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

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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.

 

 

“Macadam” — Lucia Berlin

“Macadam” by Lucia Berlin

from A Manual for Cleaning Women


 

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.

As a rule, never work for friends (Lucia Berlin)

Linda’s today.

(Cleaning women: As a rule, never work for friends. Sooner or later they resent you because you know so much about them. Or else you’ll no longer like them, because you do.)

But Linda and Bob are good, old friends. I feel their warmth even though they aren’t there. Come and blueberry jelly on the sheets. Racing forms and cigarette butts in the bathroom. Notes from Bob to Linda: “Buy some smokes and take the car . . . dooh-dah doo-dah.” Drawings by Andrea with Love to Mom. Pizza crusts. I clean their coke mirror with Windex.

It is the only place I work that isn’t spotless to begin with. It’s filthy in fact. Every Wednesday I climb the stairs like Sisyphus into their living room where it always looks like they are in the middle of moving.

I don’t make much money with them because I don’t charge by the hour, no carfare. No lunch for sure. I really work hard. But I sit around a lot, stay very late. I smoke and read The New York Times, porno books, How to Build a Patio Roof. Mostly I just look out the window at the house next door, where we used to live. 2129 1/2 Russell Street. I look at the tree that grows wooden pears Ter used to shoot at. The wooden fence glistens with BBs. The BEKINS sign that lit our bed at night. I miss Ter and I smoke. You can’t hear the trains during the day.

From Lucia Berlin’s short story “A Manual for Cleaning Women.” Collected in A Manual for Cleaning Women.

I just finished Stendhal’s novel The Charterhouse of Parma, which is mostly about the problems of aristocrats. Digging into Berlin’s lovely dirty stories feels like an antidote. Balzac said that Stendhal’s novel contained a book on every page; each paragraph in Berlin is like its own little film: “Come and blueberry jelly on the sheets. Racing forms and cigarette butts in the bathroom…Drawings by Andrea with Love to Mom. Pizza crusts. I clean their coke mirror with Windex.” Good lord. img_3120

Read “Loka,” a short story by Kate Chopin

“Loka”

by

Kate Chopin

from Bayou Folk (1894)


 

She was a half-breed Indian girl, with hardly a rag to her back. To the ladies of the Band of United Endeavor who questioned her, she said her name was Loka, and she did not know where she belonged, unless it was on Bayou Choctaw.

She had appeared one day at the side door of Frobissaint’s “oyster saloon” in Natchitoches, asking for food. Frobissaint, a practical philanthropist, engaged her on the spot as tumbler-washer.

She was not successful at that; she broke too many tumblers. But, as Frobissaint charged her with the broken glasses, he did not mind, until she began to break them over the heads of his customers. Then he seized her by the wrist and dragged her before the Band of United Endeavor, then in session around the corner. This was considerate on Frobissaint’s part, for he could have dragged her just as well to the police station.

Loka was not beautiful, as she stood in her red calico rags before the scrutinizing band. Her coarse, black, unkempt hair framed a broad, swarthy face without a redeeming feature, except eyes that were not bad; slow in their movements, but frank eyes enough. She was big—boned and clumsy.

She did not know how old she was. The minister’s wife reckoned she might be sixteen. The judge’s wife thought that it made no difference. The doctor’s wife suggested that the girl have a bath and change before she be handled, even in discussion. The motion was not seconded. Loka’s ultimate disposal was an urgent and difficult consideration.

Some one mentioned a reformatory. Every one else objected.

Madame Laballière, the planter’s wife, knew a respectable family of ‘Cadians living some miles below, who, she thought, would give the girl a home, with benefit to all concerned. The ‘Cadian woman was a deserving one, with a large family of small children, who had all her own work to do. The husband cropped in a modest way. Loka would not only be taught to work at the Padues’, but would receive a good moral training beside.

That settled it. Every one agreed with the planter’s wife that it was a chance in a thousand;-and Loka was sent to sit on the steps outside, while the band proceeded to the business next in order.

Loka was afraid of treading upon the little Padues when she first got amongst them,—there were so many of them,—and her feet were like leaden weights, encased in the strong brogans with which the band had equipped her.

Madame Padue, a small, black-eyed, aggressive woman, questioned her in a sharp, direct fashion peculiar to herself.

