A review of Lucia Berlin’s excellent short story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women


The 43 stories that comprise Lucia Berlin’s excellent collection A Manual for Cleaning Women braid together to reveal a rich, dirty, sad, joyous world—a world of emergency rooms and laundromats, fancy hotels and detox centers, jails and Catholic schools. Berlin’s stories jaunt through space and time: rough mining towns in Idaho; country clubs and cotillions in Santiago, Chile; heartbreak in New Mexico and New York; weirdness in Oakland and Berkeley; weirdness in Juarez and El Paso.

The center of this world—I’ll call it the Berlinverse, okay?—the center of the Berlinverse is Lucia Berlin herself. “Her life was rich and full of incident, and the material she took from it for her stories was colorful, dramatic and wide-ranging,” writes Lydia Davis in her foreword to Manual. (You can read Davis’s foreword at The New Yorker; it’s a far more convincing case for Berlin than I can manage here). Yes, Berlin’s life was crammed with incident—-so perhaps the strangest moment in A Manual for Cleaning Women is the three-page biography that appends the volume. The bio is strange in how un-strange it is, how it neatly lays out in a few paragraphs the information of Berlin’s life, information we already know as real, as true, from reading the preceding stories. She’s large, she contains multitudes.

Truth is a central theme in these stories. In “Here It Is Saturday,” a version of Berlin teaches fiction writing to prison inmates. She tells them, “you can lie and still tell the truth.” (As I describe the scenario for “Here It Is Saturday” I realize how hokey it sounds—I suppose there are lots of potentially-hokey moments in Berlin’s stories, yet her cruelty and humor deflate them).

In a crucial moment in the late short story “Silence,” the narrator tells us,

I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don’t actually ever lie.

The narrator of “Silence” is, of course, a version of Berlin—fictionalized, sure, a persona, yep, an exaggeration, maybe—but she’s utterly believable.

“Silence” is one of many stories that repeat aspects of Berlin’s biography—we get little Lu’s childhood, a father away at the big war, a drunkenly absent mother, a bad drunk grandfather. A Syrian friend betrayed. Nuns. A good drunk uncle. A hit and run. Am I rushing through it? Sorry. To read Berlin is to read this material again and again, in different ways, through different perspectives and filters. “Silence” is particularly interesting to me because it combines material from two earlier stories not collected in Manual: “Stars and Saints” and “The Musical Vanity Boxes,” both published in Black Sparrow Press’s 1990 collection Homesick. These earlier stories are sharper, rawer, and dirtier; the later story—and Berlin’s later stories in general—strike me as more refined. Wiser, perhaps, sussing grace from abject memory.

Berlin’s recollections of the different figures in her life drive these stories, and it’s fascinating to see how key memories erupt into different tales. Berlin’s narrator’s alcoholic grandfather, a famous Texan dentist, sometimes emerges as a sympathetic if grotesque comedic figure, only to appear elsewhere as an abusive monster. Cousin Bella Lynn is a comedic foil in “Sex Appeal,” but an important confidante in “Tiger Bites” (a story of a visit to an abortion provider in Juarez). Several stories center on sister Sally, dying of cancer.

Berlin’s narrator’s four sons (Berlin had four sons) are often in the margins of the stories, but when she mines material from them the results are painful and superb. I note “her sons” in the previous line, but what I really want to note is the friend of one of her sons, a boy she calls Jesse. He shows up in the short “Teenage Punk,” where he’s our narrator’s date to go look at some cranes in a ditch at sunrise. That’s pure Lucia Berlin—weird abject unnatural natural beauty.:

We crossed the log above the slow dark irrigation ditch, over to the clear ditch where we lay on our stomachs, silent as guerrillas. I know, I romanticize everything. It is true though that we lay there freezing for a long time in the fog. It wasn’t fog. Must have been mist from the ditch or maybe just the steam from our mouths.

That brief paragraph showcases much of her technique: Inflation-deflation-resolution-hesitation. The high, low, the in-between. Jesse shows up again in one of the volume’s lengthier (and more painful) tales, “Let Me See You Smile,” a story of police brutality, scandal, and alcoholism.

