“Yours looks like an ad for American Apparel.”
I’m Whatsapping my friend Ulises in Oakland. We’re comparing covers of our editions of the 2015 posthumous collection of Lucia Berlin’s short stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women. He’s not wrong. On the cover of my copy, Berlin’s portrait is almost offputtingly stylish. She gazes dreamily into the distance. Her lipstick and earrings are picked up and highlighted by the rose and cerulean of the title font.
In 2018, Picador published Welcome Home, a “portrait” of Berlin comprised of letters, photos and memoir fragments. In a 1960 letter to the poet Edward Dorn, Berlin relays the advice of her agent during painful literary negotiations: “Forget it, sign—put your face on the book jacket and you’ll sell a million copies.”
Publishers today know what they are doing when they paper Berlin’s stories with these radiant portraits, photographs taken by her former husband, the jazz musician and entrepreneur Buddy Berlin.
During the aforementioned 1960 literary negotiations, Berlin herself was so miserable with the “mercantile ring” of her contract, in particular the fact of being paid for a novel she had not yet written, that she ended up calling it off, explaining that “Nothing ever has hit me quite so hard, morally.”
This moral interpretation of the work of selling her writing is of a peculiar yet utterly characteristic bent. In the title story of A Manual, the narrator explains:
Cleaning women do steal. Not the things people we work for are so nervous about. [ … ] We don’t want the change in the little ashtrays.
Some lady at a bridge party somewhere started the rumor that to test the honesty of a cleaning woman you leave little rosebud ashtrays around with loose change in them, here and there. My solution to this is to always add a few pennies, even a dime.
As a writer, you could say that Berlin goes around adding pennies and dimes to our readerly ashtrays.
Despite this spirit of generosity, she is a long way from having anything like a pollyannaish literary disposition. Her cleaning woman, for instance, goes on to explain that there is indeed theft; just not of what we would expect: “All I really steal is sleeping pills, saving up for a rainy day. Today I stole a bottle of Spice Islands sesame seeds.”
Living in New York city in 1959, Berlin wrote to Dorn that “the wariness is only thing that bugs me [sic] – count your change – everyone does that in every way […] It’s so much more (positive) to accept or reject all the way, even if you’re wrong.” In A Manual, the cleaning women are given advice that captures Berlin’s own elegance and exuberance: “Take everything that your lady gives you and say Thank you. You can leave it on the bus, in the crack.”
Berlin moved around a lot. Apart from New York City, she lived in Chile, Mexico and Oakland; Arizona, Idaho and Texas. She worked at different times as a teacher, a cleaning woman and an associate professor; in an emergency room and as a telephone switchboard operator. In her writing, she takes these places and jobs and says, Thank you. She does not count her change. They form the sets and circumstances of surprising, touching, often dark, and always wittily observed encounters. There is no place for meanness or pettiness in Berlin’s world.
In 1960, she wrote: “I could have been a writer, but it would have been too hard to care more about what I saw and how I said it, than what I felt, what I was.” The stories she would go on to write were hard-won distillations and transformations of experience, unflinching and exalting, careful and generous. However, while it is clear that publishers know what they’re doing with editorial manoeuvres such as the foregrounding of Berlin’s face for the covers of A Manual for Cleaning Women and last year’s Welcome Home, the motivation and justification for publishing a fresh selection of Berlin stories last year is a little less transparent.
The book jacket of Evening in Paradise: More Stories assures us that the collection is “a careful selection from Lucia Berlin’s remaining stories – a jewel-box follow-up for her hungry fans”. While “hungry fans” there may be, the expression would be better suited to viewers of some unfortunate, never-ending Netflix saga. In the context of the work of a deceased writer whose best stories were gathered and published ten years after her death, the vocabulary rings a little false. Ought we really to trawl through every remaining story to cobble together a “new” literary product to satisfy such a perceived demand? The notion of a “follow-up” to A Manual for Cleaning Women is a suspect one, bordering on the absurd.
If we were actually dealing with a “jewel box”, the book jacket’s jarring phrasing could be more easily forgiven. However, the stories in Evening in Paradise do not come close to approaching the literary quality of those compiled in A Manual for Cleaning Women. While to go so far as to say that they should not have been published would constitute an excessively precious safeguarding of Berlin’s literary legacy, the claim that they are a “carefully selected” “follow-up” is an extremely audacious one.
The stories occupy a peculiar textual position in relation to both the 2015 story collection and to the biographical documents assembled in Welcome Home. Indeed, certain stories in Evening in Paradise read like less well-developed renderings of episodes which had already appeared in A Manual.
