Lucia Berlin/A Manual for Cleaning Women: Reflections

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

It's a beautiful object. It's a collection of, to borrow Lydia Davis's reference, auto-fiction. It's the galloping work of Lucia Berlin, who is no longer with us, who is famous now, on all the lists, some ten years since her passing.

What would she make of her fame? What would she do with it?

You read these stories and you think—perhaps they're not stories. Perhaps they are the beads of an abacus—pushed in this direction, pushed in that, always (reliably) adding up to something. These pieces may be insistently compact, but they are never rushed, they are never a detail short, they are never mere asides. They're some of the most intimate interludes I've ever read—parabolically witty and (at the same time) deeply unsettling.

We meet:

A child who helps her grandfather pull all of his teeth. A woman who believes herself to be generous in ways others do not. An alcoholic who cannot help herself. A sister who reconciles with a dying sister. A seductress who shows up in all the stories men tell. A nurse. A cleaning woman. A daughter tending an unwell mother. An unwell mother mothering sons. An unfaithful adventuress.

And then the stories cycle through and some of the same characters with the same names appear again and we already know them, we bring our growing knowledge of this singular storyteller's band of characters to every story that she tells.

Like Colum McCann in Thirteen Ways of Looking, Berlin sometimes dabbles in the meta, comments on the commentary, leaves overt clues regarding how her stories get made.

From "Point of View":

You'll listen to all the compulsive, obsessive boring little details of this woman's, Henrietta's, life only because it is written in the third person. You'll feel, hell if the narrator thinks there is something in this dreary creature worth writing about there must be. I'll read on and see what happens.

Nothing happens, actually. In fact the story isn't even written yet. What I hope to do is, by the use of intricate detail, to make this woman so believable you can't help but feel for her.

At other times, as in her title story, Berlin appears to be rattling off observations about the houses she cleans, but that's not really her point at all. Her point is what happens when the pattering noise of her daily living gets interrupted by the deep abyss of sadness that she feels:

My friends say I am wallowing in self-pity and remorse. Said I don't see anybody anymore. When I smile, my hand goes involuntarily to my mouth.

And you stop. You press your hand to your mouth. You feel her pain.

Berlin creates a familiar terrain, but she doesn't repeat herself. She generates a recognizable voice, but it has energy, it is not dulled by repeated use. I had the feeling, reading these stories, that I got when I read Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation. Something new, I thought. Something bold. Something classic. Berlin is alive on these pages.


Unknown said...

I'm intrigued. Not normally the biggest fan of short stories but when I can stumble upon something meaty and real and good, that allows me to empathize for and understand others, these kind of stories are well worth the read.

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