Lucia Berlin's short-stories 'communicate the humdrum of everyday life in small town America, along with all of its messy vicissitudes' PEXELS/SEBASTIAANSTAM

Content note: This article contains brief mentions of addiction

The academic year is once again upon us, and so we relinquish the vast expanse of unaccounted-for time the holiday period grants. While this often means placing academic commitments before all else, reading for pleasure does not have to be completely eclipsed by our term time undertakings. In the coming series, I will be offering up some of my favourite short story collections.

The brevity of the short story form makes it perfect for the time-strapped Cambridge student – whether as a means to wind down after a hectic day, or as a literary accompaniment to your lunch break, short stories enable reading outside of a degree in a way that’s neither too time consuming nor mentally taxing. This first article takes a look at Lucia Berlin’s seminal collection: A Manual For Cleaning Women. Her stories have a tendency to take unexpected left turns – an energising complement to a morning routine.

“Berlin deals deftly in humour and in pathos, executing both to subtle, yet lacerating effect”

Lucia Berlin’s short stories can feel like an economy of words. Yet they are always strangely sonorous and it is perhaps this which makes them so affecting. She has no time for nostalgia, extravagant description, or indulgent recounting of the past. In a 1996 interview conducted by her students at the University of Colorado, Berlin was asked what her ‘poetics’ were. “I have no idea,” she responded, laughing. “I… don’t think about it.” Take the story B.F. and Me, which appears in A Manual for Cleaning Women. Berlin opens with “I liked him right away, just talking to him on the phone. Raspy, easygoing voice with a smile and sex in it, you know what I mean.” Berlin, staunchly anti-poetic, depicts the world as she is enveloped in it. She is warm, conversational, gossipy, writing what she feels to be “emotionally true”. It is likely this intuition that affords her stories such dazzling authenticity.

It was only with the publication of this posthumous collection that Berlin reached a wide audiencePANMACMILLAN

One of the great tragedies of Berlin’s work is that she was not discovered sooner. Farrar, Straus and Giroux were the first to posthumously publish a collection of her stories in 2015, introducing a whole new generation to her stories. Prior to this, Berlin had only been published by small local presses. What is it that makes Berlin’s writing so rousing? Berlin deals deftly in humour and in pathos, executing both to subtle, yet lacerating effect. You are drawn in, distracted by her jocularity – caught unawares, she deals you a sudden left turn in plot, or a brutal one-liner. You can’t help but feel that some pleasure, on Berlin’s part, is being found from such double-dealing.

The elision of Berlin’s personal life and her fiction is baldly stated in interview footage: “Everybody who knows my work knows my mother,” she says, “who was pretty rotten, but fascinating.” One wonders if the publishing of Berlin’s memoir, Coming Home, in 2018, was meant to encourage her readership to consider the vestiges of her personal life in tandem with her stories. Perhaps, but to put too much onus on this would be to downplay how gifted a storyteller she was.

“As readers we are intimately acquainted with the loneliness, desires and despair her characters feel”

Berlin locates her stories in the here and now. Yet such rejection of sentimentality does not counteract the emotional force of her work, rather, it heightens it. As readers we are intimately acquainted with the loneliness, desires and despair her characters feel. There is Bella, who aids her cousin across the border to an abortion clinic in Mexico, counselling her through it; a young girl who watches, alarmed, as her grandfather performs dental surgery on himself; a listless housewife who solicits a visiting handyman for sex. These stories unfurl in disparate ways, but what remains constant is Berlin’s ability to write about complicated matters with effervescent clarity.

Writing was never a principal source of income for Berlin during her lifetime, in part due to how sporadic a writer she was. Berlin was a long-time sufferer of scoliosis, an alcoholic, and later depended on an oxygen tank when her lung collapsed; she was reliant on the odd-jobs that single-motherhood, addiction and medical bills compelled her to take on. Although tribulation is not by any means necessary for artistic success, Berlin’s own experiences seem to have given her an insight into how to artfully communicate the humdrum of everyday life in small town America, along with all of its messy vicissitudes.


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The women that populate Berlin’s stories are women-like-us. Lydia Davis, a friend of Berlin, notes that “because we have known some part of it, or something like it, we are right there with her as she takes us through it.” In allowing her characters to deviate from social mores, they find agency in adversity. Berlin’s characters are in no way charity cases, nor are they pawns in a grand-standing political credo about domestic womanhood or working class America. This is just life, as is. “So what is marriage anyway? I never figured it out. And now it is death I don’t understand,” one character ruminates.

If Jean Rhys is the master of the sentence, Berlin is surely the master of the closing passage. Sometimes brittle, often cutting, always laced with humour.

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