“How come you don’t talk French, you?” Loka shrugged her shoulders.

“I kin talk English good ‘s anybody; an’ lit’ bit Choctaw, too,” she offered, apologetically.

Ma foi, you kin fo’git yo’ Choctaw. Soona the betta for me. Now if you wil-lin’, an’ ent too lazy an’ sassy, we ‘ll git ‘long somehow. Vrai sauvage ça,” she muttered under her breath, as she turned to initiate Loka into some of her new duties.

She herself was a worker. A good deal more fussy one than her easy-going husband and children thought necessary or agreeable. Loka’s slow ways and heavy motions aggravated her. It was in vain Monsieur Padue expostulated:—

“She’s on’y a chile, rememba, Tontine.”

“She’s vrai sauvage, that’s w’at. It’s got to be work out of her,” was Tontine’s only reply to such remonstrance.

The girl was indeed so deliberate about her tasks that she had to be urged constantly to accomplish the amount of labor that Tontine required of her. Moreover, she carried to her work a stolid indifference that was exasperating. Whether at the wash-tub, scrubbing the floors, weeding the garden, or learning her lessons and catechism with the children on Sundays, it was the same.

It was only when intrusted with the care of little Bibine, the baby, that Loka crept somewhat out of her apathy. She grew very fond of him. No wonder; such a baby as he was! So good, so fat, and complaisant! He had such, a way of clasping Loka’s broad face between his pudgy fists and savagely biting her chin with his hard, toothless gums! Such a way of bouncing in her arms as if he were mounted upon springs! At his antics the girl would laugh a wholesome, ringing laugh that was good to hear. Continue reading “Read “Loka,” a short story by Kate Chopin”

Debris Stories (Book acquired, 12.09.2015)

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Kevin Hardcastle’s collection Debris Stories is new this month from Biblioasis. Their blurb:

The eleven remarkable stories in Kevin Hardcastle’s debut Debris introduce an authentic new voice. Written in a lean and muscular style and brimming with both violence and compassion, these stories unflinchingly explore the lives of those—MMA fighters, the institutionalized, small-town criminals—who exist on the fringes of society, unveiling the blood and guts and beauty of life in our flyover regions

“An Upheaval,” a short story by Anton Chekhov

“An Upheaval”

by

Anton Chekhov

English translation by Constance Garnett


MASHENKA PAVLETSKY, a young girl who had only just finished her studies at a boarding school, returning from a walk to the house of the Kushkins, with whom she was living as a governess, found the household in a terrible turmoil. Mihailo, the porter who opened the door to her, was excited and red as a crab.

Loud voices were heard from upstairs.

“Madame Kushkin is in a fit, most likely, or else she has quarrelled with her husband,” thought Mashenka.

In the hall and in the corridor she met maid-servants. One of them was crying. Then Mashenka saw, running out of her room, the master of the house himself, Nikolay Sergeitch, a little man with a flabby face and a bald head, though he was not old. He was red in the face and twitching all over. He passed the governess without noticing her, and throwing up his arms, exclaimed:

“Oh, how horrible it is! How tactless! How stupid! How barbarous! Abominable!”

Continue reading ““An Upheaval,” a short story by Anton Chekhov”

New American Stories, a collection edited by Ben Marcus (Book acquired, 8.04.2015)

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New American Stories is an anthology out now in enormous paperback from Vintage. The collection was collected by collector Ben Marcus. An excerpt from his introduction:

Language is a drug, but a short story cannot be smoked. You can’t inject it. Stories don’t come bottled as a cream. You cannot have a story massaged into you by a bearish old man. You have to stare down a story until it wobbles, yields, then catapults into your face. And yet, as squirrely as they are to capture, stories are the ideal deranger. If they are well made, and you submit to them, they go in clean. Stories deliver their chemical disruption without the ashy hangover, the blacking out, the poison. They trigger pleasure, fear, fascination, love, confusion, desire, repulsion. Drugs get flushed from our systems, but not the best stories. Once they take hold, you couldn’t scrape them out with a knife. While working on this book, I started to think of a it as a medicine chest, filled with beguiling, volatile material, designed by the most gifted technicians. The potent story writers, to me, are the ones who deploy language as a kind of contraband, pumping it into us until we collapse on the floor, writhing, overwhelmed with feeling.

