Lucia Berlin’s Harrowing, Radiant Fiction

Having lived a hard life, the late author refused to erase her female characters—or the brutality that deranges them.

Illustration: Lucia Berlin
Illustration: Celina Pereira; Nationaal Archief / Wikimedia

There’s a mountain recluse who appears twice in Lucia Berlin’s prose, once in a story from her 2015 collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, and once in an autobiographical scrap from a new book, Welcome Home: A Memoir With Selected Photographs and Letters. She describes meeting the man when she was a little girl; her father had befriended him and, before the snows began, would visit with Berlin in tow, lugging stacks of magazines with them through the woods. While the men talked, Berlin was given a task: tearing out the pages of the magazines and using them to wallpaper the man’s cabin.

All through the dark days of winter Johnson would read the walls. It was important to mix up the pages and magazines, so that page 20 might be high on a north wall and 21 on the bottom of the south wall … Whenever he read a page he had to invent the story that went with it, amending it sometimes when, days later, he would find a connected page on another wall. When he had exhausted the potentials of his cabin he would repaper it with more pages in a similarly random order.
Book Cover: Welcome Home

In Welcome Home, Berlin suggests that this was her first lesson in literature. It’s a touch too poetic an origin story, maybe, but you can see its motifs—isolation, wilderness, a ragged narrative that needs to be reassembled—all over her body of work. Berlin’s short fiction came to wide attention, 11 years after her death in 2004, with the posthumous publication of A Manual for Cleaning Women, which is joined this fall by Welcome Home and another set of stories, Evening in Paradise. These two additions reveal how powerfully Berlin’s literary imagination was shaped by the twin beliefs seeded in her encounter with the recluse’s wallpaper: that stories can keep you company—keep you sane—during periods of deep loneliness, and that stories improve when they’re fractured and opened up for intervention.

This scene’s appearance in both story and memoir also highlights the now apparent overlap between Berlin’s fiction and her extraordinary, difficult life. She was born in 1936 in Alaska, and her father, who worked as a mining engineer, moved the family every few years throughout the American West until the family settled in Chile when Lucia was a teenager. Her mother suffered from debilitating depression and alcoholism, and her maternal grandfather, whom they lived with for a time and who appears in Berlin’s stories, drank and sexually abused Berlin.

Her adult life, what is known of it, was as peripatetic as her childhood. She had three husbands and four children before the age of 30, and roamed between New Mexico, New York, and Mexico, picking up for months at a time to live on the beach in Jalisco in a thatched hut with a white-sand floor, or to drive a Volkswagen van through Oaxaca down to Guatemala, kids asleep in the back. After divorcing a second jazz musician, she never married again, and to support her sons she worked as a physician’s assistant, a cleaning woman, a teacher, writing when she could manage it between bouts of devastating alcohol abuse.

Until the publication of Welcome Home, it might have been presumptuous to assume that Berlin’s stories were largely autobiographical or that characters resembling her were her ciphers. But nearly everything in the stories is echoed in Welcome Home, sometimes to the point of direct repetition. Here’s a line that appears in her story “Sometimes in Summer”: “I used to be terrified of going to the bathroom until Uncle John taught me to start at the front door, whisper over and over to myself, ‘God will take care of me. God will take care of me,’ and run like hell.” Here it is in Welcome Home:

At night I was afraid to go down the dark hall to the bathroom, afraid of unseen ghosts and of Granpa and my mother, who would often burst from their doors like deranged cuckoos. John told me to pray “God will take care of me. God will take care of me,” and then run like hell. He’d come home drunk too at night, but sweet, teary drunk.

Now we might call what Berlin did metafiction or autofiction, but one senses that, in the 1960s, she was writing without the privilege of formal irony. Her stories contain the observations and concerns of impermissible experience: what heroin dealers looked and spoke like in Juárez in the ’60s; how a woman of that era might change husbands as nimbly as changing cabs; what the cleaning lady thinks about as she gets blood off a bedroom wall after a murder; what lies behind the precarious hauteur of a 14-year-old girl asked to entertain parties full of powerful men; what it feels like to have “a diabolical urge to, well, mess it all up.” These are dangerous subjects for women, even now. It’s no accident that many critics looking for Berlin’s peers compare her primarily to male authors (Hemingway, Raymond Carver), though the comparisons rarely do justice to her humor or her quirky, lavish prose style.

Welcome Home also gives a sense of the joyousness of her personality, which is as urgently expressed in all her writing as loneliness and desperation are. Her writing loves the world, lingers over details of touch and smell. She devotes paragraphs to how her childhood homes filled her ears—the “cheerful sound of the percolator, the flick of a match on my mother’s thumbnail, chunk of my father’s Zippo.” Writing of her family, she notes:

[Granpa] smelled of Camels and bay rum and Jack Daniel’s. My mother smelled of Camels and Tabu and Jack Daniel’s. Uncle John smelled of Delicado cigarettes and tequila. Mamie had many smells, all of them suffocating … her skin itself was white and moist, the exact texture and temperature of Ethiopian bread.

This precision is characteristic of Berlin, whose descriptions are usually both peculiar and funny. Of a mother-to-be: “Marjorie made everything pink, which was too bad, because it came out Steven.” Of the house shared with her first husband, a sculptor: “Our dishes were black, our stainless a daring modern style. The forks had only two tines, so it was difficult to eat spaghetti.”

