I have to begin by saying that Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women is not like other collections of short stories, with their artfully crafted characters, their discrete little worlds trapped under glass. Berlin’s book - published in 2015, eleven years after her death - is more like a memoir unfolding through the medium of a short story collection. Many of the stories are from her life, and so - as in life - she replays the same dramas again and again, with characters that appear under different names but are nonetheless familiar. We meet and meet again the girl with scoliosis, the young woman with a baby, the mother with two or three or four sons, the sister dying of cancer in middle age, the father working in the mines, the husbands who are musicians, sculptors, heroin addicts, the drunken grandfather, the drunken mother, the drunken uncle, the drunken narrator. A lot of people drink in Berlin’s stories, and she - an alcoholic for much of her adult life - has a special talent for communicating the mundane horrors of alcoholism. She tells you about the shakes, the memory loss, the desperate scrounging together of loose change. The sick ‘winos’ forming a straggling queue outside the liquor store at six in the morning.
Perhaps this makes it sound as though her work is bleak. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much of contemporary writing is - I think - guided by a logic of cynicism, seeking ultimately to string the reader along and then disappoint them. Berlin’s writing is not like that. In fact, it contains moments of nearly unbearable tenderness, coming just when you least expect it. In ‘Emergency Room Notebook, 1977’, the narrator - working as a hospital ward clerk - runs into the husband of a patient on the bus. He’s blind and elderly. His wife had come into the hospital DOA, after he found her body at the foot of the stairs with his cane. But “he was very funny, describing his new, messy roommate at the Hilltop House for the Blind … We laughed, holding hands … from Pleasant Valley to Alcatraz Avenue. He cried, softly. My tears were for my own loneliness, my own blindness.” Several other stories revolve around the narrator’s younger sister dying of cancer in Mexico City, and the narrator coming to care for her. It’s a protracted and difficult death, and towards the end sister Sally has trouble breathing. The cancer is in her lungs. At night, the narrator can hear her weeping in bed, and calls out to her: “Sally. Dear Sal y pimienta, Salsa, don’t be sad.”
The word love is rarely mentioned in Berlin’s stories, but it shows up all the time. People hold hands, help strangers, open their houses to travelers, wave at children in windows, care for their dying sisters and make ofrendas for them with “masses of flowers, orange, magenta, purple.” They also traffic drugs, kill babies, sexually abuse children, are expelled from school, drink themselves to death, give birth to babies who die, and pull out all their own teeth with no anaesthetic. And yet. And yet. At a clinic for children with severe disabilities, every interaction overflows with tenderness. Many of the children are described as beautiful. Everybody in the children’s families “has to be honest and say it sucks. Everybody has to laugh, everybody has to feel grateful when whatever else the child can’t do he can kiss the hand that brushes his hair.” Here is grace, she seems to say. Don’t be afraid of it.
How to do this while avoiding sentimentality is the big task, of course, and walking that razor-thin wire is perhaps Berlin’s most impressive achievement. The best way I can explain it is to say that her stories are simply realistic, life-like, taken from a world where people are both good and bad, where love and hatred co-mingle in every relationship. She has a particular talent for inserting the small details that transplant us right there, into the heart of the story - the heart of someone else’s life, as mundane and deeply complex as our own. In the titular story, a cleaning woman finds a note in the house of a client, from husband to wife: “Buy some smokes and take the car … dooh-dah, dooh-dah.” It’s the kind of silly, bizarre thing that usually - in its silliness and bizarreness - is confined to real life, and never makes it into literature. It is, in a sense, too life-like for literature. The reader might not understand that they are In a Story. But Berlin never underestimates us that way.
Of course, it helps that she has a lot of material to draw on. Despite dying at the age of sixty-eight, Berlin seems to have packed several lives into one. She had three husbands, four sons, and lived in Chile, Mexico, and all over the United States. She spoke fluent Spanish and had her first cigarette lit by Prince Aly Khan. Her father was a mining engineer, and the family had money. But later her parents disowned her, and much of her adult life was spent in doing blue-collar and clerical work in pre-gentrification Oakland. The characters in her stories are Spanish teachers, cleaning women, doctors’ receptionists, hospital ward clerks, switchboard operators. (She skewers class relations perfectly. Cleaning women are advised that they will “get a lot of liberated women. First stage is a consciousness-raising group; second stage is a cleaning woman; third, divorce.”) Much of the action takes place in the working-class settings of laundromats and buses, free clinics and emergency rooms. Berlin has a particular gift for writing about public transport: the bus is at once a kind of third place - rich with encounters, a pulsating artery of urban life - and the bane of its passengers’ existence. So slow, so unreliable. She is not afraid to detail those hours spent chugging slowly along, looking out the window, late to work again.
But Berlin’s writing also opens up unexpected, exquisite worlds that enchant the reader. In ‘Toda Luna, Todo Año’ a middle-aged teacher traveling in Mexico goes diving for the first time: “Slowly then, like stage lighting, the world underwater came into being … Down past layers, strata, each with a distinct hierarchy of coexisting plants and fish. Nights and days, winters and summers. Near the bottom it is warm, sunny, a Montana meadow years ago.” Worlds within worlds. Even the death of Sally offers up its own beauty, revealing an unexpected vista. In the house on Calle Amores Sally is dying, but her sister is there, and her adult children, and her lover, and her ex-husband the politician, and her servants who are now more like family. They watch telenovelas together, go to a cafe where they have been regulars for many years. There are a series of humorous anecdotes involving workmen doing repairs in the house. In a way you want to be there with them, even though Sally cannot breathe properly and cries at night. This is Lucia Berlin: she never lets things get away with being one-dimensional. They are always multifaceted, layer upon layer, world within world. Just when you think you have the story, it wriggles out of your grasp - but you don’t mind. You just want to see what will happen next.
‘Let Me See You Smile’ is one of the collection’s richest and most complex stories, coming toward the end of the book. An Oakland lawyer agrees to represent a forty-year-old woman and her young lover on charges laid against them during a scene that occurred in an airport. Somewhat reluctantly, he goes to their apartment for dinner and is put off by the ‘bad’ neighbourhood, the homeless people sleeping in the building’s foyer, the smells of “urine, cheap wine, stale oil, dust.” But then Carlotta, his client, opens the door and he steps with wonder “into their technicolour world that smelled of corn bread and red chili, limes and cilantro and her perfume. The room had high ceilings, tall windows. There were oriental rugs on the polished floors. Huge ferns, banana plants, birds of paradise … She let me absorb this for a minute, then she shook my hand.”
Joanna Horton is a writer living in Brisbane/Meanjin. Her work has appeared in print and online in Overland, The Millions, StylusLit, and other places. She is a managing editor of Flood Media.