You actually can smoke a short story, but to do so is inadvisable.

I’ll be riffing on the book over the next few weeks with our Correspondent in Colorado, Mr. Ryan Chang.

Here’s the tracklist:

Said Sayrafiezadeh, Paranoia

Rebecca Lee,  Slatland

Jesse Ball, The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr

Deborah Eisenberg, Some Other, Better Otto

Anthony Doerr, The Deep

Yiyun Li, A Man Like Him

George Saunders, Home

NoViolet Bulawayo, Shhh

Maureen McHugh, Special Economics

Sam Lipsyte, This Appointment Occurs in the Past

Lydia Davis, Men

Donald Antrim, Another Manhattan

Zadie Smith*, Meet the President!

Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

Joy Williams, The Country

Christine Schutt, A Happy Rural Seat of Various View Lucinda’s Garden

Don DeLillo, Hammer and Sickle

Mathias Svalina, Play

Lucy Corin, Madmen

Mary Gaitskill, The Arms and Legs of the Lake

Wells Tower, Raw Water

Rachel Glaser, Pee on Water

Tao Lin, Love is a Thing on Sale for More Money than There Exists

Rebecca Curtis, The Toast

Robert Coover, Going for a Beer

Charles Yu, Standard Loneliness Package

Deb Olin Unferth, Wait Till You See Me Dance

Kyle Coma-Thompson, The Lucky Body

Rivka Galchen, The Lost Order

Donald Ray Pollack, Fish Sticks

Kelly Link, Valley of the Girls

Claire Vaye Watkins, The Diggings

*Isn’t she English? I guess it’s the stories that are American.

“Gorse Is Not People,” a short story by Janet Frame

“Gorse Is Not People”

by

Janet Frame


Do you remember your twenty-first birthday? The party, the cake, and cutting a slice of it to put under your pillow that night, to make you dream of your future beloved; the giant key; the singing:

I’m twenty-one today!

Twenty-one today!

I’ve got the key of the door!

Never been twenty-one before!

Trivial, obvious words. Yet when the party was over and you lay in bed remembering the glinting key and the shamrock taste of the small glass of wine, and perhaps the taste of a sneaked last kiss in the dark, then the song seemed not trivial or obvious but a poetic statement of a temporal wonder. You had, as they say, attained your majority. You could vote in the elections; you could leave home against your parents’ wishes; you could marry in defiance of all opposition. You had crossed a legal border into a free country, and you now walked equipped with a giant tinsel key, a cardboard key covered with threepenny spangles.

Or perhaps your twenty-first birthday did not happen that way. Perhaps there was no party, no cake, no wine, and no kiss? I would like to tell you about Naida’s twenty-first birthday.

Naida was a dwarf, which is not really a rare thing. I suppose in our lifetime we see many dwarves—first, perhaps, at the circus, where they are advertised as the tiniest people in the world and we pay to watch them moving about in their almost walnut-shell or matchbox beds. Sometimes we pass them in the street and stare hard for a moment, then pretend we haven’t seen them, until they have passed us and we look back, saying, “It must be strange, how strange it must be, such tiny folk, and us out of reach, like tall trees!” Continue reading ““Gorse Is Not People,” a short story by Janet Frame”

Read Katherine Anne Porter’s short story “Flowering Judas”

“Flowering Judas”

by

Katherine Anne Porter

Braggioni sits heaped upon the edge of a straight-backed chair much too small for him, and sings to Laura in a furry, mournful voice. Laura has begun to find reasons for avoiding her own house until the latest possible moment, for Braggioni is there almost every night. No matter how late she is, he will be sitting there with a surly, waiting expression, pulling at his kinky yellow hair, thumbing the strings of his guitar, snarling a tune under his breath. Lupe the Indian maid meets Laura at the door, and says with a flicker of a glance towards the upper room, ‘He waits.’

Laura wishes to lie down, she is tired of her hairpins and the feel of her long tight sleeves, but she says to him, ‘Have you a new song for me this evening?’ If he says yes, she asks him to sing it. If he says no, she remembers his favorite one, and asks him to sing it again. Lupe brings her a cup of chocolate and a plate of rice, and Laura eats at the small table under the lamp, first inviting Braggioni, whose answer is always the same: ‘I have eaten, and besides, chocolate thickens the voice.’

