Friday, 24 June 2016

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

Reading this book feels like a strangely intimate act. The title is strangely apt in how it relates to this, where the reader is invited in to see someone's life on a material level, touch their things, see their surroundings, but with distance. You're not a friend, and these stories aren't for you. They exist, simply and sometimes harshly, resisting easy pulls of lessons or development. 

It's that combination of intimacy and distance that makes reading this collection so striking. That, and that so many of the stories feel autobiographical - written in such a way that makes them fiction, but there feels like a core of her own story, motifs we see echoed over and over and over, parts of a personal saga that crop up again and again. (And when you read her biographical sketch at the end, the feeling of personal story is in no way abated.)

The stories that hit me hardest were the ones Berlin wrote about drinking. They're not sentimental, certainly not flowery or romantic. They're so practical about moving from drink to drink, the planning that goes into staying drunk enough to ward off the shakes, how her children feel about it, the deliberate calculations of the alcoholic. 

Other recurring stories are of her sister dying slowly of cancer in Mexico City, of working in a doctor's office or emergency room, as a cleaning lady, failed marriages, her children. I can't say you get to know any of her children as individuals, and only barely more her husbands. The sister comes through clearly, though, the time spent there one of limbo, the kind of waiting that lets you get to know a person more intimately. 

There isn't a real narrative sense to these stories. They're sketches of life at a certain time and certain place and while things change between stories, not a lot changes within them. Even when events occur, there is little sense that who the characters fundamentally are has changed, nor that they've decided to adjust how they approach their lives. As mentioned before, this is aided by the planned limbo of alcohol.

The combination of autobiography with really smashing prose lifts this into fiction. It's hard to put an exact finger on what makes this writing so powerful, but a good deal of it has to do with the matter-of-factness of what she writes. There aren't bids for sympathy, or pity, no promises of lessons learned or tables turned. There is just what there is, sometimes starkly, sometimes with moment of impossible connection.

The connection of these stories with working life, the kinds of jobs available for women,caretaking when she can barely take care of herself, are striking. Even when she is sober, there are still the caretaking jobs - cleaning, taking care of her children, her sister. Even when the stories take place in the extremity of alcoholism, even if she's not doing a great job of taking care of people, there is still that looming responsibility. These are the roles she's performing or not performing. They are almost inescapable.

It's not a theme in the sense that it's foregrounded, but the more I think about these stories, the more it is apparent how her drinking is gendered and ungendered, depending, but her work is always strongly connected to societal spaces that are created for women. 


  1. I was pleased to read your review of this book; glad that you had experienced these stories and also glad that your thoughts were similar to mine. It's not necessary for me to find confirmation in a review but it's nice to know someone has thought about a book deeply, enough to write such a thoughtful review. So thanks.
    These stories had a strong effect on me, almost like when I had first read Raymond Carver. They have a harshness, take-no-prisoners kind of attitude that is striking. And of course, autobiographical enough that it made me investigate her interesting and dangerous life. I agree that many of the stories are driven by drinking. It is not a pretty picture; waiting for the liquor store to open with a bunch of other drunks is heartbreaking, although the writer never presents it that way. It's just life. The stories are also strangely driven by her beauty, which seemed to open doors for her and also close them. The author herself had some Hollywood years with famous directors and stars, I think she was smart and seductive and could turn on the charm, as she does in a few of the stories (Sorry, I gave my copy away so I'm working from memory). I also got the feeling that the character (and writer) was slumming in many of these stories. She become a cleaning woman, not b/c she she needed to but b/c she wanted to. She seemed to purposely be punishing herself, to reject the status quo, in order to what? Maybe become a real writer. I wondered which came first, the drinking or the slumming. Either way, the character was sunk and the reader is sunk with her. These stories are definitely worth reading, although I would have liked them better spaced out in magazines rather than read one right after the other. I don't think they were meant to be read as a block. I heard that the author spent her last years teaching writing, up in Oregon maybe?, that made happy she had students and fans and a somewhat easier life. So the stories had enough of an impact on me that I wanted things to work out, for the characters, for the author, for her children, for everyone. Not too much to want! Thanks, Bella

    1. That's an interesting idea, that the stories might be best spaced out. I think I might agree, although I did enjoy reading this!