By Paul Buhle
May 4th, 2014
A Writer On Her Own Path
Many of Marge Piercy’s readers have been following her assorted writings across the span of their adult lives. We were young with her in the later 1960s and have snapped up, poked through, or otherwise taken note of her volumes ever since. So the notion that this new volume is a “debut collection” strikes an odd note. Then again, novelist and poet Piercy has not been doing much in the short-story vein all these decades. At points, The Cost of Lunch more than makes up for the lapse.
This is a tough book, not by sentence structure or fancy words, but “tough” in the sense that her protagonists yield no ground, reject men after awhile, and deal sharply with women who are hopelessly male-oriented. Piercy’s favorite women are Piercy Women. And they are unforgiving.
Taking the last title as more than metaphor, How to Seduce A Feminist (or Not), we learn that strong-minded women like sex well enough, and intellectual company too, but what sets their nerves on end is the assumptions that men make almost constantly. They assume women are ready for a relationship — at least a one-nighter — on a moment’s notice and men’s terms, they assume women are actually interested in hearing what they have to say, and they assume that politically, mentally, and so on, women are just about the same as each other. Big mistakes.
This story unnerves me slightly because the would-be seducer has an academic job in Madison, Wisconsin. Did I see him on the streets or in a coffee shop? He has the hots for our Chicagoan.
He’s cute, he seems to have become a literary success — as if this were a turn-on — and he had some kind of relationship with the feminist of the title in the high days of The Movement (suddenly, that sounds like a long time ago). Now she wants him out of the apartment and out of her life. Actually, How to Seduce has several other shorter vignettes and one even turns out as happily as any in this book, “she is happy she met him,” because he is the rare considerate type. This would mark the fellow in question a happy exception.
Marge Piercy is so good at exploring details, whether apartments, relatives, or friends and sex partners, that such generalizations are risky. We turn from stories set in Chicago in 1960 or 1970 to the Boston area decades later, marking Piercy’s own locations. Some are political only in the once-familiar sense that the Personal Is Political. Others are deeply political in the old way, young men in the later 1960s on the run from Selective Service, needing all the assistance they can get, at risk to whoever helps them. All the protagonists are women, and the careful reader will discover that as much as they differ, nearly all have a bit of Marge in them and many quite a bit more.
I am inclined toward the protagonist fiction-writer or poet because, after all, this is as close to Marge as we are going to get in fiction. Her writers seem to enjoy the work, being alone at the tasks of inventing characters and scenes, giving readings, and life is easier when they acquire the self-confidence to become their successful selves, mining personal experience along with memories and social and environmental observations for material and insights. It never becomes clear that company, the company of a man, the involvements of family or any others, are quite so welcome. Now and then a touch of Jewish continuity sneaks in, providing a different kind of continuity; now and then a political moment reminds us of past engagements, but mostly is a writer on her own path, making new discoveries, inviting us to join her.