Laura says, ‘Sing, then,’ and Braggioni heaves himself into song. He scratches the guitar familiarly as though it were a pet animal, and sings passionately off key, taking the high notes in a prolonged painful squeal. Laura, who haunts the markets listening to the ballad singers, and stops every day to hear the blind boy playing his reed-flute in Sixteenth of September Street, listens to Braggioni with pitiless courtesy, because she dares not smile at his miserable performance. Nobody dares to smile at him. Braggioni is cruel to everyone, with a kind of specialized insolence, but he is so vain of his talents, and so sensitive to slights, it would require a cruelty and vanity greater than his own to lay a finger on the vast cureless wound of his self-esteem. It would require courage, too, for it is dangerous to offend him, and nobody has this courage. Continue reading “Read Katherine Anne Porter’s short story “Flowering Judas””

Don’t Try This at Home (Book acquired, 4.30.2015)

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Angela Readman’s short story collection Don’t Try This at Home is new from And Other Stories. Their blurb:

A girl repeatedly chops her boyfriend in half but, while her ‘other half’ multiplies, she is still not satisfied. Love transforms a mother working down the chippie – into Elvis! An old witch takes in a young one and, despite her best, magical powers, can’t help revealing something of the real world to her apprentice. Beautiful, sharp and fearless, these stories breathe. Do Try This at Home.

In Angela Readman’s debut collection, each story packs its share of explosive material.  In every one, quirky new strategies for surviving troubled lives are revealed, often through a transformative touch of contemporary magic.

If Angela Carter were Readman’s fairy godmother, would that make David Lynch her wicked stepbrother? Don’t say you weren’t warned!

 

“Greville Fane” — Henry James

 

“Greville Fane”

by

Henry James

Coming in to dress for dinner, I found a telegram: “Mrs. Stormer dying; can you give us half a column for to-morrow evening?  Let her off easy, but not too easy.”  I was late; I was in a hurry; I had very little time to think, but at a venture I dispatched a reply: “Will do what I can.”  It was not till I had dressed and was rolling away to dinner that, in the hansom, I bethought myself of the difficulty of the condition attached.  The difficulty was not of course in letting her off easy but in qualifying that indulgence.  “I simply won’t qualify it,” I said to myself.  I didn’t admire her, but I liked her, and I had known her so long that I almost felt heartless in sitting down at such an hour to a feast of indifference.  I must have seemed abstracted, for the early years of my acquaintance with her came back to me.  I spoke of her to the lady I had taken down, but the lady I had taken down had never heard of Greville Fane.  I tried my other neighbour, who pronounced her books “too vile.”  I had never thought them very good, but I should let her off easier than that.

I came away early, for the express purpose of driving to ask about her.  The journey took time, for she lived in the north-west district, in the neighbourhood of Primrose Hill.  My apprehension that I should be too late was justified in a fuller sense than I had attached to it—I had only feared that the house would be shut up.  There were lights in the windows, and the temperate tinkle of my bell brought a servant immediately to the door, but poor Mrs. Stormer had passed into a state in which the resonance of no earthly knocker was to be feared.  A lady, in the hall, hovering behind the servant, came forward when she heard my voice.  I recognised Lady Luard, but she had mistaken me for the doctor.

“Excuse my appearing at such an hour,” I said; “it was the first possible moment after I heard.”

“It’s all over,” Lady Luard replied.  “Dearest mamma!”

She stood there under the lamp with her eyes on me; she was very tall, very stiff, very cold, and always looked as if these things, and some others beside, in her dress, her manner and even her name, were an implication that she was very admirable.  I had never been able to follow the argument, but that is a detail.  I expressed briefly and frankly what I felt, while the little mottled maidservant flattened herself against the wall of the narrow passage and tried to look detached without looking indifferent.  It was not a moment to make a visit, and I was on the point of retreating when Lady Luard arrested me with a queer, casual, drawling “Would you—a—would you, perhaps, be writing something?”  I felt for the instant like an interviewer, which I was not.  But I pleaded guilty to this intention, on which she rejoined: “I’m so very glad—but I think my brother would like to see you.”  I detested her brother, but it wasn’t an occasion to act this out; so I suffered myself to be inducted, to my surprise, into a small back room which I immediately recognised as the scene, during the later years, of Mrs. Stormer’s imperturbable industry.  Her table was there, the battered and blotted accessory to innumerable literary lapses, with its contracted space for the arms (she wrote only from the elbow down) and the confusion of scrappy, scribbled sheets which had already become literary remains.  Leolin was also there, smoking a cigarette before the fire and looking impudent even in his grief, sincere as it well might have been. Continue reading ““Greville Fane” — Henry James”

