During her lifetime, Lucia Berlin, who died in 2004, published 76 short stories. Yet it wasn’t until her posthumously published collection “A Manual for Cleaning Women” was released in 2015 that her work generated the widespread excitement and acclaim it deserves.
Since her fiction’s belated recognition, readers have gravitated to Berlin’s lyrical, almost staccato prose and the revealing, intimate feel of her stories. Berlin’s writing is blunt, syncopated — almost offhandedly offering small, arresting details and pared-down images.
Readers who discovered (or rediscovered) Berlin’s work in 2015 will welcome the release of a second posthumous short story collection, “Evening in Paradise,” as well as a nonfiction companion volume, “Welcome Home.” In these two books, we can see the way Berlin’s fiction and nonfiction converge and echo each other. Well before the literary world became taken with the complex ways Rachel Cusk’s work merges the facts of her life with the cadences of a novel, Berlin was alchemically turning biography into moving art.
The stories in “Evening in Paradise” have that familiar Berlin affect — the clipped prose, the startling details, the signal one-liners or repeated words that burrow into you. Berlin’s prose reads like poetry and feels like memory. Fraught moments are telescoped into spare, suggestive exchanges that directly appeal to the senses: “The brothers stood, embraced, and then the three sat silent. The fire. Rain against the windows. Blur of yellow aromo by the lake.” Berlin’s wry sense of humor renders her economical language bracing: “He had a Civil War face, sort of hillbilly and gaunt, sunken shifty eyes, a sullen mouth, bad teeth.”
Paired with the newly published stories, “Welcome Home” includes an unfinished memoir cataloging the many places Berlin lived alongside letters to poet Ed Dorn and painter and sculptor Helene Dorn. Interleaved throughout are family photos.
As in her stories, Berlin doesn’t fuss with preamble or elaborate scene setting in her nonfiction; instead, she quietly homes in on elliptical, freighted moments:
“Colts running in pastures, a little town waking up. A woman in a farmyard hanging sheets on the line. She opened a clothespin with her teeth and waved at the train.
The Pullman bed folds up even tidier than a Murphy bed and it has two beds inside, an upper and lower berth. The upper berth is good when you want to really be in a train and concentrate on all its noises or when you want to feel alone. You will sleep more since you won’t be looking out the window.”
Berlin’s nonfiction makes apparent her genius for taking personal, idiosyncratic scenes from her memory and crafting them into fiction that speaks to us all. We come to understand through “Welcome Home” that Berlin’s fiction has catalyzed her memories into pointed, surprising short stories. Berlin converts memory into fiction, using fiction to revisit and revise memory.
In the story “The Adobe House with a Tin Roof,” Berlin portrays a naive new wife: “She was determined to have a good marriage, to be a good wife. Still only nineteen, she had no idea what being a good wife meant. She did things like hold the hot part of the cup when she passed him coffee, offering him the handle.” We meet a similar fictionalized character in the story “Lead Street, Albuquerque”: “He even redid her. . . She was sweet and fresh. Lovely, with curly brown hair and blue eyes, wearing jeans and a pink T-shirt. But after they moved in her hair got dyed black and actually ironed straight. She wore black makeup and only black and white clothes. . . He made her sleep on her stomach, nose flat against the pillow; her turned-up nose was a slight imperfection.” These moments become more charged once “Welcome Home” reveals that they are practically lifted right off the pages of Berlin’s life: “I held the hot part of the cup and gave him the handle. I ironed his jockey shorts so they would be warm. I always tell these things and everybody laughs, but, well, they are true. I dressed as he told me to: always in black or white. My long hair was dyed black, ironed straight every morning. I wore heavy eye makeup and no lipstick. He made me sleep lying facedown on the pillow, hoping to correct my ‘main flaw,’ a turned-up nose.”
Not only does Berlin make use of her life to create fiction, she also takes real scenes and fictionalizes them over the course of stories from different angles so that we begin to recognize key moments as multifaceted. Her fictional project seems, in fact, to be about how we might look and then look again at ordinary life. Although “Evening in Paradise” is inspired by Berlin’s life, the narrators are not always the author’s stand-in but rather a viewer who looks in on that character. Two stories that seem to be the closest to Berlin’s own life are in fact voiced in the less direct third person. In “Lead Street, Albuquerque,” the poignancy of Berlin’s biography is made all the more compelling when viewed in the flat, almost clinical voice of the omniscient narrator: “She had moved around all her life. Her father was a mining engineer; her mother had been ill, or crazy. . . You got the feeling no one had ever told her or shown her about growing up, about being part of a family or being a wife. That one reason she was so quiet was that she was watching, to see how it was all done.”
Seen through the lens of what we know of her life via the nonfiction, we can watch Berlin try on perspectives. She returns to overdetermined scenes in a number of stories, each time revealing something unexpected.
Berlin’s work asks us to reconsider the many ways a life can be thought of, remembered, reimagined, reseen. Her nonfiction allows us access to her process as her letters puzzle over questions of craft. “Welcome Home” reveals how much of her life is threaded through her fiction, and the restraint and power of the stories become more evident. These two new volumes demonstrate how fiction might comport with fact, leaving us to marvel at how Berlin turns memory and nostalgia into art.
Maggie Trapp is a writer living in New Zealand.
By Lucia Berlin
FSG. 176 pp. $25.
By Lucia Berlin
FSG. 256 pp. $26.