Book Cover: Evening in Paradise

Evening in Paradise revisits familiar places, characters, and plot threads, like the neighbor friend from Syria named Hope, the teenage lover, the controlling sculptor (owner of the two-tined forks) who makes her sleep facedown to correct her upturned nose, “a slight imperfection.” This second collection is so consistent with Manual in tone and plot that together they read like four or five novellas that have been disassembled, jumbled, and spread across two volumes—a puzzle to be solved. Evening in Paradise is even more fragmented than its predecessor: Several of the pieces—including the title story—might most truthfully be described as sketches for stories, or brilliantly drawn scenes from a larger, coherent work that doesn’t exist. Others have the sweep and inner architecture of perfect stand-alones.

Nearly every story contains a woman matching Berlin’s description and autobiography, but details change in random, almost impish ways. Recognizable characters swap names like alibis. From one story to the next, the book swerves from a chic private school in Chile in the 1940s, to Puerto Vallarta, to a cramped apartment in Oakland in the 1970s, to a drunk tank, to the Louvre. The effect, at first, is of an author dropping into a dozen different lives; gradually you realize this is one life broken into many pieces, examined shard by shard.

One constant among the stories is the alienation of the character who resembles Berlin. She is typically isolated from friends, at odds with a love interest, cast out of polite society, or geographically in the middle of nowhere. Wherever she goes, the writing observes her. In “My Life Is an Open Book,” a neighbor across the street peeps disapprovingly at her through the window as she writes, cares for her four children alone, studies late into the night and falls asleep with her head on her typewriter, and then begins an affair with a 19-year-old. “Now we all would have understood if she took up with some nice man, but this was sicko,” the narrator huffs. In “Lead Street, Albuquerque,” another narrator says of her,

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 all was done.

These stories have the austerity of a steely mental exercise, Berlin scrutinizing herself through the kind or not-so-kind eyes of others, but they also offer reassurance. The character may feel alone, but the story refutes her fear: Someone is seeing her.

More often than not, the narration expresses what its isolated female protagonist cannot. This is especially pointed in “Andado,” which is the longest and most magisterial story. Laura, a 14-year-old enrolled in a fancy Chilean private school, is sent by her father to spend a weekend at the home of his colleague and superior, Don Andrés, the senator of mines and one of the wealthiest men in the country. Laura is used to standing in for her mother, who holes up in the bedroom with gin, and is adept at dressing herself up to look “at least twenty-one, pretty, and a little cheap.” Don Andrés—who we gather is older than her father—takes an interest and slowly seduces her. Laura is a child; she’s never been kissed: “Where did noses go?” But she knows, instinctively, “there was no one she could talk to.”

The story builds to the moment when Don Andrés and Laura are caught in a violent storm, thrown from their horse-drawn carriage (the story is cheekily subtitled “A Gothic Romance”), and make love. Afterward, he won’t look at her. “What about me?” she thinks. When she presses him, he tells her, “I am not angry with you, mi vida. I have ruined you.” The narration, which has until this point been in the third person, swerves out of it to form the question Laura will never ask aloud. “Ruined? Am I ruined? For such a quick confusing moment? Will everyone know, looking at me?”

I’ve been thinking a lot since reading these two books about the question of the ruined woman, and about the female artist who spends her career examining her own abjection, because her fear that everyone will see her shame is less than her fear that no one can see her at all. Berlin seems to be one of these, and she is a master at capturing women in states of disintegration: those who are being damaged, physically or emotionally, by men; those who are immersed in scandal or disdained by society; and those who are intentionally self-destructing. Her oeuvre contains, among lots of other things, a profound record of what shame, trauma, and hanging on by your fingernails looked like on a particular woman—or a particular kind of woman—half a century ago.

Does it matter where her material came from? Does it disrespect the writer to consider the question? Or is it a failure to consider this work without probing its apparent function as witness to the pieces of a real life that could be acknowledged no other way? In a recent interview, the writer Elif Batuman described reevaluating her desire to hide behind the modesty screen of fiction, realizing that it was “based on an idea of propriety and privacy that involved covering up a lot of ways in which women traditionally take the hit” for the brutality of the world. Choosing to portray that brutality and its fallout as imagined fiction rather than as facts of one’s experience can reinforce the notion that “women are just supposed to kind of swallow … and gracefully disappear.” Much of the world that Berlin describes is harrowing for women, and yet her stories—even more than the fragments in Welcome Home—cheerfully refuse to erase either the women or the brutality that deranges them.

Instead, she rips them up further and pastes them together again, making ruined, radiant chimeras summoned from an unfrequented corner of 20th-century America. The stories should feel like period pieces, but they’re strangely familiar. The woman who refuses to swallow and disappear is having quite the year, as is addiction, as is scandal, as is the suspicion that we are alone in a fascinating world intent on our undoing. Berlin’s writing has the advantage of approaching these themes from a time less exhausting than the present, and she also has a gaze tender and precise enough to make her characters feel like people and not archetypes or sermons in disguise. They wonder where the noses go. Their voices sound like ours.

This article appears in the December 2018 print edition with the headline “Portraits of Women Coming Apart.”