Read “The Dreadful Mucamas” by Lydia Davis

“The Dreadful Mucamas”

by

Lydia Davis

They are very rigid, stubborn women from Bolivia. They resist and sabotage whenever possible.

They came with the apartment. They were bargains because of Adela’s low IQ. She is a scatterbrain.

In the beginning, I said to them: I’m very happy that you can stay, and I am sure that we will get along very well.

This is an example of the problems we are having. It is a typical incident that has just taken place. I needed to cut a piece of thread and could not find my six-inch scissors. I accosted Adela and told her I could not find my scissors. She protested that she had not seen them. I went with her to the kitchen and asked Luisa if she would cut my thread. She asked me why I did not simply bite it off. I said I could not thread my needle if I bit it off. I asked her please to get some scissors and cut it off – now. She told Adela to look for the scissors of la Señora Brodie, and I followed her to the study to see where they were kept. She removed them from a box. At the same time I saw a long, untidy piece of twine attached to the box and asked her why she did not trim off the frayed end while she had the scissors. She shouted that it was impossible. The twine might be needed to tie up the box some time. I admit that I laughed. Then I took the scissors from her and cut it off myself. Adela shrieked. Her mother appeared behind her. I laughed again and now they both shrieked. Then they were quiet. Continue reading “Read “The Dreadful Mucamas” by Lydia Davis”

Read “Uncle Sam Carrington,” a short story by Leonora Carrington

“Uncle Sam Carrington”

by

Leonora Carrington

When Uncle Sam Carrington saw the full moon he was never able to stop laughing. A sunset had the same effect on Aunt Edgeworth. These two events created much suffering for my mother who took pleasure in a certain social prestige.

At the age of eight I was considered the most serious person in the family. My mother confided in me. She said that it was shameful that nobody would invite her out, that Lady Cholmendley-Bottame did not say Good Afternoon to her in the street. I was deeply upset.

Uncle Sam Carrington and Aunt Edgeworth lived in the house. They occupied the first floor. Thus, nothing could be done to hide this lamentable state of affairs. During the daytime I asked myself how I could free the family of this shame. Finally, it was impossible for me to bear the tension and my mother’s tears, things that made me suffer greatly. I decided to search for the solution. One afternoon when the sun had become very red and Aunt Edgeworth rejoiced in an especially repugnant manner, I took a jar of sweets, a loaf of bread and took to the road. In order to frighten the bats, I sang “O come into the garden, Maude, and hear the blackbirds sing!” (O, van al jardín, Maude, y escucha el canto de los miñes!)

My father sang this song when he wasn’t going to church, and another that began so: “It cost me seven shillings and sixpence.” (Esto me costo siete chelines y seis peniques.) I sang both songs with the same emotion.

“Good—” I thought, the trip has begun. Night certainly will bring me a solution. If I count the trees up to the place where I am going, I will not lose my way. Upon returning I will remember the number of trees.” But I forgot that I only knew how to count up to ten, and even then I made mistakes. So, in a little while I counted up to 10 several times until I became completely lost. Trees surrounded me everywhere.

“I am in the forest,” I said to myself. I was right.

The full moon diffused its clarity among the trees which permitted me to see some meters in front of me and the reason for a disquieting noise. Two cabbages that were fighting terribly made the disturbance. They tore off each other’s leaves with such ferocity that soon there were only a few sad leaves everywhere, and nothing of the cabbages.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said to myself. “It’s nothing more than a nightmare.” But suddenly I remembered that that night I had not gone to bed and, therefore, I could not treat it as a nightmare.

“It’s horrible,” I thought.

After that, I picked up the cadavers and continued my walk. In a little while, I came across a friend: the horse that, years later, would play an important part in my life.

