Taken from our Feb/Mar 2019 issue.

Rebecca Watson

Notes on Lucia Berlin

Evening in Paradise: More Stories, Lucia Berlin, Picador, 2018, 256pp, £14.99 (hardcover)
Welcome Home: A Memoir, Lucia Berlin, Picador, 2018, 160pp, £16.99 (hardcover)

In ‘La Barca de la Ilusión’, a story from Lucia Berlin’s second posthumous collection, Evening in Paradise, Buzz, a long-suffering drug-addict, is finally sober. His wife, Maya, is alone at home when his old drug dealer reappears. Maya smells him, his sweat and cologne twitching her nose.

She didn’t speak or think. She stabbed him in the stomach with the paring knife. Blood gushed down his white sharkskin pants.

Berlin doesn’t allow Maya to consider. The action is swift and spontaneous, falling – typical to Berlin – on the offbeat.

Berlin constantly tugs at the rug. (The reader, sitting on the end, is sometimes knocked off, sometimes sails along). She’s an undercutter. When Victor’s stabbed, he doesn’t scream or clutch his wound. He laughs and grabs a rag, demanding a bandage. Blood ‘seep[s] red against the white gauze’. The visceral severity is undercut as, after disappearing into their loft, he returns in her husband’s clothes, including a T-shirt reading ‘SUPPORT MENTAL HEALTH’. (‘It had been a present, a joke.’) The conflict of his intentions (and the bloody situation) against the t-shirt’s message is stark and comical. This moment is typical of Berlin’s writing. She cuts, pulls away, and amuses (all whilst the blood still runs). Reactions are unexpected and distinct. Funny, yet almost fatal.

The opening story of the collection (‘The Musical Vanity Boxes’) sets the feeling for the rest of the book. An undertone of vulnerability is constantly cut short – by movement, sounds, joy, blurs. Two girls knock at doors selling ‘chance’ cards, with the claimed opportunity to win a musical vanity box. They’re called sexy runts, told they have spunk, their ‘dark, bony cheeks’ pinched. There’s an undercurrent of alarm, but the girls are gleeful, moving too quickly. There’s no time for consideration.

Evening in Paradise is layered with discomfort and unease. In ‘Andado: A Gothic Romance’, the fourteen-year-old protagonist, Laura, is groomed by her father’s friend. Laura visits a family for the weekend, and Don Andrés insinuates himself, separating the others from them, touching her, kissing her. Does she like him? Does she want him? As she’s coerced, she becomes unsure of her own feelings. Both fall into a river in an accident, and he tells her to take off her clothes and wring them out. When she does, in cold, afraid confusion he is suddenly kissing her, she’s bleeding, and then ‘sperm glistened, steaming on her legs’. Afterwards, he’s sullen, telling her he has ruined her. She becomes even more fearful. ‘Ruined? Am I ruined? For such a quick confusing moment? Will everyone know, looking at me?’, she thinks inside, saying nothing, ‘And if so many women risk being ruined maybe there is something wrong with me, that I scarcely noticed what was going on.’

In moments like this, Berlin pierces. Laura’s vulnerability is acute. Berlin gestures towards coercion, towards the pressure on women (or girls) to recover and rise, in glimpses that linger. Laura returns from the river, shivering and disturbed, and gets into bed. Outside the bedroom, “the one hunting dog that was allowed indoors paced the shining floor, his toenails clicking. A lonely sound, like a telephone ringing in an empty house.”  

When Laura is home, back to the monotony of school, old stresses lack weight.

Cram for chemistry in the morning. As much time inking symbols on their wrists under their white cuffs. But the test wasn’t so bad. Physics then. [. . .] Algebra. History. Laura’s hand ached from taking notes.

The story begins in a school setting, but the references now seem nonsensical. Her aching hand is pitiful not for its ache, but for its new inconsequence.

Berlin never uses unnecessary words. Clauses are tight, sentences skim, images pressing forward first. Small words are often omitted (If I were imitating Berlin, I would say, instead: Small words gone. Gravel brushed over a drain.)

