A Manual For Cleaning Women, a posthumous collection of short stories by Lucia Berlin (1936-2004), is unusually brilliant. Unusual because often the argument for republishing lost female writers is framed within a feminist narrative. The story usually runs as follows: the artistic talent of long dead female writers can only be celebrated now, long after their deaths, because it’s only now that they’re free of the constraints of a sexist publishing industry. In most cases, of course, this isn’t true – the world really doesn’t need another republication of a work that is as mediocre now as it was then. But Berlin’s A Manual For Cleaning Women is different: it contains many undiscovered gems of American storytelling.
Originally published in small magazines and in three separate collections, Berlin was never a writer by trade. Travelling across America and ending up in California, marrying and divorcing three times before she was 32 and raising four sons alone, Berlin’s energetic life flows into her often-agitated stories. Working as a cleaning lady, high-school teacher, switchboard operator, hospital-ward clerk and physician’s assistant, Berlin’s short stories depict the relationship between women’s public working lives and their private existence. Berlin is ‘a subtle observer of class’, as the New York Times put it, but she also refuses to be constrained by politics. She is concerned about the trials and tribulations of her characters. She wants to draw out the humanity of an alcoholic’s battle with a bottle of gin, or a nurse’s struggle with a colostomy bag.
Many of the stories are largely autobiographical – this is perhaps what makes them so gripping. Each short piece reads like a vivid dream, beginning without context, as if the lights have suddenly gone up in the room. Her narratives often lurch across time without explanation, but, as in a dream, it doesn’t seem to matter. The believability of the stories comes from the confidence with which they are told. The reader goes along with the narrator without question, before waking at the end of each story with that dazed feeling you get after sleeping. You have to remind yourself that for the past five minutes you were in another world.
At the same time, Berlin’s stories don’t hold back on the gory details, or skip the mundane processes, of everyday life. The expression of emotion and the depth with which she describes feeling is at times overwhelmingly beautiful. In the final scene of ‘A Love Affair’, in which an affair inevitably goes wrong (though not as you would expect), two characters are crying in an office: ‘Our hands were a warm wet little pile on the ledge.’ Partial to cliffhangers and punchy concluding sentences, Berlin’s writing often leaves the reader sucked of all energy, and amazed at the capability of a five-page short story to prompt such emotional involvement.
Berlin’s characters are so likeable and compelling because they don’t hold back. Remembering Berlin after her death, friend and fellow writer Elizabeth Geoghegan said that, despite Berlin’s chaotic lifestyle and stints in rehab, she remained unbowed: ‘Lucia Berlin was not PC. And she was not New Age.’ This brazen approach to life lasted right up until the point at which she was smoking while living with an oxygen tank. ‘The rush that comes with courting danger is always the last one to go’, Berlin wrote.