The last few weeks have been all about celebrating female masters of the short story. Earlier this month, we saw collections by Clarice Lispector and Shirley Jackson making waves in the literary swimming pool, and this week Lucia Berlin enters with a cannon ball. The three have been soaking up screen time all over the Internet, with laudatory reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere, and as of this writing, it appears the collections by Lispector and Berlin are backordered by two to four weeks on Amazon (and Lispector’s doesn’t even come out till next week). While it’s undeniably amazing to see these female authors getting their due respect and attention, there’s only one problem: all three collections are posthumous. Berlin died in 2004, Lispector in 1977, and Jackson half a century ago, in 1965.
Better late than never, yes? Well, yes. But it’s worth it to wonder why these women aren’t being fêted until after their deaths. Lispector was celebrated in her home country of Brazil but virtually unknown outside of it, a victim of “the increasing global dominance of English,” as Benjamin Moser points out in the New York Times. But one has to wonder if her dark, often surrealist work would have been accepted in the United States had it been translated into English in her lifetime. Seeing the treatment Shirley Jackson got contemporaneously in the US, our guess is probably not. While Jackson’s story “The Lottery” is now required reading in almost every high school English classroom and she received some love from the academy with a National Book Award nomination for The Haunting of Hill House, her American Gothic subject matter was too disturbing for mass appeal in the 1950s and 60s.
And then we have Lucia Berlin, who Publisher’s Weekly recently called “the best writer you’ve never heard of.” Her collected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women, edited by Stephen Emerson and forwarded by Lydia Davis, was released on Tuesday from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The reason for Berlin’s relative obscurity could be because she was only able to publish sporadically, writing in stolen moments while raising four children as a single mother, working odd jobs, struggling with addiction, and living with scoliosis, which would eventually puncture her lung and put her on oxygen for the last decade of her life.
Or it could be because of her stories, themselves. Raw and unflinching and strongly autobiographical, her stories follow alcoholics and teenage mothers, cleaning ladies and ER nurses. They take us into run-down laundromats and illegal abortion clinics, transport us to New York City to Albuquerque to Juárez. She shows us the lives we try to ignore, unfolding them in merciless detail, but always with empathy. As Lydia Davis writes in her forward to Cleaning Women:
Berlin is unflinching, pulls no punches, and yet the brutality of life is always tempered by her compassion for human frailty, the wit and intelligence of that narrating voice, and her gentle humor.
In her story, “Tiger Bites,” excerpted at Lit Hub on Wednesday, a nineteen-year-old named Lou, whose husband just abandoned her and their ten-month-old baby, reveals to her cousin that she’s pregnant with another one. The cousin, Bella Lynn, recently abandoned by a husband herself, convinces Lou to have an abortion with a no-nonsense, humor-laced bluntness that is characteristic of Berlin’s voice:
The situation is that you’re nineteen and you’re pretty. You have to find yourself a good strong decent man who will be willing to love little Ben as his own. But you’ll have a hell of a time finding somebody who’d take on two of them. He’d have to be some kind of rescuer do-gooder saint type you’d marry out of gratitude and then you’d feel guilty and hate him so you’d fall madly in love with some fly-by-night saxophone player…Oh it would be tragic, tragic, Lou. Let’s think. This is serious. Just you listen to me now and let me take care of you. Haven’t I always had you do what’s best?
Such frank conversation about abortion is still controversial today, and Berlin was writing about it two decades ago. And Berlin doesn’t stop there; she takes us all the way to the abortion clinic in Juárez, shows us the desperate women and girls, scared and ashamed and determined, describes in visceral detail the process of shoving feet of tubing into the uterus to force a miscarriage. It’s hard to read, but also necessary.
The vast majority of Berlin’s protagonists are women, and she tells their stories with compassion, with dark humor, but also with the frank, unflinching gaze they deserve. She doesn’t look away from the blood on the floor. She doesn’t fade to black at the polite moment. She isn’t melodramatic about it, nor is she deadpan. For instance, in “Carpe Diem,” which you can read at Flavorwire, a laundromat attendant commiserates with the protagonist about going through menopause, saying, “Women’s troubles just go on and on. A whole lifetime of troubles. I’m bloated. You bloated?”
Maybe Berlin was obscure in her lifetime because we weren’t ready for these stories yet. Maybe, probably, Berlin was ahead of her time.
We’ll leave you with this hope from Lydia Davis, again from her foreword to the collection:
I have always had faith that the best writers will rise to the top, like cream, sooner or later, and will become exactly as well known as they should be—their work talked about, quoted, taught, performed, filmed, set to music, anthologized. Perhaps, with the present collection, Lucia Berlin will begin to gain the attention she deserves.