Most of the stories in Manual are in some way about alcoholism, with the ur-narrator’s mother’s alcoholism haunting the book. In the near-elegy “Panteón de Dolores,” the narrator finds her mother drunk and weeping. When she tries to comfort her mother, she’s rejected; the mother wails, “…the only romance in my life is a midget lamp salesman!” The narrator-daughter reflects, “this sounds funny now, but it wasn’t then when she was sobbing, sobbing, as if her heart would break.” Berlin often punctures her punchlines. In “Mama,” Berlin consoles her dying sister Sally by weaving a fictional ditty about their mother, a paragraph that ends, “She has never before known such happiness.” The story assuages some of her sister’s grief by transmuting it into a realization of love, but the narrator? — “Me…I have no mercy.”

And yet a search for some kind of mercy, some kind of grace propels so many of the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women. The three-pager “Step,” set in a half-way house, details the residents watching a boxing match between Wilfred Benitez and Sugar Ray Leonard. The recovering (and not-so-recovering) drunks “weren’t asking Benitez to win, just to stay in the fight.” He stays in to the last round before touching his right knee to the canvas. Berlin’s stand-in whispers, “God, please help me.” In “Unmanageable,” the alcoholic narrator finds some measure of grace from others. First from the NyQuil-swilling drunks who share saltine crackers with her in a kind of communion as they wait, shaking, for the liquor store to open at six a.m. And then, from her children. Her oldest son hides her car keys from her.

The same sons are on the narrator’s mind at the end of “Her First Detox,” in which Berlin’s stand-in’s plan for the future takes the form of a shopping list. She’ll cook for her boys when she gets home:

Flour. Milk. Ajax. She only had wine vinegar at home, which, with Antabuse, could throw her into convulsions. She wrote cider vinegar on the list.

Berlin’s various viewpoint characters don’t always do the best job of taking care of themselves, but taking care of other people is nevertheless a preoccupation with the tales in Manual. “Lu” takes care of her dying father in “Phantom Pain”; there’s sick sister Sally; the four sons, of course; a heroin-addicted husband; assorted strays, sure; an old couple in failing health in “Friends”; and the disparate patients who wander in and out of these tales, into doctor’s offices, into emergency rooms, into detox clinics.

And the cleaning women. Caretakers too, of a sort. Laundromats and washing machines are motifs throughout A Manual for Cleaning Women, and it’s no surprise that “Ajax” made the shopping list from “Her First Detox” that I quoted above. An easy point of comparison for Berlin’s writing is the so-called “dirty realism” of Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, and Carson McCullers. But if Berlin’s realism is dirty, what are we to make of her concern with cleaning, with detox?

As a way of (non-)answering this question, here’s the entirety of the shortest tale in A Manual for Cleaning Women, “Macadam”:

When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice.

I’d chew ice when the lemonade was finished, swaying with my grandmother on the porch swing. We gazed down upon the chain gang paving Upson Street. A foreman poured the macadam; the convicts stomped it down with a heavy rhythmic beat. The chains rang; the macadam made the sound of applause.

The three of us said the word often. My mother because she hated where we lived, in squalor, and at least now we would have a macadam street. My grandmother just so wanted things clean — it would hold down the dust. Red Texan dust that blew in with gray tailings from the smelter, sifting into dunes on the polished hall floor, onto her mahogany table.

I used to say macadam out loud, to myself, because it sounded like the name for a friend.

There’s so much in those four paragraphs. Berlin collapses geography and genealogy into ten sentences: daughter, mother, grandmother. Texas, “squalor,” convicts. A road—a new road. Berlin’s narrator converts crushed stone into caviar, then the ice left over after sweet lemonade—and then into the magic of a friend. There’s a lot of beauty in dirt.

I could go on and on about A Manual for Cleaning Women—about how its loose, sharp tales are far more precise than their jagged edges suggest, about its warmth, its depth, its shocking humor, its sadness, its insight. But all I really mean to say is: It’s great, it’s real, it’s true—read it.

A Manual for Cleaning Women is new in trade paperback from Picador. You can read the first story in the collection, “Angel’s Laundromat,” at Picador’s website.



Is American Psycho Profound, Artistic Nihilism or Stupid, Shallow Nihilism? — Bret Easton Ellis vs David Foster Wallace

Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial novel American Psycho turns 20 this year. The folks at Vintage were kind enough to send me a copy of the book to promote the anniversary, and despite a mounding stack of review copies, I took a few hours to re-read parts of Ellis’s third novel.

