Yes, we must all turn to Jane Austen and novels of manners during troubled times. But must we?
It doesn’t suit me right now. And so I recently reread Marge Piercy’s Vida, a fast-paced, vibrant, intense novel about a woman in her thirties who has lived underground for almost ten years after participating in a violent antiwar action.
Published in 1979, this is one of the best novels I have read about the politics of the ’60s and ’70s. (I also recommend Piercy’s novel Small Changes.) There are political issues at the center of many of Piercy’s books, and the plots are so well-constructed that even the apolitical get hooked. In case you’re worried about “cultural appropriation,” Piercy has credentials. The 1979 book jacket says: “Ms. Piercy has been a political activist for years–Civil Rights, antiwar groups, SDS and the women’s movement.”
In a way, Piercy is an American Doris Lessing; her heroine Vida Asch is an American Jewish Martha Quest. This intricate novel goes back and forth between the “present” (the late ’70s) and the ’60s and early ’70s when Vida was an antiwar activist in SAW (Students Against the War).
Piercy gives you a look behind-the-scenes at a radical group hectically planning antiwar actions and writing propaganda. Vida works by day as a secretary and by night as a strategist in the SAW office in New York. Piercy minutely describes a long night at SAW. Vida, of course, as a woman in the Movement, does everything from opening mail to plotting demonstration tactics and writing pamphlets.
Tuesday night she bought Chinese takeout on the way to the SAW office from work. Though the meeting was not till seven-thirty, she had a lot to get done. Heaped on her desk were requests for antiwar literature, requests for speakers, letters from chapters with problems who wanted a regional representative to visit, donations, clippings, a a threat from Minute Man marked with cross hairs of a rifle sight, a love note from Pelican, and an obscene hate note addressed to Vida Ass and a notice to vacate their loft from the landlord…. The hate mail she shredded by hand and discarded…. She never spoke of how sick it made her feel; not even to Leigh; not even to Lohania, with whom she shared most of her wishes and fears.
The novel opens in the present, with Vida, who is based in L.A., on a cross-country trip to a board meeting of a radical group known as the Network. Although it is dangerous to stop along the way in New York, she is still in love with her husband Leigh, host of a radical news show in New York, and she also longs to see her sister, Natalie, a women’s movement activist. Arranging the meetings involves elaborate phone calls placed from phone booths, warily spending the night at the apartments of sympathetic liberals who don’t understand the necessity for secrecy, out-of-the way trips on the subway so as not be followed, and clandestine meetings.
But it is worth it to Vida, who would give almost anything to have her regular life back. Still, she is devastated when she learns that Leigh plans to marry again.
Piercy’s descriptions of the open relationships of the ’60s and ’70s are accurate, occasionally sensual, but often painful. Women in the Movement share their men, have sex with their housemates, and sometimes are coerced to have sex with men in the Movement they dislike. Vida is gorgeous and smart and confident, so she can handle the strain, but she is almost raped at gunpoint by a crazed lover. Yet she despises the Women’s Movement as bourgeois. Piercy reminds us that the ’60s and ’70s were hardly the Woodstock people are nostalgic for.
Piercy’s heroines tend to be earthy, warm, and sensual, and Vida is no exception. She cares about her friends, warts and all. This is one of Piercy’s best, and she is always a vivid writer.
ARE BOOKSTORES ESSENTIAL BUSINESSES?
The truth is there is more to lockdown than wiping down carts at the grocery store. There’s washing hands! Most stores have beeen closed for a couple of weeks.
At least Barnes and Noble was open.
Two weeks into the lockdown, I would love to go to a bookstore. I almost agree with James Daunt, the CEO of Barnes and Noble, who, according to Publishers Weekly, has said that books and bookstores should be considered essential businesses right now. Daunt, who, in addition to being CEO of B&N, is the founder of Daunt Books in the UK and the CEO of Waterstones in the UK (a bookstore I love!), is thinking in terms of business, but as a consumer/book lover, I believe that books are good for the soul and spirit. And examining the books themselves, feeling the heft and seeing the design, is an important part of book-buying.
Mind you, we have plenty of books. But when I learned that all the bookstores will be closed by 10 tonight for an indefinite period, I wished I could rush out and buy one more book.
The end of an era?