“Hello!” he said to me. “Are you looking for something?” I explained to him the object of my excursion at such an advanced hour in the evening.

“Evidently,” he said, “from the social point of view it’s most complicated. Around here live two ladies who are occupied with similar questions. Your pursued goal consists in the eradication of your family shame. They are two very wise ladies. If you want, I will take you to them.”

The Señoritas Cunningham-Jones had a house surrounded discretely by uncultivated weeds and moss of another era. They were found in the garden about to play a game of checkers. The horse stuck out his head between the legs of some 1890 knickers and directed the word to the señoritas Cunningham-Jones.

“Let your little friend enter,” said the señorita who was seated at the right in a very distinct accent. “We are always ready to help in the matter of respectability.”

The other señorita bent her head benevolently. She was wearing a huge hat adorned with all kinds of horticultural specimens.

“Your family, señorita,” she said to me, offering me a Louis XV style chair, “does it continue the line of our beloved and lamented Duke of Wellington or that of Sir Walter Scott, that noble aristocrat of fine literature?”

I was a bit confused. There were no aristocrats in my family.

Taking notice of my fright, she said to me with the most enchanting smile: “Dear girl, you must realize that here we only arrange matters of the oldest and most noble families of England.”

A sudden inspiration illuminated my face. “In the dining room, at home…” I said.

The horse gave me a strong kick in the backseat.

“Don’t ever speak of anything so vulgar as food,” he said to me in a low voice.

Luckily, the señoritas were a little deaf. Correcting myself, I continued, perplexed. ln the living room there is a table upon which, it is said, a duchess left her glasses in 1700.”

“In that case,” the señorita answered, “Perhaps we can come to an agreement, but naturally, señorita, we will see ourselves obliged to ask for a somewhat steep reward.”

We easily understood each other. The señoritas got up saying: “Wait here some minutes; we will give you what you need. Meanwhile you can look at the illustrations in this book. It’s instructive and interesting. No library is complete without this volume. My sister and I always have lived by that admirable example.”

The book was titled: The Secrets of the Flowers of Distinction and the Coarseness of Food. When the two women had left, the horse asked: “Do you know how to walk without making a sound?”

“Certainly,” I answered.

“Then let’s see the señoritas devoted to their work,” he said. “But if your life matters to you, don’t make a sound.”

The señoritas were in their orchard which extended behind the house, surrounded by a wide wall. I mounted the horse and a surprising scene offered itself to my eyes: the señoritas Cunningham-Jones, each armed with an immense whip, were striking the vegetables, and shouting: “It’s necessary to suffer in order to go to heaven. Those who do not wear corsets will never arrive.”

The vegetables, on their part, fought among themselves, and the older ones threw the smaller ones at the señoritas with angry screams.

“Each time it happens so,” murmured the horse. “They are the vegetables that suffer on behalf of humanity. Soon you will see how they pick one for you, one that will die for the cause.”

The vegetables did not have an enthusiastic air over dying an honorable death. But the señoritas were stronger. Soon two carrots and a little cabbage fell between their hands.

“Quickly!” exclaimed the horse. “Back.”

Scarcely had we again sat down in front of THE COARSENESS OF FOOD, when the señoritas entered with the exact appearance as before. They gave me a little package that contained the vegetables, and in exchange for this I paid them with the jar of sweets and the little fritters.

“The Grave of Lost Stories” — William T. Vollmann

“The Grave of Lost Stories” by William T. Vollmann—

. . .for the terrible agony which I have so lately endured — an agony known only to my God and to myself — seems to have passed my soul through fire and purified it from all that is weak. Henceforth I am strong: — this those who love me shall see — as well as those who have so relentlessly endeavored to ruin me.
POE, to Mrs. Helen Whitman (1848)