I’ve only read two Ellis books and I remember the reading of them distinctly, precisely; I remember how I picked them up and where I was and what I was doing and all that jazz. The first was Ellis’s début Less Than Zero, a slim, ugly little novel that I read in one night. I was fifteen, spending a summer with my aunt and uncle, living in my cousin’s old bedroom. Less Than Zero was part of a cache of books that included Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Anthony Scaduto’s Bob Dylan biography, some Hemingway and Fitzgerald novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and a Kurt Vonnegut starter kit. In short, a life changing library, and most of it went home with me in my Jansport (somewhat surreptitiously, although I’m sure if I had asked I would have received). Only I didn’t take Less Than Zero, despite reading it all in one sick night, and then reading it again in pieces over the summer. The book hurt my stomach. The drugs were not the Looney Tunes business in HST’s book—they were the symptom of a blank nihilism I simply couldn’t identify with. The scene where the kids casually watch a snuff film horrified me. And the rape scene. Well. It was the first time I read something that genuinely disturbed me in a non-child, non-Grimm’s way — in a way where I felt moral outrage from an adult-psyche-type-position (whatever that means). The book genuinely concerned me; I was afraid such people existed.

I read American Psycho in 2002. I was traveling through Thailand for a month, trading books at guest houses and shops as I went, and the only book I remember being more ubiquitous than American Psycho was Alex Garland’s The Beach (which, yes, I also read there). I had seen and quite enjoyed Mary Harron’s 2000 film adaptation of American Psycho, which had the good sense to treat the whole matter as a piece of cartoonish black comedy. In Harron’s hands, the hyperbolic exploits of Patrick Bateman are considerably less ambiguous than the book’s depiction; Harron  clearly marks the narrative violence as Bateman’s internal fantasies. Of course, one of literature’s greatest tools is ambiguity, and Ellis’s American Psycho revels in it. In a sense, this is the book’s defining nihilism: its total unwillingness to make a definitive judgment about its protagonist’s violence. Instead, American Psycho’s claims to satire rely on the implicit force of the reader’s sense of humanity and morality; like Less Than Zero before it, we have a flat narrative, an utter lack of self-reflection or internal psychology. Ellis gives us only concrete contours, cocaine, hydrochloric acid, chainsaws, and a laundry list of brand names. These are novels without interiors.

American Psycho, utterly concrete, deeply ironic, and occasionally funny, is a strange beach read, but a beach read nonetheless (although all that gristle and blood (and oh the rat!) won’t go down easy for many folks). When I read it in 2002 I found it neither shocking or enlightening, just precise and ugly and grotesque, a numbing progression of concrete descriptions of clothes and restaurants punctuated by ridiculous violence. Its one-note satire would find a better home in a short story. A short short story. I’ve spent the past few days reading through its sections again, trying to reassess it against the backdrop of my current literary estimations of Bret Easton Ellis, which I hate to admit are largely informed not only by his own acerbic personality, but also by (or perhaps more accurately against) his agon with David Foster Wallace.

BEE vs. DFW is not exactly news. Ellis (b. 1964) and Wallace (b. 1962) both published their first novels in the mid-eighties. Less Than Zero made 21-year-old Ellis a star, a likely “voice of his generation.” The Broom of the System didn’t exactly go gangbusters for Wallace, but its voluminous scope, Pynchonian silliness, and its willingness to pick up the postmodern games that Ellis and the other new minimalists seemed to reject announced a major new talent who was willing to both think and feel—to go beyond the surfaces. Indeed, Wallace’s entire project might be defined as setting himself apart from the cool, detached irony that characterizes Ellis’s ethos. In a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery,Wallace decries fiction that devotes
“a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them. You can see this clearly in something like Ellis’s American Psycho: it panders shamelessly to the audience’s sadism for a while, but by the end it’s clear that the sadism’s real object is the reader herself.” I think this is an apt criticism. American Psycho is torture porn encased in a thin veneer of social satire with no interior substance. Here’s Wallace at length—

 I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.

Four years before the interview—and two years before the publication of American Psycho—Wallace mocked Ellis’s void, vacuous characters in “Girl with Curious Hair,” a story about a yuppie on LSD at a Keith Jarrett concert.  With no affective life, Sick Puppy (as his low life punk rock friends call him) feels nothing. He cannot enjoy his wealth, his position—not even his acid trip. He can’t even enjoy sex unless he can burn his partner as he’s being fellated. As Marshall Boswell points out in his study Understanding David Foster Wallace, “the story eerily forecasts . . . American Psycho . . . in a grisly and hilarious pastiche of Ellis’ preposterously benumbed prose.”

