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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Three stories from Lucia Berlin's most mature phase as a writer

The stories in the last 100 or so pp of Lucia Berlin's A Manual for Cleaning Women, presumably written toward the end of her writing life (I'm assuming the collection is arranged roughly in order of composition or publication) show a maturity and complexity not evident in her earlier work, fine and surprising and unconventional as that work may have been. In one of these stories she says of herself (I'm identifying the narrator w/ the author here) that she didn't mind describing the most embarrassing and humiliating moments of her life so long as she could make the scene funny - and she always does! But in these later stories we movie not in a new direction but at least off at a new angle: for the first time she has a narrator, occasionally, not closely identified w/ the author. Also, the stories are longer, more complex in point of view (sometimes shifting POV by section), and for the first time they have a narrative arc; her stories up to this point were generally more like memories or establishment of a single scene or, in essay-like fashion, a single setting ( a hospital ER, a detox center). 3 of the longer stories are of particular not: Let Me See You Smile, to me the least successful of this triad, is her first w/ a narrator unlike herself, a male defense attorney who takes on a case of a woman who was harassed and beaten by the police. The story doesn't quite work for me in that she is uncertain about the narrative voice, cannot really explain why the narrator was so taken w/ or smitten by the woman and her seedy friends, doesn't build enough sympathy for the victim. But two other longer stories are very powerful, almost classics: Carmen, about a young pregnant woman who goes on a drug run for her ne'er do well husband (this has the ring of autobiographical authenticity, but I think probably even more extreme that Berlin's troubled life), a terrific narrative with a kicker line at the end. Equally good and much more of a social commentary is Mejito (sp?), about a teenage Mexican immigrant, pregnant, and left to fend for herself when her boyfriend goes to jail. Her dealing with the social services and the medical services for the indigent is so truthful and frightening - you kind of wish everyone who chants "build a wall" could read this story - although part of its power is its moral neutrality leaving us to form our own opinion about the woman, her guilt, her innocence, her complicity, her victimhood. This one, too, has a kicker end line.

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