It’s tricky to look back posthumously at a writer. So many factors—the substance of her fiction, say, or the relationship it bears (or doesn’t) to the details of her life—seem fraught, connected, as if art and reality were mirrors capturing one another in their gaze. This is especially the case with Lucia Berlin.
The author, who died in Marina del Ray in 2004 at the age of 68, remained essentially unknown throughout her lifetime, despite the brilliance of her work. Then, in 2015, her friend and colleague, Stephen Emerson, put together “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” which established her as a contemporary avatar of the form.
Berlin’s short stories are, in a word, revelations: offhand, anecdotal and yet, at the same time, devastating in their ability to pierce the veneer of our expectations, as both readers and human beings. “The world just goes along,” she observes in “Strays.” “Nothing much matters, you know? I mean really matters. But then sometimes, just for a second, you get this grace, this belief that it does matter, a whole lot.”
“A Manual for Cleaning Women” gathered 43 of Berlin’s 76 published stories. Now Emerson has compiled “Evening in Paradise: More Stories,” which collects an additional 22. My only qualm involves the 11 that have been left out. Why not include them? One can never read too much Berlin. Born in 1936, a child of privilege who spent decades battling alcoholism, working in an Oakland emergency room and (yes) as a cleaning woman, her experience is both specific and universal, rife with determination and with loss.
“This would never happen to her again,” she writes in “Andado,” describing the seduction of an adolescent by an associate of her father’s. “When she grew older, she would always be in control, even when being submissive.” The setting is Chile in the 1950s, but it could be any place at any time. The ambiguity, on the other hand—the inverting of fortitude and degradation—is all Berlin. Throughout her work, we confront such dynamic, people trying to survive treacherous situations, or not trying but doing it anyway. “Ruined? Am I ruined?” her character later wonders. “For such a quick confusing moment? Will everybody know, looking at me?” That the question has no answer is the point.
Berlin, after all, was an autobiographical writer—or perhaps it is more accurate to say she blurred the lines. Her stories often stop and start, meander or appear to lose their focus, but that is only because they are open-ended, installments in the ongoing drama of a life. Throughout “Evening in Paradise,” much like “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” we circle back, meet and re-meet individuals, relive dramas and certain circumstances. The effect is less as if we are in the territory of fiction than in the fluid landscape of memory itself.
Emerson complicates this in the new collection, not least in how the stories are arranged. If “A Manual for Cleaning Women” felt intuitive in its structure, “Evening in Paradise” is more linear. The first stories return to Berlin’s childhood in El Paso, where she and her mother and sister lived with her grandparents during World War II. “Every night they burned at the smelter. …” she remembers in “Sometimes in Summer.” “It was quite lovely really, the billows and undulations in the sky, but it would sting our eyes and the smell of sulfur was so strong we would even gag.”
There it is again, that bleeding through, leading to an unexpected grace. Berlin, however, never deludes herself that such transcendence is anything but temporary. “The fear and the desolation felt familiar to her, like coming home. Ashes,” she ends “La Barca de la Illusion,” which grows out of the details of her married life in Mexico in the 1960s, with a junkie husband and three young kids. Those closing lines resonate like a curtain being drawn across the world.
“La Barca de la Illusion” also shows up in “Welcome Home: A Memoir with Selected Photographs and Letters,” an unfinished work of nonfiction released in conjunction with “Evening in Paradise.” It’s a minor effort, although I’m not unhappy to have it for its occasional gems of insight (“I learned fear here,” Berlin recalls of one home in Albuquerque, shared with that same husband. “My fear of the drug dealers, my fear of the drug, their fear of the narcs, one another, of not having a fix”) as well as the context it suggests.
At the same time, I find myself resisting just a little, or maybe it’s that the stories are all we really need. Berlin was an artist, and the art she made has deep roots in her existence. And yet, it is the former—the mercy of it—that lingers with us now. Transcendence may not last, she admits, but just try living without its consolations. Or, as Berlin writes in the magnificent “Sombra”: “What a glorious, dazzling confusion.” She is describing the tumult of a bullfight, but it might as well be that of life.
Notable short story collections
- “Your Duck is My Duck,” by Deborah Eisenberg (2018): Eisenberg is among our most acute social observers, and her stories exist in the middle ground where language confounds us, or at least complicates our emotions and desires. This collection features six stories of love and loss and missed connections among people adrift in a world that beguiles them more often than safety or any kind of certainty.
- “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” by Denis Johnson (2018): Like Berlin, Johnson finds transcendence in the most unexpected situations, and in this, his final collection, he moves from the San Diego suburbs to a cut-rate rehab facility to a university writing program to trace the various ways we seek (or fail to) meaning in the chaos of our lives.
- “The Collected Stories,” by Grace Paley (1994): In this book, which gathers 45 stories from three previous collections, we see the arc of a career in which the lives of women are central and essential, and domesticity is often just another battleground.
- Lucia Berlin
- 256 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26
- Lucia Berlin
- 160 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25