Perhaps Wallace’s greatest critique of nihilism — greatest in that it escapes the confines of Ellis and his ilk’s literary purview — is Don Gately, erstwhile hero of Infinite Jest, a recovering Demerol addict and small time thief whose painful day-to-day existence figures as the existential struggle against bleak, overwhelming nothingness. Gately is the heart and spirit of IJ, a big sad throbbing heart that, to quote Wallace out of context (from above), is the writer’s way “to depict this [dark] world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”

Ellis perhaps perceives a character like Gately and his illuminating possibilities as simply too affected. Last summer, at a reading in Hackney, England, Easton offered the following—

Question: David Foster Wallace – as an American writer, what is your opinion now that he has died?

Answer: Is it too soon? It’s too soon right? Well I don’t rate him. The journalism is pedestrian, the stories scattered and full of that Midwestern faux-sentimentality, and Infinite Jest is unreadable. His life story and his battle with depression however is really quite touching . . .

Then there was this cryptic tweet a few months ago—

I’m not sure what Ellis’s tweet meant, and attendees of the Hackney reading claim that he was more considered and measured in his tone than the actual words of his response seem to entail. His end of the agon with Wallace is also rife with its own set of problems—his contemporary is dead, horribly dead, a suicide, (the kind of death that makes an essay like this one, an essay that claims to find affirmation of life in DFW and empty nihilism BEE, particularly hard to swallow, I suppose)—making it all the harder to respond. I read his “too soon” remark from the Hackney reading to be in earnest.

But Ellis’s tweets are not part of his literary corpus (even though they can be entertaining), and Wallace’s suicide is not part of his text. So, I return to those texts—

Wallace’s last effort, The Pale King, contrasts strongly with American Psycho. Wallace’s novel is fractured, heteroglossic, crammed with ideas, and at times purposefully taxing on its reader’s attention. American Psycho is concise (even if its plot is messy and episodic), imagistic, lacks even the pretense of allowing a controlling voice other than Bateman’s into the narrative, and, in its fetishistic, sexualized violence, is a work designed to lock its reader’s attention in a sensationalized vice grip. It’s id-bait par excellence, seductive and stylish. Its greatest achievement may be to fool some readers into believing that its violence is simply part and parcel of its intention of being a scathing satire. The book then relies heavily — too heavily — on an exterior morality system to weigh its flat, static characters, characters who face incredible trauma and yet never process it (or even attempt to process it). And I am not just speaking of Bateman. Consider the dry cleaner who repeatedly removes bloodstains, or the maid  who mops up brain bits without a single question. Then there are the faceless, indistinguishable alpha males who populate Bateman’s yuppie corporate world, and their requisite fiancées and mistresses, weak watery women the narrative repeatedly condemns. These characters lack meaning or depth; they are essentially probable replicants of Bateman, the implication being that psychopathic tendencies lurk everywhere, that the modern condition preempts empathy or human understanding or plain old common decency. The savvy reader is supposed to admire Ellis’s satire of capitalist vacuity, and admittedly, there are some very funny riffs (Bateman’s bits on popular music like Huey Lewis and the News and Whitney Houston, replicated in the film version, still hold up well). But I think Wallace is correct when he asserts that the real violence is ultimately inflicted on the reader. Ellis’s violence is not the same as Flannery O’Connor’s, who used the shock of murder in her stories to explore the possibility of awe, transcendence, and revelation in a desacralized world. Wallace’s The Pale King tries to sanctify the costs of life (death and taxes and the deep existential crisis these costs entail) in a world that has largely abandoned the sacred, in a society where many people are incapable or unwilling to think empathetically about their relation to (via taxes and social institutions) other humans whom they do not personally know. Ellis’s American Psycho is a cartoonish, lopsided distortion of a descralized world. Its affective power is purely externalized, generated from the reader’s moral core. It replaces feeling with violence; it replaces ideas with the illusion of ideas. Its closest claim to art is its satirical power, which is ultimately puddle-shallow (did we really need Ellis to tell us that yuppies are uncaring, shallow and materialistic?) Writers need not be morally instructive, but good books are guided by a vision. Ellis’s vision is pure, bleak nihilism, abyssal and unreflecting, asking little from its reader other than to play voyeur to murder and giving back nothing in return.