IN THE GRAVE OF LOST STORIES there is neither day nor night, but a stupendous blackness shot through with corpuscles of fluorescence, like droplets of oil in water — an inalienable fact, of which the vulgar minds around him could not conceive. They were too busy writing anonymous articles about him (he knew that Griswold was behind most of it, but not all; there were so many envious scoundrels!) to ever comprehend that the light and dark of Plato’s cave might, indeed must mingle at the bottom of the universe, as they could see for themselves if they’d but look through a telescope whose power penetrated into the depths of the earth, beyond the graves that honeycombed the clay like the shafts of mines, so far beyond them as to leave them seeming shallow indeed, and the deeper shot the beams of that telescope, the more violently surged the gloom-rays through the eye-piece, staining the world black like bad old memories; but if it were possible to see through these swirling atoms, and the cosmos of Ether under them, then at last the darkness would seem to thicken and narrow into a gorge whose cliffs and stones were darkness coagulated into obsidian. Into this chasm no telescope could pierce. This was the center of the majestic circle of planets and suns — so extreme its gravitational attraction that light was swallowed in it forever. There was a stifling horror about the place, about which hovered the most vile and pestilential fumes; somewhere in this pit was Death itself unfolded. But in what form it revealed itself was unknown, because the gulf was roofed with the foliage of night-trees that leaned toward each other on all sides, gripping each other’s soft and flabby trunks with branches that terminated in claws, so that every tree gashed every tree to the heart, growing deeper and deeper into each other’s wounds until their agony could never end; from their pallid mushroom flesh bled drops of black sap that rained down into the darkness below, and their velvety leaves vibrated in pain, with a sound like a cloud of midges. –A narrow Path of Dead Tales passed through an arch of these leaves and branches, and then spiraled downward into the pit. At first the moistly disagreeable presence of the charnel vegetation polluted every breath, and icy droplets of tree-blood plashed down upon hands and shoulders, but then the descent steepened, so that it was necessary to hug the wall of the pit and feel one’s way sideways, and in the course of many downward revolutions the air became ever cooler and drier, like the stale atmosphere of mummy-caves. Meanwhile, however, the smell of mortality had increased, according to the cube of proximity to that concentrated vortex of corruption, the Grave of Lost Stories. –How pitiably foolish he had been, to imagine that his victims would have been reduced to marble-white skulls, to tibiae as clean as tusk- ivory, to ribs like bleached harps! –No, that would hardly be the Demon’s modus operandi. –So be it. He had looked upon such sights before. –Still, the foulness… which is why he concluded in his final poem that matter was a means, not an end. At that time he was working feverishly by lamplight, intoxicated with the solution of ciphers that unlocked his pages of darkness with great clicks, so that he did not have to think about how everything he had written would disgust him the next morning; and he went out to the dark black garden to walk to and fro, wearing a deep and narrow path in the snow as he worked out precisely how deep the Grave would have to be to hold those millions and millions of Stories whose white souls had risen upward like a snowstorm of dreamy unhappiness; well, of course the volume of the bodies would flatten with decomposition; therefore the required depth must be the quotient, but the full quotient, not the square root of the quotient; as to how tightly they could be packed into that death-house, their structure had to be considered; it was distinctly stated by all the authorities that Stories have skeletons, except for the very early embryos and abortions from those times when you wail in the night knowing that something has just been lost forever but not what, you will never know what because it is gone. Let us conceive these skeletons, then, to be composed of variegated vertebrae the hue and sheen of black crystal. Mrs. Osgood was moved by his white-skinned sadness and said ah, Mr. Poe, this country affords no arena for those who live to dream and he said do you dream? I mean sleeping dream? and she smiled and said oh yes Mr. Poe I am a perfect Joseph at dreaming, except that my dreams are of the Unknown and Spiritual and he said I knew it; I knew it by your eyes and for the first time he embraced her and she held his hand in hers so tenderly but all at once it seemed to him as if something black, steely- cold, cutting, had closed around his wrist and were pinching it to the bone, the frozen ache of it poisoned him, and the veins stood out on his white wrist; as his phalanxes and metacarpi shattered into chessmen he uttered a cry of agony so that she pulled her hand away and said you are ill, are you not, Mr. Poe? at which she became so beautiful to him, and he fell on his knees before her saying is the idea fixed in your head to leave me? as his little wife sat by obediently. Later he was seized with inspiration, and sat down hastily to write, but before he had gotten any farther than that weirdly metallic phrase the Grave of Lost Stories, it had already left him, and he sat groaning. Somewhere the Story was struggling desperately to breathe; she was smothering, and he could do nothing. In his life he had committed so many murders … Maybe he could save her. He wrote very quickly there is no day or night and heard the Story draw in a deep gasp of breath and begin sobbing with hysteria and weariness.

