The Craft of Everyday Tragedy

by Lucy Kenningham on 14 February 2022
The Craft of Everyday Tragedy
'A Manual for Cleaning Women' is being adapted for film by Pedro Almodovar. What’s at stake?

If you haven’t heard of Lucia Berlin already, no doubt you’ll be forced to soon. Her name will be plastered across billboards (and splattered on YouTube ads) once the acclaimed filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar releases his version of her short story collection A Manual for Cleaning Women (starring Cate Blanchett).

Critics recognise her as one of the best short story writers ever. It is her unique blend of intense emotion, humour, observations and total mastery over form and pace that makes her writing so extraordinary. Her subject matter is often dark. “Fear, poverty, alcoholism, loneliness are terminal illnesses. Emergencies, in fact.” Her writing is full of the urgency of these social issues; together her stories make up a modern feat of tragedy. In a way that is both different and similar to the Greek tragedies of yore (think Oedipus Rex or The Antigone) Berlin’s stories convey isolation and human disconnection, with an undercurrent of constant striving for life.

Close enough for horseshoes

In vogue for our times, Berlin’s writing could be classified as autofiction. According to her son, although they were not entirely true to life, “they were close enough for horseshoes”.

Stories span from early childhood to her latest years and similar characters crop up under varying guises across her work – the narrators are named Dolores, Lucia, Maggie, Carlotta or are written in the first person, but each time they are an organ of the author herself. The stories seem to have been thrown together at random, not arranged chronologically, thematically or in any particular order. This makes it an exhilarating investigative mission to read through the 43 stories in A Manual, piecing together the clues of her life.

Which was by any account an extraordinary one. Born in 1936 in Alaska, Berlin’s father was a mining engineer and his job moved the family across continents: Idaho, Montana, Arizona, Texas and later Chile. As an adult, Berlin was married three times and raised four sons single handedly – a bit of a flex in any age. She lived across the South Western states of America, in urban and rural Mexico (she was fluent in Spanish), and New York City. To support her children, she had an impressive array of jobs: she worked in a hospital, at a dentist’s, as a cleaner and as a teacher. There were brief periods in which she lived glamorously: the beginning of her relationship with jazz musician Buddy Berlin, for example, and for some of her teenage years in Santiago, Chile. A prince, she writes, lit her first cigarette. But for a lot of her life she struggled to make ends meet.

Her grandfather was sexually abusive and an alcoholic; her mother was also an alcoholic; Buddy, her third husband, was a well-known jazz musician and heroin user. Berlin herself struggled with alcoholism, sporadically entering detox centres in the southern American states. She had several intoxicating and dazzling love affairs.

Only achieving literary acclaim with this posthumous collection, Lucia Berlin lived a life entirely untainted by the comforts or distortions of fame. Because she straddled socio-economic divides and lived in such diverse locations (towns, villages, cities, beaches), her characters come from a huge breadth of society – and are wholly convincing. There are laundromat users, elderly patients, old winos, nuns, a jockey and young junkies. Her characters hang out on dirty streets, small apartments, hectic and cramped hospitals (you can always hear the bleeping), sparse detox centres. Landscapes include the Californian desert, a Mexican lakeside, a freezing New York City. A whole story can be packed into a car (‘Electric Car, El Paso’), on a bus or on a porch.

What counts as tragedy today?

Although she occupied so many different worlds, it’s safe to say that none of these shared many similarities with that of Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles’s hero King Oedipus. Oedipus, the template tragic character, hailed from the Athenian Thebes, a “city in turmoil”. None of the usual classical oddities – a blind prophet, sphinxes, the oracle of Delphi – crop up in El Paso, Texas or a mining village in 1940’s Idaho. Tragedy does not happen to everyone in Oedipus Rex; it’s restricted to one grand protagonist’s story arch. In Berlin’s stories, tragedy cuts through anyone and everyone; it is part of a life; it is not a spectacle.

Many of the characters, as Berlin did herself, suffer from alcoholism – a condition that is an easy slot into Aristotle’s of a ‘fatal flaw’ (hamartia in Greek). Addiction’s dark cloud hangs over the text, polluting relationships, messing with decisions and forever foreshadowing painful futures. In ‘Her First Detox’ the narrator reflects: “This had been her first experience with the police, even though she didn’t remember it. She had never driven drunk before, never missed more than a day of work, never… She had no idea of what was yet to come”. In ‘Grief’, the protagonist wonders: “How could she talk to Sally about her alcoholism? … People said it was a disease, but nobody made her pick up the drink. I’ve got a fatal disease. I am terrified”.

