A Virtual Walk & Marge Piercy’s Braided Lives

Oh, wait, that's not on Google Map!  That's Bilbo Baggins' house.
Oh, wait, that’s not on Google Map! That’s Bilbo Baggins’ house.

The other night we were playing with Google Map.  Not only did we look up our house, we managed to take a virtual walk up the driveway and peer into our back yard.

The Google Map picture is perhaps two years old, and we were delighted to see our big maple tree.  It was hit by a storm last year: the wind tore off a huge limb and dropped it in our neighbor’s driveway.  The severe wound in the trunk meant the tree had to come down lest it fall on our neighbors’ house in the next big storm.

“Oh my God, it was the biggest tree on the block.”

We stare mesmerized.  If only we could go back in time.  We loved that tree.

Then we took a virtual walk around the block, though it would have been much faster and better for us to go out of the house and walk.  The Google Map photo is green and lush, almost like our neighborhood today. But there is no human activity on Google Map.  Where are the annoying neighbors, the big dog prancing in the yard, the chickens pecking, the gardeners, and  ourselves sprawled in the Adirondack chairs?

I am relieved that the web cam (or whatever it is) isn’t on us 24/7.

Google Map is fun but invasive.

Gal Lit Week has gone fast.

I had a list of books to read.

Leslie Brody’s Irrepressible:  The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford,  F. Tennyson Jesse’s Beggars of Horseback,  Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, and  Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches.

Braided Lives Marge Piercy new editionI have spent most of the week rereading Marge Piercy’s Braided Lives, a novel set primarily in Michigan about a woman struggling with studies, sex, leftist politics, and work in the 1950s.  (Although I didn’t realize this until I looked it up, this absorbing novel is being reissued in September.)

Piercy, a feminist poet and novelist, is a bold, inventive storyteller whose fast-paced work appeals to a wide range of women readers, even a couple of friends I suspect vote Republican. (I don’t want to know).  One charming, smart, if rather fragile, housewife friend, whose lawyer husband supports their sumptuous lifestyle in an enormous, richly furnished house, was intrigued but very upset by Piercy’s The Longings of Women, a novel about the destructiveness of marriage.  She identified with Mary, a middle-class housewife who bottoms out after her divorce and becomes homeless.

In Braided Lives, set in Detroit, Ann Arbor, and New York, Piercy tells the story of Jill, a successful poet and radical abortion rights activist who, having survived the age at which her palm-reading mother predicted she would die, is looking back at her younger self.

Too much self-regard has never struck me as dignified:  trying to twist over my shoulder to view my own behind.  And it is not a mirror I want but a long view back.  I feel as if I have come through rough terrain and across the wasteland around factories and down unmarked city streets without a map and I both know and do not want to know where I have been.

As young women at the University of Michigan in the 1950s, Jill and her friends must confront the demands of school, work, and sex, and the expectation that they will receive their “Mrs.” degree.  This earthy novel is reminiscent of  Mary McCarthy’s  The Group, a sexually explicit novel about eight Vassar graduates in the ’30s.  But unlike The Group, Braided Lives describes the lives of working-class students.

Jill grows up in a working-class neighborhood in Detroit, dominated by her manipulative, tea-leaf-reading, exotic Jewish mother.  She wants to go to the University of Michigan, the best school in the state, but her mother says she’d be better off staying home and taking a few classes at Wayne State until she gets married.  Since Jill has earned enough money to pay tuition at the University of Michigan, her aloof father  agrees to pay for the dorm if she will room with her cousin Donna.

Jill is dark, Oriental-looking, intense, a bibliophile and an outsider, while Donna is blond, brittle,  smart, much more interested in men than studies, and sexually experienced.  The two had a brief lesbian encounter when they were children, and Donna is still amused by the memory.  But while the brilliant Jill is committed to English literature, Donna changes majors as often as she changes men.

Jill is not eager for a boyfriend.  Back in Detroit, she’d learned that relationships can go south very fast:  she’s had friends on the streets and friends pregnant in their teens.  Her studies, her intellectual discussions with friends, and involvement with a political group that protests the The House Committee on Un-American Activities satisfy her.

But of course when Jill meets someone, things change fast.  Women’s lives are complicated in the ’50s.

Piercy describes the randomness of dating (which I vaguely remember:  it was all about whom you met at a party or bar).  Jill meets Mike, another student poet, and suddenly she is going out with him regularly even though her sexual “deflowering” in a car is painful, and he frequently denigates her intelligence. He is so competitive that when she is chosen to read at a poetry reading he says her work is naive and formless.

And then she gets pregnant.

braided lives by piercyThe problem of abortion is always lurking in Jill’s consciousness.  When Donna thinks she is pregnant, Jill collects the information about a doctor who is willing to perform abortions; fortunately it is a false alarm.  But then Jill gets pregnant, and he mother will not allow her to spend money on a doctor.  She tells Jill how to perform an abortion on herself with a knife, and Jill barely survives the bloody job.

From that time on she quietly obtains information about doctors who will perform abortions.  Jill also makes an appointment to get fitted for a diaphragm, but the doctor turns her away because she doesn’t have a wedding ring.  She and Donna eventually go together to get fitted, wearing rings from Woolworth’s so there won’t be a scene about their  being single.  There is a similar scene in McCarthy’s The Group.

I am fascinated by college novels, and this is the only one I know that depicts life at a state university. I recognized the juggling of work, studies, and relationships.  There’s nobody to pick up the pieces if you run out of money, so you’re always hoping a grant or scholarship will come through so you don’t have to work more than 20 hours a week.  Jill has to work.

Piercy’s description of Jill’s academic experiences are interesting, angry, and thought-provoking.  In her Metaphysical Poets course, she sits with two writer friends, Dick and Bolognese.

Partly our arrogance unites us, for English is a hierarchical department and as writers we talk with a fierce authority totally unrecognized by faculty and fellow students.  Literature is the stuff on which grades are honed to most of the class.  Every time papers or tests are returned, a bitter hush falls.  On the way out we’re sure to be stopped by better-behaved students clutching their typescripts or bluebooks with the hopeful sally, ‘What grade did you get?’  and the almost audible prayer, O Lord of Justice, let it be lower than mine!  We are taught the narrowly defined Tradition, we are taught Structure, we are taught levels of Ambiguity.  We are taught that works of art refer exclusively to other works of art and exist in Platonic space.  Emotion before art is dirty.  We are taught to explicate poems and analyze novels and locate Christ figures and creation myths and Fisher Kings and imagery of the Mass.   Sometimes I look up and expect to see stained-glass windows on our classroom.  Somewhere over our heads like a grail vision lurks a correct interpretation and a correct style to couch it in.  We pick up the irony in the air before we comprehend what here is to be ironic about.

I have very much enjoyed this “high middlebrow” pop-literary-political novel.

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