Read the rest of “The Grave of Lost Stories” at Conjunctions.

Read an Early David Foster Wallace Story, “Order and Flux in Northampton”

David Foster Wallace’s “Order and Flux in Northampton” was published in the Fall 1991 issue of ConjunctionsPart I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

First few paragraphs:

BARRY DINGLE, CROSS-EYED PURVEYOR of bean sprouts, harbors for Myrnaloy Trask, operator of Xerox and regent of downtown Northampton’s most influential bulletin board at Collective Copy, an immoderate love.

Myrnaloy Trask, trained Reproduction Technician, unmarried woman, vegetarian, flower-child tinged faintly with wither, overseer and editor of Announcement and Response at the ten-foot-by-ten-foot communicative hub of a dizzying wheel of leftist low-sodium aesthetes, a woman politically correct, active in relevant causes, slatternly but not unerotic, all-weather wearer of frayed denim skirts and wool knee-socks, sexually troubled, ambiguous sexual past, owner of one spectacularly incontinent Setter/Retriever bitch, Nixon, so named by friend Don Megala because of the dog’s infrangible habit of shitting where it eats: Myrnaloy has eyes only for Don Megala: Don Megala, middle-aged liberal, would-be drifter, maker of antique dulcimers by vocation, by calling a professional student, a haunter of graduate hallways, adrift, holding fractions of Ph.D.’s in everything from Celtic phonetics to the sociobiology of fluids from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, presently at work on his seventh and potentially finest unfinished dissertation, an exhaustive study of Stephen Dedalus’s sublimated oedipal necrophilia vis à vis Mrs. D. in Ulysses, an essay tentatively titled “The Ineluctable Modality of the Ineluctably Modal.”

Add to the above Trask-data the fact that, though Barry Dingle’s spotlessly managed franchise, The Whole Thing Health Food Emporium, is located directly next to Collective Copy on Northampton’s arterial Great Awakening Avenue, Myrnaloy has her nutritional needs addressed at The Whole Thing’s out-of-the-way, sawdust-floored competition, Good Things to Eat, Ltd., the proprietor of which, one Adam Baum, is a crony of Megala, and add also that The Whole Thing is in possession of its own Xerox copier, and the following situation comes into narrative focus: Myrnaloy Trask has only the sketchiest intuition that Barry Dingle even exists, next door.

For Barry Dingle, though, the love of Myrnaloy Trask has become the dominant emotional noisemaker in his quiet life, the flux-ridden state of his heart, a thing as intimately close to Dingle as Myrnaloy is forever optically distant or unreal. 

(Continue reading Wallace’s “Order and Flux in Northampton”).

Repairable Men (Book Acquired, 7.21.2014)

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John Carr Walker’s collection Repairable Men is new from Sunnyoutside. Blurb from the author’s website:

The stories in Repairable Men look at the small towns and rural farms where families stay for generations and newcomers never quite feel at home. Whether trapped by dead-end work, hostile relatives, or the troubling legacies of their forebears, John Carr Walker’s characters are seeking escape, forgiveness, and redemption in the dusty corners of the new American West.

Read his story “Candelario.”

 

A New Yorker Short Fiction Reading List

 

Mutant Eustace Tilley (The New Yorker's Mascot) by Charles Burns
Mutant Eustace Tilley (The New Yorker’s Mascot) by Charles Burns

As you, savvy reader, are undoubtedly already aware, The New Yorker has opened up some of its archive for the rest of the summer (to show off its website redesign, I guess).

Here’s a reading list of short fiction from the archives (admittedly, some of the stuff I wanted to put on here is still behind a paywall).

Some of the stories on the list are classics, some are pieces I’ve shared on this blog before, some are excerpts from longer works, and a few are stories I have yet to read myself.

“The Daughters of the Moon” by Italo Calvino

“Backbone” by David Foster Wallace

“1966” by Denis Johnson

“My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age” by Grace Paley

“The Insufferable Gaucho” by Roberto Bolaño

“Victory Lap” by George Saunders

“Leopard” by Wells Tower

“Gorse Is Not People” by Janet Frame

“Rough Deeds” by Annie Proulx