A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 432 pp)

Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) worked brilliantly but sporadically throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Her stories are inspired by her early childhood in various Western mining towns; her glamorous teenage years in Santiago, Chile; three failed marriages; a lifelong problem with alcoholism; her years spent in Berkeley, New Mexico, and Mexico City; and the various jobs she later held to support her writing and her four sons. Sober and writing steadily by the 1990s, she took a visiting writer’s post at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1994 and was soon promoted to associate professor. In 2001, in failing health, she moved to Southern California to be near her sons. She died in 2004 in Marina del Rey.

Unconstrained Short Stories

Something about a short story breeds creativity. When the author designs the whole narrative for consumption in one sitting, it opens endless possibilities. Form, style, character development. It’s all on the table.

Bouncing around in the back of my head, I have many oddball ideas. One, in fact, focuses on a designer of exhaust pipes in automobiles. Really. Next time you are sitting in traffic, take a moment to review the variety of exhaust designs. Some try to hide them as best as possible, as if viewing exhaust might reminds us of our expiration. Others don’t even try. The pipe just sits under the car unadorned. And then the most interesting, in my mind, are the designs where the exhaust fits within the car’s exterior, as if accepting that this ugly bit of automobile reality must at least have an aesthetic quality.

I’d never write a novel about an exhaust pipe designer, but a short story might be fun.

Slices of Life

These slice-of-life approaches to a short story is what makes Lucia Berlin’s posthumous collection of short fiction so interesting.

A Manual for Cleaning Women, takes decades of work, most of which was overlooked during its creation, and compiles it into a fascinating look at Berlin’s oeuvre.

Her stories largely build from her own life, altered enough to plays as fiction but feeling very real to her experience. Berlin likes writing evocative lines like:

“In the deep dark night of the soul the liquor stores and bars are closed” (151).

As such, a discussion about Berlin’s work inherently must be a discussion about her life. One lived in vocationally and physically odd places. Berlin spent time in New Mexico, Mexico, California, and Colorado. Each stop dramatically different for her relationships and occupations.

And thus, vocationally, we also see a variety of jobs. In her real life, Berlin worked as the titular cleaning lady, a nurse, a teacher, a stay-at-home mom, among many other roles. These perspectives color her stories as she brings unique and engaging observations to the mundane and ordinary.

“Cleaning women do steal. Not the things the people we work for are so nervous about. It is the superfluity that finally gets to you. We don’t want the change in the little ashtrays” (27).

This focus, on what some might deem mundane, cultivates creativity in Berlin’s prose. In the most ordinary circumstances, she draws comparisons to the weightiest parts of life, and that approach provides powerful results.

“Time stops when someone dies. Of course it stops for them, maybe, but for the mourners time runs amok. Death comes too soon. It forgets the tides, the days growing longer and shorter, the moon. It rips up the calendar. You aren’t at your desk or on the subway or fixing dinner for the children. You’re reading People in a surgery waiting room, or shivering outside on a balcony smoking all night long. You stare into space, sitting in your childhood bedroom with the globe on the desk. Persia, the Belgian Congo. The bad part is that when you return to your ordinary life all the routines, the marks of the day, seem like senseless lies. All is suspect, a trick to lull us, rock us back into the placid relentlessness of time” (380).

Berlin is a must-read for people interested in how short stories can foster immense creativity. While her stories might feel like they are about nothing, her observations about the realities of life make these stories come to life.

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