by Jason Ray Carney
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015 | 432 pages
In Lucia Berlin’s story “Good and Bad,” Miss Dawson, an American teacher working in Chile, seeks to sensitize an American student whose father is a mining engineer to the reality of poverty in Santiago. “I think you are a good person,” Miss Dawson tells the student, who is, at least superficially, enamored of the kind of the frivolous, high-society lifestyle accessible to the families of Americans working in Chile after World War II. Miss Dawson convinces her student to accompany her to the city dump every Saturday, for a month. But the plan goes awry, partly because the girl, during a conversation with her father, exposes Miss Dawson’s communist affiliations (the story takes place in 1952, at the height of McCarthyism), and partly because Miss Dawson’s maladroit, immersive pedagogy eventually puts the two women in a dangerous position. “Good and Bad” is not the story of a bad person who becomes the good person her teacher sees in her. Nor is it the story of the failure of such a transformation. Instead, it’s a story about characters who are at once good and bad—characters who set out to be present for, but end up disappointing, each other. A Manual for Cleaning Women, a selection of Berlin’s stories published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, is most poignant in its portrayal of disappointments like this one.
“Good and Bad,” with its fickle characters and its attention to the minutiae of hopes and letdowns, emblematizes Berlin’s foci throughout A Manual for Cleaning Women. Berlin’s stories, often brief but never rushed, magnify the ordinary. Her universe accommodates few obvious conflicts between protagonists and antagonists, and even fewer catharses about the meaning of life or the meaning of one’s life. Characters, simply, viscerally, try, make mistakes, and try again.
It is tempting to read Berlin’s quiet tales of making do as vignettes of her own life. One cannot make one’s way through the four hundred pages of A Manual for Cleaning Women without pausing, even for a moment, to wonder what is autobiographical and what is fictional. Like other collections released posthumously—Clarice Lispector’s complete, translated stories stand out as a recent example—A Manual for Cleaning Women reawakens a certain curiosity about its author. Berlin was born in 1936, in Alaska. Her father being an engineer, she spent her early years in mining camps in Idaho, Kentucky, and Montana. When her father went to war, she and her mother moved to El Paso, Texas. After the war, the family moved again, this time to Santiago, Chile. In the mid-1950s, Berlin enrolled at the University of New Mexico. She married three times and had four sons. Following her last marriage, she worked, primarily in the Bay Area, as a schoolteacher, switchboard operator, hospital ward clerk, cleaning woman, and physician’s assistant. She died in 2004, in Southern California. We find this information in editor Stephen Emerson’s biographical notes, but we could infer much of it, chronology notwithstanding, from A Manual for Cleaning Women. Across forty-some stories, avatars of Berlin and her relatives, friends, and coworkers appear in many of the locations where she spent parts of her life.
Lydia Davis, in her foreword to this collection, inscribes Berlin’s stories within the genealogy of autofiction, a genre of writing about the self that blends the conventions of biographical realism with fantasized or altered characters and events. If, as Davis reports, for Berlin “the story is the thing,” much of the allure of reading autofiction derives from the possibility of identifying instances where biographical and narrative arcs converge or diverge, or where the author’s emotional baggage surfaces or is muted. A story is rarely finite or hermetic: it aggregates relations, exchanges, and memories. As such, though Berlin’s mantra, as it’s reported by Davis, suggests that the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women contain all that Berlin is willing to share about herself, we shouldn’t be discouraged from speculating the events and forces that shaped the stories in question.
Not only do the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women problematize the relation between author and text, they also explore various ways of relating to readers. Take “Stars and Saints,” in which nuns in El Paso charitably feed and welcome a young girl whom they wrongly assume is poor and neglected by her parents. A story about encounters and misunderstandings, “Stars and Saints” performs, via addresses to readers, the wish to make a positive first impression and clarify thoughts and facts along the way. The story begins, “Wait. Let me explain….” A few lines down: “Why do I hesitate to tell you this? I don’t want you to think I’m sappy, I want to make a good impression.” A page later: two parentheticals, one in which the narrator warns readers against getting “the wrong idea” (she’s “not obsessed by psychiatrists or anything”), and one that conveys an anecdote that took place “just the other day, on the bus.” Now an adult, the narrator of “Stars and Saints” manages readers’ expectations, determined to not let her motivations be misread, once again.
The form that arises from the accumulation of such cases of interpellation isn’t metafictional. That is to say that a commentary on writing doesn’t take precedence over the story. The narrator’s addresses to readers, filled with markers of hesitation, adjustment, and rephrasing, can more accurately be likened to the I-You structure of lyric poetry. The juxtaposition of a poetic notion of address with stories like “Stars and Saints” isn’t so preposterous: the lyric form is closely tied to confessional writing, a genre that Berlin’s prose, in an interesting sense, approximates. A Manual for Cleaning Women is filled with confessions, but the object of these confessions isn’t some deep emotional or spiritual truth; rather, their object is the ordinary habits and daily practices of people. For example, the gossipy narrator of the collection’s bittersweet title story details the items that she steals while working as a cleaning woman: not loose change, watches, rings, or purses, but sleeping pills—“for a rainy day.”
Berlin’s characters often reveal an eccentric relation to emotions or their expression. The fact that readers get to know and become attached to these characters through their eccentricity makes for an enthralling, and often surprising, reading experience. The odd narrator of “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977” distinguishes between bad deaths—when the dead are found alone by hotel managers or cleaning women, or when relatives of the dead fight over funeral arrangements—and good deaths—when gypsies die surrounded by effusive friends and relatives. Similarly, she distinguishes between good and bad emergency codes. If people, in Berlin’s stories, are good and bad, deaths and hospital codes are, here, good or bad. The narrator says, of Code Blues,
Well, everybody loves Code Blues. That’s when somebody dies—their heart stops beating, they stop breathing—but the Emergency team can, and often does, bring them back to life. Even if the patient is a tired eighty-year old you can’t help but get caught up in the drama of resuscitation, if only for a while. Many lives, young fruitful ones, are saved.
The genius of this excerpt is tied to a certain friction between event and emotional response. The narrator, who follows “Everybody loves Code Blues” with “That’s when somebody dies,” initially sounds callous. She only later justifies her love of Code Blues when she indicates that death sets the scene for a thrilling and hope-laden drama of resuscitation. Berlin’s skill resides in the deferral of the logic that undergirds the narrator’s emotional investment in Code Blues. Uncannily, emotional expression comes first, and its explanation second. Readers might have a negative reaction to the narrator’s taxonomies of deaths and hospital codes, but feel tenderness in the face of her attachment to the possibility of resuscitation.
To say that Berlin’s stories track the D.I.Y. relational tactics and patterns with which individuals come up as they navigate their lives might not, in itself, distinguish this collection of short stories. And yet A Manual for Cleaning is distinguished both in craft and content. Though everyone and everything in Berlin’s stories—people, deaths, hospital codes—are either good and bad or good or bad, her stories are, themselves, unilaterally good. Surely, Berlin’s autofiction sends readers on a fascinating quest to distinguish between fact and fiction; her recurrent addresses interpellate readers in compelling ways; and her portrayal of emotions is both layered and innovative. But above all, A Manual for Cleaning Women is a masterful depiction of imperfect people doing what they can to get by.
Jean-Thomas Tremblay is a Ph.D. candidate in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago. He is at work on a dissertation on the aesthetics and politics of breathing in contemporary literature and media. His writing, scholarly or not, has appeared or is forthcoming in Criticism, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, PhaenEx, Arcade, Public Books, PopMatters, Review 31, and The Oxonian Review.