A clean, witty read

Last Updated 29 August 2015, 18:30 IST
There’s a fine crude moment in A Manual for Cleaning Women, an overdue collection of stories by Lucia Berlin (1936-2004), when one of her narrators, a nurse, pauses to consider the nature of clear colostomy bags.

People are fascinated by them, she comments. This leads her to think: “What if our bodies were transparent, like a washing machine window? How wondrous to watch ourselves. Joggers would jog even harder, blood pumping away. Lovers would love more. God damn! Look at that old semen go! Diets would improve.” The implications for selfies are magical and horrible to contemplate.

This passage stands out not because it’s particularly good, though it is. It stands out because it says a good deal about Berlin’s careworn, haunted, messily alluring and yet casually droll stories.

There’s a radical kind of transparency to her work. Berlin has a gift for describing the intimate lives of her characters, many of them harried and divorced single mothers who have been, or are, addicted to strong drink or far worse. One speaks for many when she looks at her emerging age spots and thinks, “I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.”

We’ve bought a ticket for Raymond Carver territory here. The trajectories are downward; white-collar existences have gone blue; clear minds are sunk in unclear circumstances. You can wallow in these stories, in the way that you can in a perfect Gillian Welch song.

Yet deep shafts of sunlight penetrate this work. And when I say that Berlin is funny I mean that her sentences, when she wants them to be, are toast instead of mere warm bread.

Casual observations pass by your mental window, and you back up to gawk further: “Our mother wondered what chairs would look like if our knees bent the other way. What if Christ had been electrocuted? Instead of crosses on chains, everybody’d be running around wearing chairs around their necks.”

Berlin is a subtle observer of class. One young narrator asks: “Were we a nice family? I didn’t know.”

Many of the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women are more or less autobiographical. They follow the arc of what we know of Berlin’s life. Her father was in the mining industry and her family moved a lot, including a stint in Chile. She attended a Roman Catholic grade school and wore a back brace for a time. She married three times and had four sons whom she mostly raised alone while working. She lived in New York City and Mexico and Oakland, California; and later Colorado and Los Angeles, and had a sister who died of cancer. She wrote when she could.

She was unusually perceptive about working life, a subject that still gets short shrift in American letters. The title story, a near masterpiece, is told from the perspective of a woman who cleans houses, including those of her friends, to survive after her husband has died.

The protagonist has a lot to say, on micro and macro levels, about her job. Of course your house cleaner steals things, she says, but never what you’d expect. Not the money, but maybe a sleeping pill or a jar of sesame seeds. She notes: “Women’s voices always rise two octaves when they talk to cleaning women or cats.”

This same story delivers pulverising intensities of feeling. Here is the first half of one paragraph: “The bus is late. Cars drive by. Rich people in cars never look at people on the street, at all. Poor ones always do...in fact it sometimes seems they’re just driving around, looking at people on the street. I’ve done that.”

Did I mention that, in one story, a couple’s date involves going to a Greyhound bus station to watch Midnight Cowboy on personal TV sets into which they feed quarters? Did I mention the narrator who observes that “heroin” sounds nice because the word reminds her of Jane Eyre and Becky Sharp and Tess?

This book should have been better. The foreword by Lydia Davis and the introduction by its editor, Stephen Emerson, maddeningly overlap. Each says the same thing many times while skimping on what you really want, which is context and biographical detail.

A short biographical note at the back doesn’t say enough about Berlin or her work. Where did these stories originally appear and in what years? You need to read the small print on the copyright page to know that the first collection this book draws from, Angels Laundromat, was published by Turtle Island in 1981.

This book would have been twice as good at a bit more than half the length. Berlin is a writer you want in your back pocket; this volume’s tombstone heft turns her into homework. Stories could have been omitted. In some she went in for twist endings you see coming a block away. She could veer toward melodrama.

In A Manual for Cleaning Women, we witness the emergence of an important American writer, one who was mostly overlooked in her time. Berlin’s stories make you marvel at the contingencies of our existence. She is the real deal. Her stories swoop low over towns and moods and minds.

(Published 29 August 2015, 15:53 IST)

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