True to Berlin’s life, the stories often feature three consecutive generations afflicted by the condition. In one text a child’s mother and grandfather are in a dark cabin in Idaho drinking Bourbon alone locked in rooms: alone but next door to each other. They do it every day. In ‘Silence’, a child narrator endures her uncle’s drunk driving. One night they hit a little boy and collie dog, and leave both bleeding in the road. The narrator cries. We skip forward in time: years later, Uncle John is rehabilitated, apparently happy. But here comes the killer: “Of course, by this time I had realized all the reasons why he couldn’t stop the truck, because by this time I was an alcoholic”.

It is a cycle of illness that in Berlin’s stories goes unbroken – in that sense, as predetermined as Oedipus’s destiny. The characters feel the burden of their fates deeply: “Everything good or bad that has occurred in my life has been predictable and inevitable, especially the choices and actions that have made sure I am now utterly alone.”

Beauty is terror, beauty is pain

Yet moments of terror and bleakness are juxtaposed with those of beauty, joy and love. For instance, with people. Berlin’s narrators love people. ‘Mourning’ starts: “I love houses, all the things they tell me, so that’s one reason why I don’t mind working as a cleaning woman. It’s just like reading a book.” Another goes: “I like my job in Emergency. Blood, bones, tendons seem like affirmations to me. I am awed by the human body, by its endurance. Thank God-because it’ll be hours before X-Ray or Demerol. Maybe I’m morbid. I am fascinated by two fingers in a baggie, a glittering switchblade all the way out of a lean pimp’s back. I like the fact, in Emergency, everything is reparable, or not.”

In ‘Fool to Cry’, Berlin writes: “Solitude is an Anglo-Saxon concept. In Mexico City, if you’re the only person on a bus and someone gets on they’ll not only come next to you, they will lean against you”. One protagonist is obsessed with an alcoholic Apache American named Tony who the narrator, this time named Lucia, forms a bond with when they coincide washing clothes at the laundromat. Another is about El Tim, a cocky young student, uncontrollable.The stories revel in sound and smell. “The whole country smells of sex and soap”, Berlin exaggerates of Mexico. One story is narrated by an older woman whose regular companion is her oxygen tank, fantasising about a handsome young handyman on the end of the phone. When he arrives to lay out her new tiles, B.F. is old, sweaty and obese. But our narrator, L.B., is still charmed: “Bad smells can be nice” she says. And she’s right.

Her writing is totally arresting, it’s full of vitality. It will grab hold of you and refuse to let you go. “Wait. Let me explain”, one story starts.It has rhythm. “I walked with Tim down the hall, avoiding the beat of his walk”, another ends. It can spit you out too. In ‘Mama’, two sisters reflect on their mother’s life. A harsh and bitter alcoholic, she was also funny and charismatic. The elder sister comforts the other, Sally, reassuring her that their mother loved her. Sally forgives her mother and grieves. But at the end comes the knife’s twist: “Me… I have no mercy”.

Detail, observation, funny relationships, teeth, hands, music, love, hate and despair: it is all here. Tragedy is an “imitation” of life; Berlin gives us that in buckets. She is confessional, intense and dramatic. Her stories reveal moments of everyday tragedy; a child wearing wet socks to school, due to his mother’s unmanageable illness. In ‘Homing’, she asks: “How many times have I been, so to speak, on the back porch not the front porch? What might have been said to me that I didn’t hear? What love might there have been that I didn’t feel?” She doesn’t want to miss a thing. It is the vitality and struggle for life, despite hardship, that provokes such strong catharsis in Berlin’s work. The nexus is always beauty, love and pain.

It’s obvious why Pedro Almodóvar’ wants to make a film centring around the effervescent Berlin and her entrancing oeuvre. But it will be hard to capture the spirit and craft of A Manual for Cleaning Women without the staccato, fragmentary effect of her writing and form. It will be hard to reflect even shards of Berlin’s voice and flair. The stories are also intensely funny – on her mother’s ofrenda (offering to the dead) two sisters play “Hershey bars, Jack Daniel’s, mystery books, and many, many dollar bills. Sleeping pills and guns and knives, since she was always killing herself. No noose… she said she couldn’t get the hang of it.” Another story describes a woman as always seeming “dead anyway, but nicely so, like an illustration or an advertisement.” Berlin’s humour may be easier to relay.

By default, a film is grander, more glamorous, and makes more sense than a short story. Going to the cinema is a collective experience; emotions and reactions are heightened when experienced in a crowd. Viewers will be gasping, crying, cringing and laughing together, just like their Classical Grecian counterparts did watching Oedipus marry his mother and kill his own father – all while knowing the prophecy that predicted it.

Whilst it can’t hope to match the details, Almodóvar’s cinematic version of A Manual for Cleaning Women could imbue Lucia Berlin’s intimate, everyday stories with a heightened sense of grandeur more in line with the traditional proportions and status of tragedy. But for a different kind of tragic experience, I’d recommend picking up her books.