Evening in Paradise
There’s a scene in Lucia Berlin’s story “Lost in the Louvre” when the narrator discovers a previously missed wing of the gallery. We anticipate some revelations, but instead we get “lovely mundane objects”. There will be no miracles here, Berlin insists, and then comes the rub: “Like death, this section was not extraordinary. It was so unexpected.” Grief shadows this woman – a Berlin stand-in, like most of her protagonists – across Paris. She visits Balzac’s house, the village that inspired Proust’s Combray, the graves of Baudelaire and de Beauvoir and Sartre. But these pilgrimages don’t offer transcendence from mortality: “Still I sat there, looking back on my life ... It seemed I had passed through it as I had the Louvre.”
Berlin’s short stories contend with addiction, loneliness and class as the backdrop to quotidian life. Her fiction traverses New Mexico, New York and Chile, as she did, progressing from poor kids running wild (“The Musical Vanity Boxes”) to Santiago society where shady officials take teenage lovers (“Andando: A Gothic Romance”) with verisimilitude. Berlin isn’t a tourist among the cast of boozers, grifters and women unmoored.
There’s humour in the graveyard and beauty in the broken glass, not least of all in Berlin’s sublime, unadorned prose. Here she describes a depressed mother’s routine in “Cherry Blossom Time”: “... that afternoon sun flashed from the chrome on the stove, the needle broke on the machine. From the streets came sounds of braking, scrapings. Silver clattered on the drain board, a knife screeched against the enamel. Cassandra chopped parsley. One/two. One/two.” Or in “Sometimes in Summer”, where two girls play in the shadow of smokestacks, the fumes thick enough to make them cry, the scene is infused with “lovely blues and greens and the iridescent violet and acid green of gasoline in puddles”.
When Berlin’s long-overlooked work was anthologised in A Manual for Cleaning Women, she earned comparisons to dirty realists such as Raymond Carver and Jesus’ Son-era Denis Johnson. Each time her women screw up, elope with another arsehole artist, stay up all night drinking and still make house before the kids wake, it’s both everyday and extraordinary. Any fears Evening in Paradise would be Berlin’s B-sides are quelled. Her stories gain cumulative power, building meaning and complication even when it feels we’ve heard them before, for: “One word, one gesture, can change your entire life, can break everything or make it whole.” TM
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 3, 2018 as "Lucia Berlin, Evening in Paradise". Subscribe here.