January 4: “A Manual for Cleaning Women” by Lucia Berlin

Today’s installment is the title story from Lucia Berlin’s celebrated collection of selected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women. I first saw this book at the Barnes & Noble here in Springfield when I was searching out story collections about a month ago, this blog in mind. I found nine collections faced at the front of the store, Berlin’s one of them. I posted on Facebook about my find—Weren’t the big chain stores supposed to stop facing story collections?—and most everyone who responded singled out A Manual for Cleaning Women as the book I needed to read. Soon, it was on most every top list for 2015, so when I went to B&N the other day, the gift card my mom gave me for Christmas in hand, I walked out with Berlin’s book as my only purchase (Sorry, boys, Grandma Dolly gave you toys. The card is mine.).

I had never read anything by Lucia Berlin, though her name sounded familiar. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know that she’d died, not until I was cramped up on the floor next to the Barnes & Noble Thomas train set, reading while my youngest sent car after car down the hill and off the end of the table (“Train fall down.”). I read the front and back flap for some bio info, then skimmed the intro by the book’s editor, Stephen Emerson. “Overlooked” is the sentiment he uses most often, as does Lydia Davis, in her foreword. I suddenly felt less dopey about not having read her before, but at the same time, sad for her, that the literary fame that escaped her most of her life was happening over a decade after her death. Better late than never? Not for me to judge.

I read a couple of stories at B&N, other people’s children stepping over me like a fallen tree. The first story in the book, “Angel’s Laundromat,” immediately hooked me. Berlin is compared to Carver on the front flap and it’s easy to see why: Lots of short, true sentences, observations from a first-person narrator, Carver’s pragmatic nihilism present and accounted for.  I read another story, and another, and then it was time to go, enough trains sent to their deaths, enough moms glaring at me, wondering why I couldn’t just stand up and wait, like they did, so their kids could play without an enormous bearded obstacle course blocking their paths.

“A Manual for Cleaning Women” is the fourth story in the book, though l before writing this, I read a few more stories, as I couldn’t stop. Firstly, they’re all pretty short—the longest so far is twelve pages—and secondly, they’re all pretty great, different from the previous, but just as true and  intense. The title story is my favorite so far, plus it’s the title story, so here we go.

“A Manual for Cleaning Women” employs of a couple of neat structural choices, such as the use of bus routes, the routes the protagonist takes to her various jobs, moving us to a new house, a new lady, a new anecdote. But along with these tricks, there’s also an interesting point of view happening. The story is written in first person, with the narrator discussing her clients in a very factual way, making it seem, at times, like an omniscient third person. But it’s also a manual, a wink-wink guide for housekeepers, and often, advice comes at the reader in the form of instructions, tidbits like “Take everything your lady gives you and say Thank you!” or “Try to work for Jews or Blacks.” I’m not sure when this story was originally published, if its early spot in the book means that it’s an older story, but it feels like a precursor to Lorrie Moore, Pam Houston, and other writers utilizing the imperative around the time of Berlin’s early books.

One trait of this story that’s present in a lot of Berlin’s stories is how the narrator comes off as the smartest person in the room, or at least the most insightful. The narrator/protagonist of “A Manual for Cleaning Women” cleans houses—no mystery there—and she is clever, instinctive, and judgmental, the story basically a list of all of her clients, their demeanors, their lifestyles, and their faults. She even notes that she’s educated, more than most of her clients, or “ladies,” giving her power over them, even though she dusts their lamps and vacuums their carpets. There’s a reason for this type of perspective to reoccur, and that’s because Berlin herself was an educated woman, a published writer, and worked the very jobs she describes in her stories. These jobs put food on her table, but apparently served as both motivation and inspiration.

This story, and so many of the Lucia Berlin stories I’ve read, gives the impression of an artist just doing what she could do so she could keep being an artist, picking up inspiration as she went. Had Berlin been affluent, this book might be titled A Manual for Society Girls or some thing instead. What we have now is a window, or several windows, into a brilliant, observant mind. Too bad it took so long.

Lucia Berlin