But why do I want to imitate Berlin? I have her voice in my head. It’s a distinct voice, ringing clear. Her style encourages imitation. We learn (and want to use) the speech patterns of those who performatively impress. She is both distant and present in her writing. Pared down, but strong-voiced. We imitate the cool, and Berlin is certainly that. She’s also a contradiction. She refines and reduces sentences whilst creating space for images that often come in twos or threes. She gives characters the realistic mental space that indecision demands. One protagonist lights a cigarette ‘for me or for her’, the lighting coming ahead of the decision. When a father says something in Russian to his young daughter, who has food in front of her, the narrator translates for the reader:

They are saying, ‘Shape up, you little slut!’ No, of course not. They are saying, ‘Eat, my little princess.’

Berlin is sly and playful, direct prose accentuating her wry humour. Some of her stories are light, closer to anecdotes than stories. But they’re not sketches; their brevity never lessens their depth. Berlin allows these stories to spark and flee. ‘The Pony Bar, Oakland’ is half a page long, but one of the best stories from this collection. ‘There are certain perfect particular sounds’, it begins, before pinpointing different sounds in turn (‘a perfect pool break, a crisp bank shot followed by three or four muffled slides and consecutive clicks. The caressing twist twist of chalk on the cue.’). It ends with the narrator on a bar stool, next to a biker:

He had hinges tattooed on his wrists, at the bend of his elbow, behind his knees.

‘You need a hinge on your neck,’ I said.
‘You need a screw up your ass.’

Before the reader even knows there’s a punchline ahead, it’s delivered. But though she’s funny, her stories aren’t light. They’re routinely heavy and loaded. Loaded quite literally: Berlin’s mental inventory is exquisite. Her stories come alive with lists, objects, material comparisons. Her writing always has specificity.

In her recently published memoir, Welcome Home, not much is different. We meet Berlin through her familiar voice. The memoir was unfinished before she died, stopping all too suddenly, supplemented for publication with selected letters. It includes a list she made in the late 1980s, entitled ‘The Trouble with All the Houses I’ve Lived In’. ‘List’ feels reductive. It’s a poignant, comic, quick-paced summary of where she’s lived. Of Patagonia, Arizona she writes:

Bats got inside, got scared, batted you in the face. Grasshopper plague.

Of Regent Street, Oakland, California:

Dark. No light until night, when the neighbor’s floodlight lights my room, like Soledad. I know it’s morning when it’s dark again.

Bats batting you in the face, morning marked by dark. Berlin knows how to load words, how to pinpoint. She’s a master of exactitude and inversion. Berlin’s description of the way her mother deals – ‘Quick hiss of a shuffle, a crisp slap slap slap as she laid down the cards’ – is evocative of ‘The Pony Bar, Oakland’ and the twist twist of chalk on cue. The playful artistry of her stories is just as present in her memoir; the performance continues. Memories are not expressed for the sake of it. ‘I made a friend. Kentshereve’ she tells us. A few pages later, in parenthesis, we learn: ‘(His name was Kent Shreve, but I didn’t realize this for many years.)’. Nothing is there for sheer nostalgia.

When reading Welcome Home, as I finished the memoir section and began the letters, I felt bereft. But two letters in, I was laughing. Cutesy sentences written by the 11-year-old Lucia to her father are followed by a letter to her friend, now seventeen, beginning ‘Hello you no good wenchy slut’. Berlin is suddenly back on the page. (And the transition in tone is an editorial decision I like to think Berlin would approve of).

Many of her letters refer to writing that she has shared or is working on. And even in the writing of letters, she is clearly aware that she’s selecting words and content. She writes ‘mulch’, and then comments, ‘I love that word’. She describes something as ‘begin[ning] to mushroom’, before remarking, ‘I love that expression, since I saw mushrooms mushrooming in Little Falls’. She knows what she wields.

Many details of her memoir overlap with her stories – names, anecdotes, places – but they’re not used in her fiction as confessional writing, but because they’re good material. In her memoir and letters, her attitude is the same. When she sends a letter to her friends, Helene and Ed, about her mother insulting her, she writes: ‘My mother said I was a whore and not her daughter anymore. Rhyme and all.’ In translating experience, it’s not the truth of the experience she conveys, but the art of it.

One day, Berlin writes in her memoir, she read a passage by Cervantes where a character in an insane asylum said he could make it rain whenever he felt like it. ‘I understood in that moment’, Berlin writes, ‘that writers could do anything they wanted to do’. Sometimes it rains in Berlin’s stories, sometimes the heat suffocates, sometimes a man is stabbed with a paring knife. Berlin does whatever she wants. Always, she’s in control.

Words by Rebecca Watson.

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