing backdrop to what is almost a financial farce with an ensemble cast.

My rating:

 

Another 1976 release I’ve reviewed this year: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates.

20 responses

  1. I’ve been intrigued by Woman at the Edge of Time for ages – as you can imagine, it speaks to many of my interests! But unlike you, I’m really put off by the mental hospital setting and the suggestion that many of the visions may be hallucinations – not a fan of this in fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You might well find those elements annoying. There are a couple of tiny things about it that felt dated to me, but I was really glad to have an excuse to read it because of how much of an offbeat SF feminist classic it is.

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  2. A couple of very interesting titles for 1976. The Spark is one I’ve not read and it sounds suitably whacky!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a weird one, yes! I hadn’t even heard of it before looking up a list of 1976 releases for this challenge.

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  3. I like the sound of Woman on the Edge of Time – I like Joanna Russ’ work from the same period. The Takeover is great fun – but surely to be an Iris Murdoch novel it would have to be three times as long!

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    1. Well, even for Spark I thought this felt long: It was about 260 pages, while the others I’ve read by her were novella-length. Some of Murdoch’s best stuff (e.g. A Severed Head) is good and short!

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  4. Muriel Spark is such an unusual writer. I’ve read two – Far Cry From Kensington and Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – and both contain elements of the things you used to describe the one you read. I definitely want to try more from her but I’m not sure how I feel about her!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve read Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, and The Driver’s Seat … and those last two I didn’t particularly enjoy. So I’m not sure I’d try her again and, if so, which books.

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      1. I’d say four books from an author you’re not sold on is enough! 🙂

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      2. I’m with Laila on the idea that having tried four could certainly mean you’re just not a match but, if you were to try one more, Loitering with Intent was a little more writerish/bookish and I loved that part of it. She is a writer I admire, but I choose her in a very particular reading mood (that doesn’t come ’round often).

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      3. I think Memento Mori, suggested below, might be the one to draw me, but I certainly won’t be prioritizing more by Spark. (I have a habit of keeping on trying with authors even when I don’t think they’re a great fit for me. I’ve read six by Douglas Coupland, for instance!)

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  5. I was going to re-read Woman on the Edge of Time for this meme, but it was so much denser than I remembered and I ran out of time. The Spark is one I haven’t read but sounds very Muriel. My favourite is Memento Mori.

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    1. I had a head start on my review, having read Woman on the Edge of Time back in March. Luckily, I kept detailed enough notes that I could reconstruct the plot in my mind.

      The ageing/death theme of that Spark novel sounds just right for me!

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      1. One nasty comment frequently made in Memento Mori, ‘You must be losing your faculties.’

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  6. Oh, The Takeover DOES sound Murdochian when you put it like that, how funny!

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    1. I wondered if you’d know it or have spotted the similarities!

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  7. The way that things unfold, and the questions that are raised, in Piercy’s novel was new for me as a reader in the early 90s; I can imagine that it’s not uncomplicated approaching her story now, but had she not written this book, there are so many others that have followed, which publishers probably wouldn’t have trifled with–she paved the way in so many respects. And why didn’t we listen, indeed? Why aren’t we listening? The news, of late, has seemed exceptionally disheartening. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this pair though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t like that Connie’s Latina features were described as “sensuous” on more than one occasion, but that was one of the only details that struck me as off. It still reads well and deserves to be more widely known.

      (I feel like I have a quote for you on this matter. Now to find which of the books from my towering stacks it’s in…)

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  8. I’m so glad someone added The Takeover – even if not a Spark fan! Interestingly, I really love her (including those 3 others you’ve read) but The Takeover is one of my least favourite of hers. I also don’t like Iris Murdoch, so perhaps that explains it!

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    1. I wondered to what extent she was conscious of the influence!

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