Article Content Warning: minor spoilers
Book Content Warning: sexual assault, substance abuse, gore
Presently, there is no better representation of Lucia Berlin’s (1936-2004) work than A Manual for Cleaning Women, a vibrant (albeit hefty) collection of Berlin’s most notable short stories. The 43-story collection often rings autobiographical—Berlin worked numerous jobs, suffered from alcoholism, and lived in many of the cities found in the book such as El Paso, Santa Fe, and Berkeley—and brims with perceptive observations of working class life.
A whirlwind of memories, characters, and settings, all of which ride on an undercurrent of dark humor, nearly every story in the collection is captivating in its constant motion and minute detail. The collection’s title piece, in particular, centers around a mode of transportation—the bus—and concerns a cleaning woman going through the motions of her work-week as she processes the loss of her late husband. Over the course of her work-week, the cleaning woman encounters a vivid palette of characters and homes, ranging from a psychiatrist couple to an elderly woman suffering from Parkinson’s. The constant activity serves as a reminder that a still, quiet life is an unaffordable luxury for the cleaning woman. However, witnessing families in various domestic settings also activates a string of real and hypothetical memories about how her life used to be and what life could’ve been with her late husband, revealing how movement is not only a means of survival, but also a way for this woman to reckon with her emotions and find solace in what life is now. By being privy to the dynamics of the people whose houses she tidies, she begins to reflect on her relationship in a new light; the externalization of her relationship, which is made possible by the business of her job, helps her examine and move through her grief-stained memories of her partner.
On the flip side, “Phantom Pain” uses moments of stillness to make even the most unassuming actions ring with suspense. The story follows a daughter’s relationship with her father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, a disease that has transformed her father’s warm, adventurous personality into a cold, hostile temperament. One day, while accompanying her father on a nursing home field trip to the local park, the daughter watches as her father’s wheelchair begins to roll away, down a hill. She knows she has complete control over her father’s life, and she chooses to toy with her power. Perhaps she is seeking revenge for having to take care of a father who rarely recognizes her, or perhaps she desires to know what her father’s absence would feel like. Whatever the reason, her hesitation raises the stakes of the story exponentially; on the edge of my seat, I could picture her trying to decide between saving her father and letting him roll away uncontrollably. Beyond suspense, her hesitation makes her final decision to save her father even more meaningful because we understand that she made an intentional choice. Up until this point in the story she was going through the motions of taking care of her father because, well, she felt that she should take care of her father. After the climax, we see how her obligation to look after her father shifts to a more intentional act of compassion. In such a way, Berlin uses action and inaction to generate a pace within the story that is powerful enough to echo in your brain days after you’ve read the last line.
Grounding the waves of motion rippling throughout the collection is Berlin’s attention to detail. Just like getting your shirt caught on the edge of a chain-link fence, a minute detail will snag your attention, and you’ll be forced to confront the silent, often overlooked tragedies that lie under the surface of everyday life for working class women. Frequently, certain details connect one story to the next, generating a rough chronological order within the collection. For instance, Ben, who is only a toddler in “Tiger Bites,” reappears later in the collection as a teenager in “Teenage Punk.”
But despite the powerful, unifying effect of these motifs, the intense subject matter of the stories and the lengthy nature of the 400-page collection position the book to be read in intervals, here and there, like sips of cough medicine, never to be downed all at once. Although A Manual for Cleaning Women is enthralling in its perpetual motion and vibrant details, at times, I found some of the stories’ dark premises to be heavy and dizzying. “Tiger Bites” is one such story revolving around a woman who decides, rather impulsively, to follow her cousin’s advice and get an abortion. She travels by night to an underground abortion clinic just “south of the border… down Mexico way,” but once the nurse registers her and puts her in a room of twenty other women, all quivering with shame, she has a creeping awareness that she doesn’t want to follow through with the procedure. In hindsight, it was invigorating to have been impacted by a story on such a visceral level, but, at that moment, the nauseating descriptions of many young women cramped into a cold room demanded a considerable amount of emotional energy to read.
Despite the intensity of some stories, the build-up of movement and crisp detail is what allows Berlin to delve into the trenches of the rugged realism that marked American working class experiences—specifically those of young girls and women—in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Instead of sitting with their feelings, Berlin’s characters move with their feelings. Movement is a means by which working class women reflect on their relationships, and, as a result, gain agency over their lives as they continue living them. With movement, Berlin brings order, nuance, and a dash of hope to the chaotic and painful experiences that permeated her life and the lives of so many women of her time.
And this constant state of flux isn’t exhausting; rather, it serves as a source of consolation, especially during a time of mass isolation and mental turmoil. These days I feel as though my brain is a pressure cooker and, unless I express myself (go on a bike ride, FaceTime friends, learn a new recipe), I will burst with pent up energy. Because motion is how the women in A Manual for Cleaning Women let off steam and regain their sense of balance, going along for the ride with these characters was incredibly cathartic. During a time when our brains are being polished numb from screens and our bodies are itching to escape the confines of an all too familiar neighborhood, Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women is sure to offer the perfect amount of grit and eccentricity to animate any ordinary afternoon.
Lucia Berlin published 77 short stories during her lifetime, working 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; 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.
A Manual for Cleaning Women can be purchased here.