A Sort of Beauty

Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

Picador, 432pp, 404, ISBN 9781447294894

reviewed by Tristan Burke

‘I keep trying to remember who I was in English,’ one of Lucia Berlin’s narrators tells us in a statement typical of her style: crisp and direct, conversational, but also gnomic and intellectually demanding. It’s loaded with the sadness of displaced identity whilst encapsulating the ideas that Berlin returns to insistently in her stories: ontology, time, memory, and their relationships with literary language.

All easy comparisons with other writers are redundant in the face of this collection, which brings together 43 of her 76 published stories, rescuing them from the scarcity of the limited runs of small presses. The blurb and many of the critics point to Carver, Munro and Chekov, a somewhat unfortunate paucity of reference, but Berlin cultivates a style more invested in experiment and mercifully devoid of the tiresome twist ending beloved by the ‘classic’ North American short story writers. She depicts a social world far more expansive and inclusive, politicised and compassionate, than any of these writers. And it’s no exaggeration to describe Lucia Berlin as one of the most important writers of the 20th century, the sort of original who changes everything you thought you knew about what language could do. If we must make comparisons, they should be to Lydia Davis (who supplies the introduction to this volume), and to the French writing that Davis is so influenced by and has done so much to make available in the English translation.

One of Berlin’s narrators is a poet who has a love affair with a literary theorist. We are told, ‘it was hard when he […] referred to Heidegger and Wittgenstein, Derrida, Chomsky,’ for poets ‘deal with the specific’ and are ‘lost with the abstract.’ What we find in Berlin’s stories, though, is the realisation of the theories of French poststructuralism, particularly those of Blanchot, whose thinking through of the destruction of narrative and even language in trauma, seems to enthuse these stories. Conversely, Berlin’s realism is reminiscent too of Flaubert in its capaciousness for all that exists.

Berlin’s stories take great pleasure in describing simply what is. A widowed teacher learns to dive on a Mexican beach, and beneath the sea she sees ‘Fuchsia anemones, schools of blue angelfish, blue and red neons, a stingray’. This pleasure in the world extends even to the prosaic: ‘The dogs started coming. Shorty, Blackie, Spot, Duke’; or even the tragic, listing the medications in a drying out clinic: ‘Valium, Thorazine, Dilantin if you seize. Big yellow-jacker Nembutals at night.’ Often these lists serve no narrative purpose, indeed, they disrupt the linear connection of events, and exist only for themselves, in a tragic, doomed attempt to restore the world which rushes away from language, in the muted experience of alcoholism, depression, immiseration and abuse, by recording its every detail. This world which rushes away can only be restored by language; the dying narrator of the final story, ‘Homing’, asks herself ‘What else have I missed? How many times in my life have I been, so to speak, on the back porch, not the front porch? What would have been said to me that I failed to hear? What love might there have been that I didn’t feel?’

The response to these anxieties is to recuperate the world in writing, where what has been missed, what was never seen or which must pass away can take its place in the timelessness of the text, where the story exists at each and no moment and repeats itself endlessly. Identity, constantly unstable, is fixed in language which both restores presence and, accounting in part for the melancholy of these stories, seems constantly at risk of failure. After all, these lists are inoperative: they don’t make the narrativisation of language work, and as unmoored signifiers are hard to moor to anything

What is joyous and melancholy in Berlin’s writing belies the lazy marketing label of 'auto-fiction' attached to her writing. Stories return to the everyday – to hospitals, childcare, alcoholism, holidays, teaching and sex. Who cares if the narrators of these stories (frequently named Carlotta, Lu, Lucille, Lucia, Dolores) are Berlin or not? More importantly, the obsession with the identity of the author obscures everything that is political in Berlin’s work. The seriousness and happiness with which she receives the broad existence of things in the world with a kind of radical equality is redoubled in her tender care of the Other. She has a kind of democratic concern for every person her narrators meet: aristocratic cadets from the Chilean Air Force in a Latin American hotel; Tony a ‘Jicarilla Apache from up north’ in the laundromat; the handyman who comes to tile a narrator’s floor: ‘Tobacco and dirty wool, rank alcoholic sweat. He had bloodshot baby-blue eyes that smiled. I liked him right away’; the teenage boy who becomes the lover of a (much older) narrator – after he is beaten by the police, she licks the blood from his eyes.

The most moving stories deal with women whose stable sense of time and place have been or are in the process of being completely destroyed, through abuse, socio-economic status, heartbreak or illness. There is no hierarchy of suffering here. In ‘Mijito’, a Mexican man brings his wife to the United States and ends up in jail soon after, leaving her alone with a tiny baby in a country where she cannot speak the language. The narrative is focalised between the woman, Amelia, and the nurse who translates for her in the hospital she brings her sick baby to. The story is nothing short of horrific, a catalogue of sadness, tears, rape, brutalisation, fear and loss: ‘I said an Ave Maria but it seemed like there was so much noise everywhere how could a prayer ever get heard?’ Yet the nurse manages to see a sort of beauty, based on human fortitude and mutual care, amongst the ‘crack babies and AIDS and cancer babies’ she treats:

‘He is an alert but calm baby, not especially small but with a huge deformed head. The women love to talk about him, willingly tell us how they carry him […] how they bathe him and care for him.’

This cultivation of compassion in Amelia’s story manifests itself in a complex narrative voice. Seemingly first person, the voice is a mixture of English and Spanish, bolstered by desperate humour – the first English Amelia learns is ‘Fuck a duck.’ It is likely no writing will ever alleviate directly the structural conditions under which women like Amelia are brutalised, but what this sort of writing can do is make sensible – and noticeably prioritise – the very possibility of truly mutual love. When done sophisticatedly, as Berlin does, it becomes a needed response to dispossession and oppression. For all Berlin’s grimness and uncertainty in narrative and form, these stories are full of hope.

At its best, Berlin’s writing is utopian, but it is also beautiful, pyrotechnic, funny and utterly committed to literature on its own terms. In a cycle of stories where the narrator lives with her dying sister, Sally, in Mexico City, polyglot language and literature are affirmed as almost staving off death, whilst the characters come to terms with its inevitability:

‘She was on oxygen now and rarely got out of bed. I bathed her in her room, gave her injections for pain and nausea. She drank some broth, ate crackers sometimes. Crushed ice. I put ice in a towel and smashed it smashed it smashed it against the concrete wall. Mercedes lay with her and I lay on the floor, reading to them. I’d stop when they seemed to be asleep, but they’d both say, “Don’t stop!”’