In Other Words

A Man­ual for Clean­ing Women

Pasatiempo - - CONTENT - by Lu­cia Ber­lin

In 68 years Lu­cia Ber­lin man­aged to live many lives, nearly all of which are rep­re­sented in rich de­tail in the 43 short sto­ries that make up A Man­ual for Clean­ing Women, a new an­thol­ogy that seems slated to res­cue Ber­lin from ob­scu­rity. Born in 1936, Ber­lin spent her child­hood mov­ing among min­ing camps, her drunken grand­fa­ther’s de­crepit home in El Paso, and so­ci­ety par­ties in San­ti­ago, Chile. As an adult, she led a bo­hemian lifestyle among po­ets and jazz mu­si­cians in Al­bu­querque, New York, and Mexico. Thrice-di­vorced and plagued by her own strug­gle with al­co­holism, Ber­lin moved with her four sons to the Bay Area in the early 1970s, where she worked in schools, hos­pi­tals, and the homes of af­flu­ent San Fran­cis­cans; it was there that she be­gan to pub­lish regularly and, even­tu­ally, get sober. In 1994 she moved to Boul­der, where she worked as an English pro­fes­sor be­fore re­tir­ing and mov­ing to Los An­ge­les to be closer to her sons. She died in 2004.

A Man­ual for Clean­ing Women is an im­mer­sion into Ber­lin’s unique uni­verse, where char­ac­ters and set­tings both sor­did and glam­orous are treated with equal lay­ers of af­fec­tion, hu­mor, and un­stint­ing at­ten­tion to de­tail. Her sto­ries are set among the var­i­ous places where she lived, and are nar­rated by women whose lives closely match Ber­lin’s. Char­ac­ters and events reap­pear: an al­co­holic mother; a den­tist grand­fa­ther in El Paso; a sis­ter dy­ing of can­cer in Mexico City. Of­ten­times her nar­ra­tors are ed­u­cated ad­dicts who have known and lost com­fort­able lives, who speak with the wis­dom of hav­ing “vol­un­tar­ily re­turned to hell,” as one char­ac­ter puts it, time and again. But Ber­lin’s work has lit­tle to do with that of her con­tem­po­rary Ray­mond Carver, whose de­pic­tions of work­ing-class (and of­ten al­co­holic) char­ac­ters bend to­ward bleak de­spair; in­stead, Ber­lin’s sto­ries are much closer in tone to the dark com­edy of Chekhov or Tol­stoy — yes, her char­ac­ters have got it bad, but like the au­thor, they’ll live to tell the tale.

Ber­lin’s de­scrip­tions are of­ten pleas­antly jar­ring. She is a master of mar­ry­ing sharp emo­tional mo­ments with lan­guage that dis­ori­ents in the in­stant be­fore it clar­i­fies. In “Elec­tric Car, El Paso,” the nar­ra­tor ac­com­pa­nies her grand­mother and her grand­mother’s Bi­ble-quot­ing friend on a drive in the friend’s elec­tric car. The scene’s plot­ting is straight­for­ward, but Ber­lin’s use of lan­guage makes the reader read­ily iden­tify with the weird hor­ror that her pro­tag­o­nists feel. “Her gloved hand passed me fig new­tons wrapped in tal­cumy Kleenex. The cookie ex­panded in my mouth like Ja­panese flow­ers, like a burst pil­low. I gagged and wept. Mamie smiled and passed me a sa­chet-dusted hand­ker­chief, whis­pered to Mrs. Snow­den, who was shak­ing her head.” Her sto­ries hum and crack with these dis­rup­tive mo­ments, which Ber­lin strings to­gether into the sin­gle gleam­ing thread that car­ries the reader from lav­ish re­sorts in Chile to un­der­funded detox fa­cil­i­ties in cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia.

Even when Ber­lin’s sto­ries veer into melo­drama, she avoids pat cliché. In “Mi­jito,” an Amer­i­can nurse in­forms a teenage Mex­i­can im­mi­grant that she killed her child in a des­per­ate at­tempt to soothe its cries. Amelia, the mother, re­sponds with two of the only phrases she knows in English, thrust­ing a comic dag­ger into an oth­er­wise weighty scene. “F— a duck. I’m sorry.”

Re­demp­tion in Ber­lin’s sto­ries takes place in the in­sis­tent telling and retelling of sto­ries — a mir­ror to the au­thor’s own process of over­com­ing her ad­dic­tion. Ber­lin’s char­ac­ters do not shy away or glo­rify their pasts, which al­lows them to ob­serve the peo­ple around them more fairly than so­ci­ety or even other writ­ers do. That Ber­lin her­self had very nearly seen it all al­lows her writ­ing to take on ex­tra­or­di­nary em­pa­thetic depth. In “Let Me See You Smile,” one of the strong­est sto­ries in the col­lec­tion, Ber­lin moves seam­lessly be­tween the per­spec­tive of an al­co­holic woman aban­doned by her fam­ily and a wealthy male lawyer. The lawyer is fas­ci­nated by the woman’s re­la­tion­ship with her teenaged boyfriend, and de­cides to take on a case for them at a deep dis­count. He saves them by telling their story in a way the judge can un­der­stand, but in the end, he can only watch as the two “walk away in the drench­ing rain, each of them de­lib­er­ately stomp­ing in pud­dles, bump­ing gen­tly into each other.” This scene works as an ex­am­ple in minia­ture of many of Ber­lin’s sto­ries: pro­found un­der­stand­ing laid side by side with in­tense iso­la­tion. In Ber­lin’s hands, how­ever, this feels less like an ad­mis­sion to the hard facts of life and more like a clear-eyed call to arms. We may never fully come out­side of our­selves, her writ­ing shows, but we can get pretty damn close.

Un­like writ­ers who point to life’s ran­dom cru­el­ties, shrug, and move on, Ber­lin’s in­sis­tence on star­ing hard at joy and grief in equal mea­sure, over and over, leaves the reader with some­thing more pow­er­ful: a re­fracted por­trait of life lived deeply and ob­served keenly, no mat­ter the dif­fi­culty of cir­cum­stance. — Lu­cas Iberico Lozada

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