This is the case, for instance, with ‘The Musical Vanity Boxes’; arguably a more haphazard and dialogue-laden version of a story that was published in A Manual as ‘Silence’. By comparison, ‘The Musical Vanity Boxes’ is roughly hewn. The prose is unmeasured and the story remains fixed on the anecdotal unraveling of the young girls’ experiences selling musical vanity boxes. In contrast, ‘Silence’ leans effectively on the weight of the narrator’s loneliness, fleshing out more fully her relationships with her family, and the “Syrians and Uncle John”.
‘The Musical Vanity Boxes’ ends with a strange scene of redemption involving the narrator’s grandmother – “Custard melted like a communion wafer in my mouth. The blood of her forgiving love I drank while she stood there, praying in a pink angel gown, at the foot of my bed.” Here the twist of the syntax is distracting and practically immature in its faux-religious solemnity – it is hard not to mentally wish for a (marginally less) pompous “I drank the blood of her forgiving love.”
The more capacious ‘Silence’ had absorbed into its narrative an incident where Uncle John runs over a collie and doesn’t stop the car. The custard and cocoa ceremony are replaced with the narrator’s reuniting years later with Uncle John, the story meandering to a deftly heartbreaking conclusion that exemplifies Berlin’s writing at its best: “Neither of us ever mentioned El Paso. Of course by this time I had realized all the reasons why he couldn’t stop the truck, because by this time I was an alcoholic.”
It may well be a pointless critical exercise to attempt to establish the order in which these stories were written and their relationship to each other. However, it is hard not to draw conclusions from the narrator’s formerly opaque pronouncement in ‘Silence’ that “I have told you about Sammy and the cards”, and perhaps equally hard not to wonder whether it might have been better if the first rendition of Sammy and the cards had indeed remained an enigma.
If, similarly, Evening in Paradise’s ‘Noel. Texas. 1956’ reads like a preparatory sketch for A Manual for Cleaning Women’s ‘Tiger Bites’, other stories in the new collection form more complementary reference points to stories from A Manual.
‘Noël, 1974’, for instance, resonates as a prelude of sorts to the events related in A Manual’s ‘Let Me See You Smile’. While the latter story, told from the perspective of an attorney assisting the central couple, describes the pair in love “bumping gently into each other” throughout a troublesome court case, the former’s first-person narrative outlines the relationship’s pre-history. There is a distinct lack of romantic tension throughout the description of the unconventional household of ‘Noël, 1974’, but by the end such tension gloriously, vertically, emerges to cut through the chaos, with the love affair gently implied by the story’s cinematic closing greeting, “Hello, Maggie.”
The stories in Evening in Paradise occupy an equally close textual relationship to the autobiographical material outlined in Welcome Home, translating immediately recognisable personal anecdotes into literary material. For instance, the moment in ‘Lead Street, Albuquerque’ where the sculptor unexpectedly returns home to find the wife he had so carefully moulded into his preferred image embroiled in a scene of domestic disarray is practically lifted from Welcome Home’s description of the disintegration of Berlin’s first marriage. While Evening in Paradise’s story is relayed from the perspective of a neighbour, the details of the relationship described nonetheless mirror those of Berlin’s summary of her own marriage, down to the most specific unpleasant details: “He made her sleep on her stomach, nose flat against the pillow; her turned-up nose was a slight imperfection.” The story provides an occasion for Berlin to do some imaginative rectifying of her own; if in Welcome Home she is bleakly aware that “He [Paul] didn’t think it was funny at all”, in ‘Lead Street, Albuquerque’ the narrator is given the opportunity to infuse this humour into the “scene soggy with anger”: “Hey, you guys . . . excuse me for butting in, but, please, don’t get upset. This is funny. Someday you’ll look back and it will seem very funny.”
Of course, the blending of details from her own life with those of her characters is an important aspect of Berlin’s work. In her foreword to A Manual, Lydia Davis notes that:
Although people talk, as though it were a new thing, about the form of fiction known in France as auto-fiction (“self-fiction”), the narration of one’s own life, lifted almost unchanged from the reality, selected and judiciously, artfully told, Lucia Berlin has been doing this, or a version of this, as far as I can see, from the beginning, back in the 1960s.
