The Compassion of Irreverence

In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook the narrator castigates novels which amount to no more than “journalism,” when they should be “philosophical statements about life.” This has stuck with me because I profoundly disagree with it. Reading A Manual for Cleaning Ladies, a collection of Lucia Berlin’s short stories, I found myself rehashing Lessing’s idea as I sought to explain to myself what I enjoyed about Berlin’s collection. Here’s Lessing:

During that period of three months when I wrote reviews, reading ten or more books a week, I made a discovery: that the interest with which I read these books had nothing to do with what I feel when I read—let’s say—Thomas Mann, the last of the writers in the old sense, who used the novel for philosophical statements about life. The point is, that the function of the novel seems to be changing; it has become an outpost of journalism; we read novels for information about areas of life we don’t know—Nigeria, South Africa, the American army, a coal-mining village, coteries in Chelsea, etc. We read to find out what is going on.

I wonder, first, why philosophical statements about life and information about areas of life we don’t know are mutually exclusive. Surely they aren’t. But also, even if we assume that a single novel can’t do both things, I’m not all convinced that a philosophical statement is superior to information.

So I’ve been thinking about this again because I enjoyed A Manual for Cleaning Ladies as journalism. I enjoyed the information I got from it about areas of life I didn’t know. I learned about alcoholism and those titular cleaning ladies, about Mexico city and what it’s like to live with a terminally ill sibling, about how it feels to wear a back brace as a child in grade school and to work as a switchboard operator in the ER.

Of course mere information about these things wouldn’t be enough to interest me in a collection of short stories. Even if, in retrospect, this information is the majority of what I have taken away from the experience of reading. I also need a reason to care about this information—which the narrative provided me—and I need the experience to be one of aesthetic significance. Lucia Berlin hit all my buttons at once: I found her prose delightful, her stories enthralling, and I am glad for the information they’ve imparted to me. This is rare in a collection of short stories. Usually I can’t make my way through one without interruption, where I might read a novel twice as long on the strength of just good prose or just a good story or just fascinating information. I have higher—too high—standards for a short story collection. (Interestingly, in light of Lessing’s allusion above, I’ve been defeated on three separate occasions by Thomas Mann’s collected short stories…)

Most of A Manual For Cleaning Ladies is evidently based on Lucia Berlin’s own life. As Lydia Davis puts it in her preface (which is a work of art on its own, as you’d expect), Berlin was practicing “auto-fiction” well before it was a thing. This auto-fiction often features a protagonist called Lucia. And lots of characters reappear in different stories.

As a consequence of this seamlessness I found the organization of the book annoying. The plot-lover in me wished the stories had been organized by the implied chronology of Lucia. That the stories about the girl with the back-brace and alcoholic dentist grandfather had all been clustered at the front, followed by the college stories, then by the stories about love and children, then by the stories about addiction, and so on. But I also completely understand why the editors chose not to give me this satisfaction: by disrupting the implied continuity between stories, each story stood on its own as a fiction, as a poetic construction. (Or, come to think of it, maybe the stories were just organized by the order of publication or writing. That would make sense too.)

Whatever the case, the point I want to make is how astonishingly strong these stories are. Besides my general disinclination to persevere with less than sterling collections, I was actively annoyed by the organizational choices of the editors—and still I kept at it, eagerly, until the last sentence.

A large part of my fascination is the way Berlin tells stories. Lydia Davis gets it right in the preface:

How does she do it? It’s that we never know quite what is going to come next. Nothing is predictable. And yet everything is also natural, true to life, true to our expectations of psychology and emotion.

In her book on writing thrillers, Patricia Highsmith argues that the ideal turn of events in a story would combine the greatest possible surprise with the greatest possible feeling of inevitability. That doesn’t just apply to thrillers: it’s the mathematical ideal of the interesting story in any genre. What makes a narrative is the imposition of writing onto life: artificial organization and the chaos of chronicle. Davis is saying that Berlin approaches this ideal. I agree.

Here’s an example. One of the stories in the collection is about caring for an aged parent as they become senile. Like every Berlin story, it parsimoniously evokes a setting both as a material place and as a network of relationships. The protagonist learns to know the other residents at the nursing home and their caretakers. The end of the story sees the protagonist joining the nursing home for an outing to a park. By this time her father no longer recognizes her; he has, in fact, created an elaborate story about her abandoning him. Nonetheless, she’s come on this outing. The nursing home residents have been stationed among a group of winos, one of whom keeps slipping an old man cigarettes. It’s an almost unbearable scene of contrast: addiction and senescence, human wrecks in the midst of a beautiful landscape and a beautiful day. The story ends with Lucia pushing her father’s wheel-chair away from the group:

It was hard to push the chair up the hill. Hot and loud with the cars and radios and interminable thud thud of the runners. It was so smoggy we could barely see the other shore. Memorial Day litter and debris. Paper cups floated in the foamy brown lake serene as swans. At the top of the hill I put on his brakes and lit a cigarette. He was laughing, an ugly laugh. “It’s awful, isn’t it, Daddy?” “It sure is, Lu.” He loosened his brakes and the chair started down the brick path. I hesitated, just stood there watching it, but then I threw away my cigarette and caught his chair just as it was picking up speed.

I don’t know if it comes through just as an addendum to my summary, but this paragraph packs a whole lot of surprise and yet logical culmination into a few words. We have the suicide attempt, obviously, and the jarring moment when Lu almost allows it; also the brief return of clarity in her father’s mind; but perhaps what really displays the surprising-yet-inevitable quality of this ending is how it conflicts with the kind of ending we have come to expect from this type of story. The temptation to melodrama is almost irresistible: either to end like this, “I hesitated, just stood there watching it.” Or to end with something heartwarming, some meagre little uplift. What Berlin actually did is more bracing. It both reaffirms the squalid strength of convention—of course Lu doesn’t let her father wheel himself into a lake—while letting out the ugly inner truth—it would be better for both of them if he were dead. Oof.

This is the quality of moral vision displayed throughout the collection: a quality I would call “bracing.” (Perhaps the existence of this quality has implications for Lessing’s suggestion that fiction-as-journalism isn’t a philosophical statement about life? Maybe you don’t need to pontificate like Thomas Mann to make such a statement.) Bad stuff happens. Really bad stuff. And its devastation is defused with wry humor and by the very fact of clear-eyed presentation. Berlin excels at the compassion of irreverence. For example this, from a story about her time as an ER switchboard operator:

There are “good” suicides. “Good reasons” many times like terminal illness, pain. But I’m more impressed with good technique. Bullets through the brain, properly slashed wrists, decent barbiturates. Such people, even if they don’t succeed, seem to emanate a peace, a strength, which may have come from having made a thoughtful decision.