A Master Storyteller Is Revealed in ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’

Lucia Berlin paints portraits of environments and people with an attentive, sympathetic and often cinematic eye.

Lucia Berlin is decidedly another one of those writers who has been discovered far too late. While published to a certain extent before her death in 2004, it’s only with the recent release of A Manual for Cleaning Women, collecting her best stories, that her talents have been truly revealed to the American public. It’s a shame, for had she been known earlier, she likely would have been read and taught alongside other masters of the craft like Raymond Carver and Alice Munro. If not known for her stories themselves, then her personal life story, and the travels and struggles, could make for a novel in of itself.

Berlin’s work largely comprises what has been deemed “auto-fiction”, or fictional autobiography: stories inspired by real life and real events, but which have altered and dramatized for the purpose of narrative. Their settings are in the places and among the people Berlin knew across her varied career and life: in hospitals, catholic schools, laundromats, mining towns, fancy restaurants and big homes, among poor working men and women, addicts, alcoholics, and in the company of rebellious teenagers and the most pompously privileged and wealthy. She visits New Mexico, Chile and Mexico City, and embraces the culture, mannerisms, and dialects therein (Spanish, in which Berlin was fluent, is frequently spoken in her stories).

While many of the places, happenings, and characters in the stories are inspired by Berlin’s real-life experiences, these elements have been tweaked to fit her artistic goals. Though with a realist artist as talented and grounded as Berlin, it’s honestly difficult to tell the difference.

Berlin paints portraits of environments and people with an attentive, sympathetic and often cinematic eye. The progression of one of her stories often feels like the juxtaposed, sequential imagery of a film’s opening, with characters and their movements slowly coming into the fold and into focus. In the collection’s titular story, she describes the experience of poor people as “wait[ing] a lot. Welfare, unemployment lines, laundromats, phone booths, emergency rooms, jails, etc.”

She then proceeds to take us through such a period of waiting, describing the experience of looking through the window of the laundromat across the street and watching its inhabits, just to occupy oneself. She illustrates the misery of the soaking wet benches (humorously labeled with “saturation advertising”), and describes the type of beauty one grasps from such a setting; “he once said he loved me because I was like San Pablo Avenue”). And all the while, she gives the truths that envelop these particular aspects of life; “Women’s voices always rise two octaves when they talk to cleaning women or cats.” In another story, “Strays”, she describes the meditation of looking up at the moon at night, even in a place as confining and hopeless as a drug rehab center:

The world just goes along. Nothing much matters, you know? But then sometimes, just for a second, you get this grace, this belief that it does matter, a whole lot.

One gets this feeling while following her plots, although she seems to make our immensely varied world “matter” more often than just sometimes.

Berlin’s strength lies not just in her compelling, guiding narratives, but in the imagery she chooses to solidify them. Her attention to detail, both in sight and in mind, is what brings her realism to life. Whether its illustrating the dinginess of the plastic chairs in an old laundromat (“they skidded in the ripped linoleum and the sound hurt your teeth”) or of the aura of a wooden desk (“they do make sounds, like branches in the wind, as if they were still trees”), or even the acknowledgment of the dual appearances of a single place (“there were two men in a large room that would have been sunny if it weren’t raining”), Berlin expertly implants her grounding details like poles in the ground, and strings her stories around them.

She oftentimes makes atypical allusions or similes, simply for their emotional resonance. To describe a schoolhouse at the end of a yard as sitting there “like an abandoned child’s toy” doesn’t quite fit in a comparative visual sense, but provides the contextual understanding of the treatment and outlook towards the building. She does the same with common, but complex feelings, such as the ever-complicated structures of love and sex in her story, “Bluebonnets”. Writing “she wondered if so much passion had come from simple rage or from a sense of loss,” she portrays a passionate tryst ended by something as trite as forgetting to take off one’s shoes, or disagreeing on poetry. Not because of the acts themselves, but of their release of the inherent, emotional differences destined to doom many such affairs from the start.

Her observations, her insights, and her imagery, exemplify what Stephen King described in his book On Writing as stirring audiences with the “prickle of recognition”, that understanding from a reader of when an author has perfectly captured some semblance of the truth of human existence. Even in her more ghastly stories, such as the crippling alcoholism of the protagonist of “Miserable”, or the horror of a botched abortion in “Tiger Bites”, the artistry of the stories, in their lively depiction of such real-life horrors, strike such an emotional chord that seem to overshadow the inherent misery of their narrative.

The instinctive joy felt at such a recognition, at the successful, literary entrapment of such a truth, whether it be joyous or dismal, represents the height of artistic achievement. With great art, the most sincere melancholy is as alluring and beautiful as the purest joy. Berlin accomplishes just this with flying colors. For example, in the story, “Toda Luna, Todo Ano”, Berlin beautifully describes the sensation of being underwater while scuba diving :

“With no weight you lose your self as a point of reference, lose your place in time.”

Later in the book, in another story, “Grief”, Berlin revisits this same setting, this time with her character passing wisdom onto a younger sister.

“Your body disappears, because you are so weightless, but at the same time you become intensely aware of it.”

The description is a fine way to describe the the feeling of reading Berlin at her best: a loss of self and time for the buoyancy of her narrative, and the sense we’re being provided this wisdom. At the same time, there’s the intense understanding and awareness of oneself and one’s place in the grand picture of life she’s painted over the book’s 400 pages. One doesn’t walk through one of Berlin’s stories, one swims, suspended over them.

RATING 10 / 10
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