Berlin’s writing can be understood to participate in the same irreverent, ludic attitude towards autobiographical material as Marguerite Duras in The Lover, exemplified by Duras’ explicit, offhand narrative tinkering: “This particular day I must be wearing the famous pair of gold lamé high heels. I can’t see any others I could have been wearing, so I’m wearing them”.
The precepts of such auto-fiction pose a challenge to the empirically-minded reader in search of historically verifiable narrative and experientially “truthful” truth. However, appearing as they have in the same year (2018), it is interesting to trace the overlaps between the two texts, and to consider the ways in which episodes related in Welcome Home are worked through in those “remaining stories” now cobbled together for Evening in Paradise. If the “new” stories do not always feel entirely polished, they can be seen to combine elements of the type of interest particular to the forms of the memoir and of the short story collection respectively, allowing us to appreciate the motions of a literary mind bumping up against its raw material.
Certain stories in Evening in Paradise, such as ‘Andado: A Gothic Romance’ and ‘The Wives’, are wildly, childishly experimental, providing fascinating examples of an unabashedly playful approach to genre. In the “Gothic Romance”, an unchaperoned trip to a luxurious estate in Chile involves the narrator’s deflowering by the dastardly “Don Andrés”, a carriage collapsing into a river, and a servant girl’s affair with the socialist son of the lord of the manor.
If ‘Andado’ announces its flirtation with the gothic romance in its subtitle, ‘The Wives’ signals its generic affiliations through its first sentence: “Anytime Laura thought about Decca, she saw her as if in a stage set.” The two women, bound by their drinking and their shared former husband, are cast in the reader’s imagination for the rest of the story as if in a set piece; we feel as if we are at the theatre:
If Decca was always set onstage, in that great chair, her hair in the lamplight shining, Laura was particularly good at entrances. She stands, elegant and casual in the doorway, wearing a floor-length Italian suede coat.
While ‘Andado’ explicitly announces itself as a “romance”, it is much harder to resist melting into the romance of ‘The Wives’, and the prosaic mirth of the two women’s eventual, drunken stumbling into bed together.
‘Macadam’ was the story in A Manual which had most moved into the realm of prose poetry, through its remarkable rhythmic energy and Berlin’s onomatopoeic delectation in the sounds heard by a little girl watching a foreman and convicts stomping down macadam outside her house. While we learn that the macadam is seen by the girl’s mother and grandmother to lend a touch of gravitas to the shabby street, and to provide a solution to the problem of Red Texan dust blowing into the house, “sifting into dunes on the polished hall floor”, the emotional resonance attached to the tarmac is that of a child feeling the words they hear repeated around them. Its poetic qualities are rendered with magically alive intensity: “When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice. [ … ] I used to say macadam out loud, to myself, because it sounded like the name for a friend.”
In Evening in Paradise, ‘The Pony Bar, Oakland’ operates on a similarly poetic scale, sharing a similar pleasure in the aural, in the “certain perfect particular sounds” of “[a] tennis ball, a golf ball hit just right. A fly ball in a leather glove. Lingering thud of a knockout.” While we might cringe at the baldly-stated declaration of the “eroticism” of pool, the second paragraph is a fine example of Berlin’s passion for the deictic, presenting the jigsaw pieces of a scene with minimal mediation: “Cricket in Santiago. Red parasols, green grass, white Andes. Red-and-white-striped canvas chairs at the Prince of Wales country club.”
The scene’s transition to the Pony Bar in Oakland, an echo to the dizzily perfect sounds of the tennis court or the country club in Santiago, feels like the “response” that follows the volta of a sonnet:
At the Pony Bar I remembered feeling as alien on the green grass as I did on the bar stool next to the biker. He had hinges tattooed on his wrists, at the bend of his elbow, behind his knees.
“You need a hinge on your neck,” I said.
“You need a screw up your ass.”
The effect hinges on the ambiguity of the “screw”; on the hinge in the story, on the abrupt shift of location that allows the narrator to confess feeling “alien”, whether in the country club or next to a biker in a bar in Oakland. In comparison with ‘Macadam’, however, the loneliness is more flatly stated; the apertures for readerly conjecture and imagining are significantly restricted.
Overall, it is hard to shake an awareness of how much the stories in Evening in Paradise fall short of the standard of A Manual for Cleaning Women. However, while it may be true that the idea that we are being treated to a “carefully selected jewel box” feels like an unsubstantiated publisher’s claim, on the other hand, there is no denying that for anyone interested in the mind and writing of Lucia Berlin, the new stories constitute a curious and exciting textual middle-ground between the 2015 story collection and the 2018 memoir-project.